My dot-com business mags have fallen on me and I can't get up!

Ad-fat magazines like the Industry Standard, Business 2.0 and the Red Herring have swelled to telephone-book size. But who has time to read 3,000 pages a month?

Published March 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Pity the dot-com CEO. Not only are start-up founders the designated poster children of the "new economy," but they are supposed to stay on top of the mountains of articles being written about "innovators, visionaries and wunderkinds" like themselves.

Take Scott Rafer, CEO of Fresher, a venture-backed Silicon Valley start-up. As he settles into his seat on a business flight, he hauls a foot-high stack of bloated biz magazines out of his back-straining carry-on bag. "I drive the aircraft people nuts with all the torn pages scattered about the seats," Rafer confides.

Just keeping up on all the print glossies that cover how the Net is changing business could itself be a full-time gig. A short-list includes the Industry Standard, Business 2.0, the Red Herring, Wired and Upside. Soon jumping on the Net biz bandwagon will be eCompany Now, a monthly from Time Inc., debuting in May. Even the business mag granddaddies like Fortune, Forbes and Business Week as well as nouveau business handbook Fast Company (where I used to work) are looking more and more dot-commified with every issue. And there are the scads of online tech news sites like CNet's and Wired News, plus a bevy of more specialized trade pubs like InfoWorld and PCWeek to wade through, as well.

It's not the sheer number of titles that's overwhelming to readers like Rafer, who is something of a magazine junkie. It's the staggering volume of the individual issues themselves, which have page counts like paperback potboilers. The March issue of the Red Herring is 440 pages -- it weighs in at 1 pound, 12.5 ounces. But that's nothing, the current issue of Business 2.0 has a similar page count, 448, but weighs a staggering 2 pounds, 5.3 ounces according to my postal scale. And if you add together the four March issues of the weekly Industry Standard, you get 1,096 pages.

"If they can get to books that thick, I'm not going to tell you they're doing anything wrong," says Rafer, ever the business guy. "They're just making hay while the sun shines. But that doesn't make these magazines useful information tools. I'm having to get more and more efficient about reading them. I used to be able to glance through an issue with fair thoroughness over a couple of cups of coffee, but now I have to tear through it. I'm sure I miss stuff that I wouldn't have before."

Jim Rose, CEO of Accompany, a group discount shopping site, isn't worried about missing anything; but then, he has a reader on staff. "If there's stuff that I need to see, it will end up in my in box or on my desk," he says confidently. Rose's reader doesn't scan magazines full time, but if the publications keep ballooning, look forward to this job title: business magazine reader. It was only a matter of time until even reading became a business function that could be delegated or outsourced.

Why is there so much to read? Because there are so many more ad dollars being spent. Magazines guarantee advertisers a fixed ratio of content to ads (often around 45 percent editorial to 55 percent advertising); as advertisers targeting Net-savvy business people buy more space, the pubs bulge with both more editorial and ad pages.

But now potential advertisers have to wonder who's hearing them in the din. "We feel pretty much like we need to run a focus group to figure out whether anyone reads the darn things anymore," says Rafer, who just raised $20 million and is hesitant to spend Fresher's ad dollars in the business press.

Just how many stories can even the most self-involved Internet executives, entrepreneurs and wannabes read about themselves and their businesses? It was a question that raised eyebrows a year-and-a-half ago when Business 2.0 and the Industry Standard launched within a few months of each other. With even the more established technology and business magazines restyling themselves to focus increasingly on dot-com businesses, the prospect of two new publications devoted to nothing but the Net looked at best me-too-ish, and at worst a recipe for cannibalization. People wondered how all of them could succeed.

But, today if you tried to smuggle the March 2000 offerings from Business 2.0, the Red Herring, the Industry Standard, Wired, Upside and Fast Company onto a cross-country flight, a vigilant flight attendant would likely frown and ask you to gate check your carry-on. The combined heft of this month's issues weighs in at 12 pounds, 6.3 ounces, heavier and certainly bulkier than even the most cumbersome laptop.

Ned Desmond, the president and editor of eCompany Now, is aware of the problem: "The first issue will weigh at least 500 pounds," he deadpans, "and we're planning to supply a little cart with each one, with its own set of wheels, so readers can roll it through the airport."

