Strange fruit

Garden Escape, the world's first 'catazine,' is leading journalism into a brave new world where everything is for sale.


James Poniewozik
March 17, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Potatoes -- don't get Doug Jimerson started on potatoes. The
editor in chief of e-commerce site Garden.com is waxing lyrical about a feature on potatoes about to go live. Tricked up with image
maps, recipes and color photos, he says, it makes potatoes "look
exciting." It brings alive "the whole potato
experience."

Garden.com's multimedia spuds gallery is an example of the creative
potential Jimerson says lured him three years ago from Meredith
Publications, where for about 20 years he edited Better Homes and Gardens
and associated publications. Not only does the site offer top-drawer
gardening writing and photography, Garden.com users can look up their
gardening zones by ZIP code, use garden-planner software and chat with
experts. Numerous articles hail the site as a premier online gardening
resource.

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But now, curiously, Jimerson's become a print magazine editor again --
depending how you define "magazine." On March 8 Garden.com delivered the
handsome, 122-page Garden Escape premiere issue to gardening centers, Home
Depots, bookstores and newsstands. Produced with Primedia (publisher of New
York and Seventeen) the $5.95 quarterly includes timely articles on
geraniums and container gardening, a clean, modish design reminiscent of
Martha Stewart Living and lovely color photos of delphiniums, treillages
and voluptuous heirloom tomatoes. Virtually all of which, down to the last
hand hoe, are accompanied by order numbers and prices and are ready for
purchase from Garden.com's 15,000-item collection.

Garden.com calls Garden Escape "the first print magazine to be created
by an electronic-commerce company." Now if you tax your memory, you might
recall when publications exclusively devoted to selling a single retailer's
product were called by another name. But in the age of new business
paradigms, the hip e-tailer does not traffic in anything so passé as a
"catalog." Instead we have "seamless integration of commerce and content,"
as Garden.com CEO Cliff Sharples proudly described the periodical in the
Feb. 22 Advertising Age Interactive Daily. How seamless? An October
Garden.com press release from PR News Media seeking "feature and news
items" from industry people for the Web magazine clearly connects online
editorial items and sales: "Another opportunity with Garden.com is to get
products listed on the site," the release says. "The catch here is that
(Jimerson) won't promote products he doesn't sell."

We've heard how online, the rules on business-editorial fraternization
are up for grabs. We've accepted alliances between online publications and
retailers, as in the "Buy This Book" links at Salon (which includes
Garden.com in its Emporium Annex) and at
countless Web magazines and newspapers; retailers like Amazon.com have cut out
the middleman, producing their own reviews and features; portal sites sell
placements in search results; and in a flurry of deals and alliances -- USA
and Lycos, NBC (fresh from direct-marketing "The '60s" soundtrack) and
shopping channel Value Vision -- broadcasters are trying to become
retailers and retailers are trying to become broadcasters and Web sites are
trying to become both.

Well -- surprise! -- like the mirror-world objects from Jorge Luis
Borges' "Tlvn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," the bastardized rules are now
crossing back into old media. "The Web has said ... you can integrate
commerce and content," Sharples says, and Garden Escape shows "how that can
be rebounded back into the print world as something new."

At first blush, Garden Escape looks like any gardening magazine. The cover
mentions www.garden.com only as the Web site of "The ultimate Internet
garden magazine"; it teases features but doesn't mention prices or sales.
Jimerson and Sharples argue the line "Plus, thousands of tools, plants &
gifts for your garden" is ample disclaimer. "If it was a catalog, we'd put
that up on the front page," Jimerson says. "'This is a catalog; buy
thousands of products.' You don't have to buy a darn thing in the magazine
and still it's worth the six bucks."

What's really interesting is how otherwise forthright Garden Escape is
about its intent. "We're proud of the products we sell," Jimerson's
editor's column says, and prices and ordering information are prominent
everywhere. To Garden.com, its business-edit synthesis is an asset to
trumpet -- a win-win that allows editors and marketers to trade know-how.
Suppose, Sharples says, "our head plant product manager comes across some
totally unique specialty grower of a certain category of plants that we
didn't have on the Web site and says ... 'We really want to sign them up as
a supplier.' (The manager) goes to the editorial team and says, 'Do you
think there's a story here that would interest gardeners?' 'Yeah,
definitely, we could definitely feature that.' 'OK, well, let's ...' And
that's how they make decisions in terms of what to add to the product line."

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Jimerson maintains he's free to choose his topics: "I'm not going to
tell you that I totally forget about the product line, because the goal is
to help people be successful, but I never edit with the product line as my
decision-making factor."

