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)

Newsstands everywhere today groan under the load of magazines devoted to the Internet and the Web. Just telling them apart from one another is tough -- a search engine might help. These publications' names seem to have been generated by an artificial-intelligence device programmed to provide every conceivable mutant combination of the syllables "Web," "Net," "Internet," "Guide," "Life" and "World." The magazines don't carry a lot of ads yet -- but have they got URLs for you!

The growth of this publishing sector attests to the popularity of the Web. Paradoxically, it also suggests that the new medium has failed miserably in making its riches available to the masses. If all the promises of point-and-click, search-and-find ease-of-use had been delivered upon, who'd need a glossy monthly magazine to get around online?

The common wisdom shared by the publishers and editors of these new magazines is that newcomers to the Web don't have the skills, and online veterans don't have the time, to keep up with the burgeoning volume of sites they could visit. They need a digest for the medium, like a TV Guide or a trusty hot list.

But wait a second -- hot lists are a staple of the Web itself. And when a hot list appears inside your browser window, all you have to do is click to reach the site you want -- whereas to "follow a link" from a print magazine means retyping a sometimes-lengthy Web address at your keyboard. Most of these magazines have Web sites of their own, of course, and they all point their readers to the online versions of their hot lists to avoid the annoying retyping of URLs. But that just raises the question of why the reader in search of online diversion wouldn't start out on the Web in the first place, rather than taking a detour into print.

The advantages print holds over online publishing are obvious and well-known, and the editors of print magazines about the Web tick them off: "Print is portable -- you can take it from home to office, to the beach, to the bathroom, or on an airplane," says Jon Zilber, editor-in-chief of The Net. Steve Fox, editor-in-chief of The Web, points out, "Refresh is immediate -- all you have to do is turn the page."

All true. And if you wanted to read a magazine about, say, cars or cats or basketball or books, all those advantages would certainly be valuable. The Web is different, in two big ways.

First of all, it's a moving target: Its technologies and its content both change insanely fast, certainly quickly enough to make the six-to-12-week lead time of the typical print monthly a huge problem. And it's not only URLs that change; the whole business seems to rearrange itself every few months.

Back in 1995, when Microsoft Network first launched and then instantly revamped itself, a lot of magazines got burned with major stories that were instantly out of date. Similarly, NetGuide's May issue contained an article about WebTV's battle with the U.S. government over exporting its products because of its use of encryption; by the time the issue hit the stands, Microsoft had bought WebTV and the company had an entirely different fight with the government on its hands -- an antitrust inquiry. Obviously, Web-based news services don't have the same problem keeping up; they have no lead time at all and can change what's on their site at will.

Second, beyond the issue of timeliness, print publications can never match the power of the Web itself to serve as its own guide. People needed listings for TV and radio because those media couldn't effectively and conveniently deliver reference material to their audiences. The Web is a reference tool par excellence: It was originally developed as a means for linking information into cross-referenced documents, and it has the capacity -- imperfect yet remarkable -- to create chronicles of its own events and catalogs of its own content. Yahoo, Excite, Altavista and the rest, for all their shortcomings, can satisfy both the browsing surfer and the single-minded searcher. Nothing TV has ever offered in the way of on-screen program guides can match their versatility, scope and latitude to customize.

There's one big advantage print has over the Web that doesn't get mentioned nearly as often as "portability" and "user-friendliness": advertiser-friendliness. Where advertising on the Web remains a tough sell, advertising in paper magazines is well-established and well-understood. Among magazines about the Web, interestingly, it's the ones that cover the technical and business end of the industry for professionals that have a healthy number of ad pages, mostly from computer hardware and software companies. The newer magazines that focus on Web content have a harder time of it: The businesses they cover, "content providers," are struggling themselves to sell ads on their Web sites and don't often have big ad budgets of their own to blow on expensive print campaigns. And so you have the anomaly of a magazine like The Web appearing to be largely supported by cigarette ads.

Investors rarely expect new magazines to turn a profit out of the gate; the typical business plan for a print magazine assumes five years to reach the break-even point. Yet that longer-term view poses problems for magazines about the Web that wouldn't exist for a magazine about, say, fly-fishing. With most subjects, the more fanatically interested readers become, the more likely they are to subscribe to magazines that cater to their interests. But the Web's different: The deeper into the Web people get -- the more they invest in faster connections, the better they get at finding things, the more they crave timely updates -- the more likely they are to take their information about the Web directly from the Web.

Inevitably, this dynamic is kicking in first among the Web professionals who already spend most of their lives online. Last week, Web Developer magazine's parent company, Mecklermedia, decided to pull the plug on its print edition and move the whole operation onto the Web -- where it will compete with other sites like Webmonkey and Web Review. Mecklermedia president Alan Meckler explained to Wired News: "It was pretty apparent that high-end Web developers don't get their info from print."

What's true for the hard-core pros is likely to spread to the wider population as the Web gets faster and easier and the general public gets more comfortable with it. That puts print publishers in a tough position: Two or three years down the line, right when they would normally expect to be approaching profitability, they may find themselves losing their core of readers. And the better they do their job of educating newcomers about the wonders of the Web and stoking the engagement of veterans, the more they will hasten that exodus.

The editors are undaunted. Barry Golson, editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Internet Life, waxed thoughtfully enough about his optimism that we decided to present his perspective in its entirety.

Jon Zilber, of The Net, notes that his average reader has been online for two years and is hardly a novice, and argues that his magazine's "three-legged stool" approach -- publishing not only in print and on the Web, but also on a CD-ROM that's packaged with the paper magazine -- provides an "unbeatable combination of the convenience of print, the timeliness and interactivity of online and the huge bandwidth of CD-ROM."

"We're not worried that the Web is gonna put us out of business," says The Web's Steve Fox. "Print magazines about the Web may eventually have real troubles -- when bandwidth improves and screen-display issues disappear. But I'm not sure that's going to happen in our lifetime."

Maybe not. Then again, who could have predicted, six or seven years ago, when the Internet was still an arcane academic network for scientists, students and hackers, that news racks today would be crowded with magazines dedicated to it?

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.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------