Salon 21st: Print magazines try to keep up with the Web. But the more you surf, the less you'll need them. Scott Rosenberg comments on the explosion of magazines that cover the Web.

Published June 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

As the former editor of Playboy's interviews and TV Guide's features, I've gone long and I've gone short. Now, as editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Internet Life, I'm long on its prospects, both in print and online. For those who believe print is a dinosaur when it comes to covering the online world, my experience -- so far -- may be instructive. That this appears in an online magazine I leave to the ironists among us.

A moment of background: YIL is now the leading Internet publication (covering the Web's "content," rather than its products or technique), with a circulation of 300,000, a rise of 200 percent in 12 months. Pardon the promotion, but judge relevancy for yourself: My publisher tells me those stats make us the fastest-growing consumer magazine in America. Our Web site, linked from the Yahoo directory, gets 2 million views a month, so we're doing well on that side, too. The sweet spot is that besides hefty newsstand sales, our print circulation comes entirely from online sub promotion on the Yahoo directory, after readers receive a free copy and peruse much of the content online. (We're a Ziff-Davis publication in partnership with Yahoo!, but editorially independent.) In other words, people are signing up for a print magazine about the online world that is both promoted and, for the most part, posted online.

When I relaunched YIL a year ago, I said I thought the Web was like TV, circa 1951. Back then people kept up with TV through small local guides and a few newspaper listings. You could, of course, check out TV most simply by turning it on and switching among two or three channels -- what would you need a print magazine for? That was before Walter Annenberg created TV Guide, whose growth paralleled TV-set ownership and went on to become, by far, the biggest weekly magazine in America.

The parallels with the Internet are interesting, if less than airtight. Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the U.S. public is online, and even if you don't think Web use will be as ubiquitous as TV watching, that's a lot of people yet to come. And TV Guide continued its growth well after mass saturation of the TV set and the arrival of the remote control, which is the nearest equivalent to using the medium itself for program guidance and real-time "coverage."

When TV Guide's circulation finally began a slow slide, one that continues today, the real question we asked ourselves was: Why does it exist at all? There were on-screen listings, more up-to-date program notes in the daily papers, free supplements available everywhere, and channels exploding beyond the bounds of paper stock. We slowed the slide with better journalism and more entertaining coverage, but I think the answer to why the magazine persists at all, with a still-staggering circulation, is that TV Guide is truly suited to its purpose -- it's handy, it fits on your armrest, you can flip instantly to the listings and you can read about TV "content" that's been edited smartly by insiders who are outsiders.

So my answer to the question -- Do print magazines about the Web have a future? -- is two-fold. If it took 40 years for the growth of a TV-watching print magazine to plateau, there's a lot of time -- and a lot of readers -- to go before a Web-use magazine reaches its plateau. Independent research tells us people decide what online destinations to visit more from print, and print advertisements, than any other medium. As to whether a magazine like YIL appeals mostly to newbies, our readers have been online an average of 1.4 years. I edit it for people like myself -- people who are interested and excited by the Web, who want to know how it's useful, how it's changing lives, how it's producing new art and commerce and community, but who don't always have the time to keep up with its functionality.

Where the parallel with TV becomes more nuanced, I think, is the sheer amount of content and the pace of unpredictable change. I bite my nails when I put an issue to bed, given the life span of Web sites and the tech you have to keep up with. But that very change is why an old-medium magazine is all the more necessary -- to sift, to track, to critique, to pause briefly to say, in a way we humans know best, "This is here, this exists," before hyper-clicking away. And because for some "content," as we keep learning again, paper is better random-access than a monitor screen. It's handier.

It's still easier to thumb through a paper magazine than it is to click through a Web site, or among different Web sites. Pictures in magazines don't have to download. You decide if you want to read something by a glance at the beginning and the end, no click-wait required. The last time I took my laptop into the bathroom with me, it broke. Even assuming a speedier Web, the fundamental things apply: a glance is still a glance, a click is still a click, and the screen can be a limiting lens. TV-PC convergence may alter that, and so may push technology -- but not soon, I believe. It's still easier to toss aside a magazine than it is to push aside the ever-peppy Pointcast. (Actually, Sigourney Weaver had an easier time ejecting the Alien than I have getting rid of Pointcast.)

Having it both ways is the ultimate answer. With an online version of your magazine, where you adapt your mission to the medium by giving readers the instant, the daily, the interactive, the community, the links to greater depth and greater variety of opinion, you can have it all. It also gives fingernails a chance to grow back: Online, we can keep up, update, go deeper, give the readers voice. To each message, its medium.

What is most interesting about this is finding out what people want and what people really do. They will pay $3 a month to buy our magazine, it seems. They won't yet do that to get our online version -- or Salon's or Slate's. What does that say? Just that old habits persist? Or that old habits persist for a reason?

I keep coming back to my sense of TV Guide's persistence -- its utilitarian handiness. Maybe, when you can print out personalized pages from your favorite online zine, pages in instant color, that collate themselves, that bind themselves, that jump into your hand, that follow you into the bathroom -- and it can be done quickly enough, smoothly enough that you honestly conclude it's a better deal for your time than paying three bucks for it to pop into your snail-mailbox, maybe it'll be time for print folk to ponder their future. But in the meantime, this amazing new medium will continue to be examined and experienced variously -- pulp not excluded. I think the circulation horizon for both magazine and Web site is pretty much unlimited.

The arrival of every new medium, it seems, has always evoked the same questions: If you have cheaper, more colorful magazines/gazettes, won't books become obsolete? If movies, why theater? If TV, why radio? If TV, why movies? The answer, I think, is that the old medium adjusts slightly and then bears down on its strengths.

Still, as most of us homesteaders have found, humility is an excellent habit to pursue online: Nothing is forever, as newspapers and TV networks have more reason than the rest of us to suspect.

Meanwhile, there's this excellent literary online zine I want to check on. Let's see, I can't remember its Web address ... I could boot up the old PC, clear my cache, drill down through the Yahoo! directory and click my way over. Great! Or, wait a minute, right here on my desk, a dog-eared copy of ...

By Barry Golson

Barry Golson is editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Internet Life.

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