But forget about just carrying these magazines around. What if you actually wanted to read them all? The combined number of March pages: 2,884. That's like reading Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Twice.

It's no great mystery what's fueling the ungainly growth in these magazines. "There's a huge information overload going on right now," says venture capitalist Andrew Anker, a partner at August Capital. "It's being driven by marketers trying to spend dollars, not by users saying 'I need this content.'"

Web companies spent more than $700 million on magazine advertising alone last year. That's 348 percent more than they did in 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Plus, with almost $25 billion flowing from venture capitalists into Net companies in 1999, 66 percent more than the previous year, there's a lot of business-to-business advertisers itching to reach the newly cash-rich dot-commies who need to quickly find somewhere to put all that capital to work.

"There's a lot of money flowing into these companies and they don't know what to do with it," says David Bunnell, editor of Upside. "And the easiest way to spend money is to advertise. There are so many dot-coms out there I can't keep them straight, and neither can anyone else." Simply put, these journalists are riding the boom that they're covering. And in some cases they're experiencing the same kinds of talent crunch as the start-ups they write about. When Business 2.0, which last week was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award, launched in July 1998, 10 editorial staffers put out a 128-page magazine; now an editorial team of 26 puts out issues like the recent 448-pager.

So, doesn't the quality of the articles being published suffer with all that copy that has to be churned out? Well, not if you simply rerun articles that have appeared before. The March issue of Business 2.0 contains 10 stories that have run in their entirety in previous issues of the magazine, reprinted word for word. The 95-page "special section" entitled "10 Driving Principles of the New Economy" may attempt to explain the "new" economy, but the stories themselves are not so new. The original publication dates do run just under the story titles in the section's mini table of contents, but it's not immediately apparent that the articles are reruns -- although there's a hint in the fact that the stories frequently cite supporting examples circa 1995 or 1997.

Why recycle material from the archives of a magazine that's less than two years old? "A lot of people who subscribed recently probably haven't seen these stories," explains Editor-in-Chief Jim Daly, earnestly. "We just got so much amazing response when we ran those articles. They crystallized a lot of thinking for people. We really wanted to put them all together again." And really who can blame him for finding unorthodox ways to fill pages, even if it means recycling not just topics or sources or ideas but whole articles right down to the art?

Ironically, these merrily bloated magazines' financial success makes it harder for readers to actually page through a single issue, much less wade through the relentless onslaught that quickly piles up. These same magazines that trumpet the ever-accelerating pace of business ask their time-starved audience to spend more and more time pondering it in their pages.

"I get all of those magazines. Reading them is another matter," says Oliver Muoto, the co-founder of dot-com start-up Epicentric, who's frequently been written about and quoted in many of them. Remember how much people complained about how hard it is to navigate and find the information that you're looking for on a Web site. Well what about in a magazine ballooning with ads? "They're so thick, you think 'gee, there must be some gem hidden in all those pages.'" Muoto says. "But there are so many ads, it's become difficult to read them."

Sara Frankel, CEO of BestSelf, an early stage Net company, still reads them all but says that "it's gotten out of control. They're all incredibly fat. The screen the magazines are using to filter information is getting increasingly less discriminating. They're basically reprinting press releases, in a lot of cases ... In the Industry Standard and Business 2.0, it's hard to tell the industry hype and excitement from the legitimate trends and companies they're covering." She brings an extra shoulder bag on plane trips to lug on board many as 30 issues that have piled up. She takes the extra bag home empty, sure to find her mailbox stuffed with the next go-round.

Not that the magazines themselves aren't aware of the problem. Their own letters to the editor tell the comical story of their absurd growth. A letter printed in the current issue of Business 2.0 from a Swedish reader complains that every time a new monthly installment arrives, he gets a paper slip from the post office in his mailbox, instead of a magazine. The mail carriers won't deliver it, because it's too heavy. How ironic that a reader must wait in line "for about half an hour" at an old-fashioned snail mail post office to receive the magazine's latest insights into how the Internet is reinventing business.

