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)

the boom in print magazines about the Web has led to one huge comic irony: The newsstand rack is so confusing, the magazine titles mostly so interchangeable, that it's hard to tell which one suits your needs. How do you know whether, say, Internet World is a magazine aimed at pros or newcomers to the Web? In some cases it even appears that the magazine's staff is as confused as everyone else.

The first generation of Internet magazines emerged from the ranks of trade publishers -- companies like Mecklermedia and CMP, which tried to parlay their position as producers of industry tip sheets and conferences into the wider-appeal world of monthly magazines. Their flagships -- Internet World (Meckler) and NetGuide (CMP) -- have each undergone frequent mutation as their owners have struggled to make them profitable.

Meanwhile, the bigger boys of computer-mag publishing, Ziff-Davis/Softbank and IDG, began to move in, generating new Net rags at an astonishing rate. Their more established hard-core computing titles, like PC Magazine and PC World, began to run more and more cover stories on browsers, Web tools and site guides, while their experiments at mass-market appeal, like ZD's Computer Life, had to turn the great bulk of their energy toward coverage of the Internet.

The result today is a chaos of overlap that's bound to lead to a shakeout before too long. Once that happens, the two basic categories of Web magazines should become clearer: Some magazines are for site owners, developers and other Net entrepreneurs; others are for Web users. For now, the line is blurry, but there is one infallible rule of thumb for distinguishing them: If there's no picture on the cover but rather a creative type treatment of words like "HTML" and "Top Tools," you're looking at a developers' mag. If there's a Hollywood celebrity on the cover, you're probably looking at a Web-consumer rag. At this stage in its development, the Web is definitely taking celebs on loan rather than home-growing them.

Herewith, then, a guide to the field, with one final caveat, in the interest of full disclosure: Web journalism, both online and in print, is still a small world; many of these magazines have written about Salon, and many of Salon's writers contribute to them (though I have not).

IDG's big entry in the consumer Web magazine field is The Web. Launched last fall, The Web is probably the most thorough, well-organized and entertainingly assembled site-guide magazine available, with knowledgeable writers offering short features in different subject categories, followed by detailed and exhaustive site listings and ratings.

That's Keanu Reeves on the cover of the May issue, though, and he doesn't have a whole lot to say about the Web itself, nor does the writer coax much out of him: "Though he hasn't seen all the sites dedicated to him, he's familiar with a good many of them." June's cover gives us Steven Spielberg, pegged to the opening of his GameWorks arcades -- again, not a whole lot to do with the Net, really. The Web needs to show more confidence in its readers' interest in the medium it covers.

ZD's counterpart to The Web is Yahoo! Internet Life. Celeb covers are rampant here too -- but at least YIL got Lisa Kudrow of "Friends" to talk at considerable length about her addiction to online chat. YIL suffers from its ungainly name -- though that also helps set it apart from the NetWebGuideWorld crowd. The name may tie the magazine to the most popular Web directory , but it actually approaches site listings less obsessively than The Web does -- leaving room for more, and more substantial, features.

YIL is firmly in the mainstream; ZD also publishes Internet Underground, which shouts "MARKETED AT THE 18-34 CROWD" from every page -- when it isn't shouting "SEX" in six-inch-high, reflective metallic ink letters, as it does on its May cover. Internet Underground mixes up stories about "The Battle Between Spam and Erotica on alt.sex.stories" with more run-of-the-mill features on stuff like travel sites. How Condi Nast's Concierge qualifies as "underground" is unclear; there's only so much underground to go around, I guess. Internet Underground does not yet seem to have figured out how to sell ads, which does not bode well for it. The Net, backed by the smaller Imagine Publishing, boasts an even more informal voice than The Web and YIL and features a popular, well-established site directory called the Blue Pages. For a good two years now, The Net has staked its approach on the pairing of its print product with a CD-ROM full of free software and links, providing a neat bridge between the page and the Web. Once you pop the CD into your drive, though, you may have a hard time finding your place in the magazine -- whose design (beyond the Blue Pages) is dauntingly chaotic in an in-your-face-for-the-hell-of-it way.

Rounding out the consumer field are two smaller publications, Websight and Cybersurfer. In its April issue, Websight features Rodney Dangerfield on its cover ("on the Web since February 1995!") and includes a list of 100 influential Web leaders and personalities. The magazine has the thin-but-unpredictable feel of a shoestring operation; it's both less consistent than its competitors and less predictable.

The misleadingly named Cybersurfer ("entertainment for the Digital Generation") also has a Web 100 -- a list of sites, not people -- but the rest of the magazine is hardly about the online world at all. Quickie interviews with celebs like Sylvester Stallone and Michael Jordan make no reference whatsoever to the Web, the Net or even computers. How the "sexual confessions" of a former writer of pulp-porn paperbacks fits in here is impossible to say.

Moving from the consumer field into a gray zone between the mass market and the professional mags, we find both NetGuide and Internet World. NetGuide, on track a couple of years ago to become the best-written general interest magazine about the online world, seems now to have been repositioned as a trade publication -- but even there its focus is hard to pin down. Its April issue, for example, pairs a feature on "The 365 Best Places to Hang Out Online" with a cover story on "Top Tools to Manage Your Web Site." (Presumably, if your tools are spiffy enough, you might have some free time left to chat.) May's issue was all over the map, with features on searching tips, streaming audio and video servers and "Hottest 200 mhz MMX desktops."

It's amazing how many magazines ostensibly devoted to the Net feel an irrepressible need to review MMX PCs. There they are in the June Internet World, too. This battle-scarred magazine, which once served as a valuable common ground for the Internet's users, site managers, content creators and businesspeople, seems now to have retreated into the boxes-and-tools-reviews formula. Though it calls itself "The Magazine for Internet Users," the titles of features like "Who Visits Your Web Site?" suggest a more hard-core focus. And a staggering 48 of the magazine's 176 June pages are devoted to the program guide for Mecklermedia's Summer Internet World 97.

For the true professionals, ZD has targeted its ZD Internet Magazine, which targets the Ziff/PC Magazine formula at the Net -- lots and lots of ZD Labs product reviews, technical coverage and business advice. There's a gaggle of other trade magazines that name themselves forthrightly: Net Professional, Web Techniques, Web Publisher, Web Informant. There are also increasingly specialized publications aimed at ever narrower (and theoretically more lucrative) market slices, like Internet Shopper. You will also find your newsstand full of one-shot Internet how-to guides: Some offer useful information, while others -- like the $9.95 Web Board -- are just phone-book style listings of Web addresses, without any kind of description or commentary. If you're in the U.S. and you've got a particularly ambitious local newsstand you'll also find British magazines like .Net and Total Internet. Though the Net is global, print advertising is still strictly organized by country.

Finally, no roundup of publications about the online world can leave out Jack Rickard's venerable Boardwatch, which started out years ago as a guide to the world of independent bulletin board services and remains true to its roots. Though it's on glossier paper today, it's still typeset rather awkwardly, it still features wonderfully drab covers (that's FCC Chairman Reed Hundt beaming from the April issue), and it still prints what seems like every letter anyone sends Rickard. It's most notable for its collection of cantankerous columnists and their ruminations on the issues and controversies of the Net world, particularly from the perspective of little-guy service providers. It's not for everyone -- but you'll never mistake it for any other rag.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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