Of course, a magazine hawking its own wares is nothing
new, particularly among shelter publications: Jimerson says he had
particular experience working with sales at Meredith ("It's one of the
reasons we hired him," Sharples says), where Better Homes and Gardens has
long had the Family Shopping Service (which now sells online). BHG's
spring 1999 Building Ideas magazine, for instance, includes a "Marketplace"
section selling knickknacks "chosen especially" for readers; and of course
Martha by Mail gladly sells Stewart acolytes everything but the sunlight
(which no doubt she's working on). Garden Escape, Jimerson says, is "just
going one step beyond what's already out there."

Moreover, Jimerson and Sharples say, users want commerce-content
integration: They want information, resources, one-click convenience.
Jimerson says he got the most complaints at BHG from readers who couldn't
find plants the magazine mentioned. In effect, Garden.com says combining
retail and editorial interests serves its reader-customers better and more
accountably than a pure-play magazine would.

The thing is, Garden.com could be right. A traditional consumer magazine has
one type of market-based quality control: If its advice sucks, you'll stop
buying it. But Garden Escape's reader can stop buying it and the
products. Who's to say marketers, with sales quotas to meet, won't put more
shoe leather into their research than buck-a-word freelancers? Arguably,
too, Garden Escape's conflict is at least transparent, compared with the
everyday subtle skullduggery of tie-ins and flack deals that, say, the
readers of beauty and fashion magazines wade through. "Everyone dances
around this issue of church and state," Jimerson says, "but everyone in
some way is selling something."

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Still, we assume a magazine's cover price is what we pay to subsidize
disinterested information. It may be in a retailer's best interests, say,
to find me the best damn $16 terra-cotta basket-weave planter there is. But
if I'd get good results using plastic pots -- or an old coffee can --
should I trust its magazine to tell me? Jimerson and Sharples say the proof
will be in customer satisfaction, which they can only achieve through
integrity (and Sharples argues online retailers are held to far higher
standards regarding, say, privacy, than "terrestrial" businesses are). "I'm
not telling them to grow roses some weird way just to sell them," Jimerson
says. "Sure, if (a story about roses) sells, it helps me out, it helps the
gardener out. But that's not why I'm personally putting together the story."

And you know what? I believe him. But it's clearly why his employer is
having him put out a "magazine": The m-word has a respectability "catalog"
doesn't. And if this were a petty semantic game, it wouldn't be so
important to the retailer. For instance, Sharples says Garden Escape wants
to sell more ads, not so much to make money -- it's more important for
Garden.com "brand building" -- but because, well, magazines have ads, and
"we really want to have this positioned on the newsstand as a magazine."
Even if you ultimately make plain that you're selling something (and Garden
Escape does, abundantly), a reader who accepts the designation will still
believe he's not just reading a catalog. There's nothing wrong with
Garden Escape as a catalog -- it's a great one, and quality for-pay
catalogs are nothing new. But by changing our definition of "magazine,"
e-retailer/publishers will ultimately change the rules for readers of all
kinds, on- and offline, making it acceptable for media to justify conflicts
in the name of service.

That's dangerous even if they please their readers better. Look, it's
not as if a strong, independent gardening mag would otherwise urge readers
to let their land go fallow. But if Garden Escape is successful, it'll be
joined by e-business-cum-magazines and vice versa in various fields,
arguing, Perot-like, that straight-shooting businesspeople policed by an
efficient market can serve the people best. Sharples, who is also the chairman of
e-commerce association Shop.org,
says, "Already a few of the people who came to our launch party last week
have sent me e-mails saying, 'How can I get a magazine?'"

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And why not? In 1997 I wrote in New York magazine about Bold Type, an online "literary
magazine" that was actually a PR site for Bantam Doubleday Dell (now Random
House); in a classic example of press-release journalism, the New York
Times wrote up the site as a new lit mag, without any reference to the
shill. That was an innocent time, 1997. You could put a catalog "magazine"
online and nobody would call you on it because nobody understood what you
were doing. In 1999 you can do the same thing -- even in print -- and
nobody will call you on it because nobody gives a crap. Read any business
magazine, read Newsweek: E-commerce, we've decided, is what the Web is
for -- the deus ex machina to redeem the failures of content and
fund our two-Lexus retirements at age 40.

As I write, the Dow is threatening to break 10,000. On CNBC a reporter
stands weatherman-like in front of a board pointing out the stock rise of
another "e-commerce and content" company. Ron Insana says we could witness
"a historic edition of 'Street Signs'" this afternoon. A historic
edition of "Street Signs."
A solid citizen -- especially one who
depends for his paycheck on the profitability of e-content -- feels like a
bit of a hypocrite, stick-in-the-mud or traitor for pissing on this parade.
What Garden.com says about Garden Escape is true. It's "not hoodwinking
anybody." It's "not holding a gun to anyone's head." Garden.com, like many of
us online, is just taking things "one step" beyond where they already are.

As Wile E. Coyote so instructively reminds us, if you take a step and
don't feel yourself falling, why risk looking down?

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

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