A letter in the December issue of the Industry Standard criticizes the magazine for doubling in size and running 13 pages of ads before the first page of content. "It seems that you have sold out and become an advertising vehicle to the Internet crowd," the letter writers carp, quipping: "If I just wanted ads, I would buy Cosmopolitan."

It's not easy being green. "We really don't want to be a telephone directory or Vogue every week," laments the publisher of the Industry Standard, Steve Thompson. The first issue of the Industry Standard was 56 pages. One issue in March was 352 pages.

And the editors who are assigning all these stories to keep up with the ads readily concede that their bulging issues can overwhelm as much as inform. "Are we too big? Of course, we're too big," says Jason Pontin, editor of the Red Herring, which is putting out a whopping 488 pages in April. "I recognize that we're getting uncomfortably large."

After all, who can get up the energy to crack the spine of a magazine that's more like a college textbook than an easily digestible glossy? "When you have a magazine that's 400 pages or more, it becomes a project," says Jim Daly, editor in chief of Business 2.0. "People look at it, and it's impressive, but they don't dive into it. They set it aside. It's a great irony that you're selling hundreds of hundreds of pages of ads, but you're creating a reader experience that's more difficult. The thud factor is good up to a point, but then it tends to make readers a little nervous."

For many of these magazines, the solution to this unlikely problem is to simply publish more, more frequently, that is. Yes, they'll produce fewer pages per issue, but they'll come out more often for a total of more pages and more stories.

Business 2.0 will go fortnightly at the end of May. Red Herring says it has plans to do the same sometime this year. And even the weekly Industry Standard will soon be serving readers more stories, in a different way. The magazine's monthly "special reports," like the more than 100 pages that ran in the March 13 issue called "The Privacy Problem," will be broken out into free-standing, single-topic themed supplements, a remarkably advertising-friendly format. The weekly issues will be capped at 260 pages -- see, gentle reader, that's fewer pages to get through, but the monthly supplement will run as many as 350. Between the weekly issues and the supplements, the Standard plans to publish no less than 60 times next year.

Fast Company also considered launching a second magazine called Net Company. They tried it out as two supplements (one of which I wrote for) sent to subscribers, but determined that the reasons for doing it would be "largely wrong-headed and purely financial," according to founding editor Alan Webber. Instead, Fast Company itself is becoming (surprise!) more Net-centric, with a new "Net Company" section starting in May.

"People have a limited amount of time, energy and attention and more is not better, better is better," says Webber, who has overseen many issues over 400 pages long. "Our attitude is: Let's work this problem to see if there's a way that we can make money over the long haul. So that advertisers don't feel like they're getting lost in an environment that's cluttered with too many pages and readers don't feel assaulted by a publication that's no longer trying to help them, but is just daring them to drink from a firehose."

You can't really fault any of these business publishers for success at their business. According to ad-tracking service Adscope, the Industry Standard and the Red Herring each charge more than $16,000 for a single four-color one-page ad, while Business 2.0 charges more than $21,000. We counted more than 160 ad pages in the March 27 issue of the Standard; many of these advertisers probably have discounts for multiple ads, some of the ads could be barter -- but even subtracting 30 percent (Adscope's yardstick for discounts), this week's issue could be bringing in revenues of about $1.79 million. If that doesn't impress you, Adscope says the Standard's one-page ad rate is going up to $20,900 next month. Still, it's easy to imagine what fun the editors and writers themselves would have skewering a company that showered its customers in an orgy of its product because it fit its business model instead of serving them with an offering that's as manageable as it is useful.

With so many stories to tell and so much space to fill, the editors and writers threaten to shift the job of determining what's really important, what really matters, from themselves to their readers. Fresher's Rafer now studies the table of contents and recommends relevant stories, based on the headlines, to others execs in his company -- stories which he frequently does not get around to reading himself. Elizabeth Goldstein, director of product development for TechPlanet, follows a strategy that she's witnessed among Net colleagues. She rips out four or five relevant articles, puts them in a folder and takes them on the plane.

"In between take-off and when the seatbelt light goes off, that's when I read them," she says. "It's the only time when you're forced to have no computing devices turned on, thank God, or I wouldn't have time to read at all."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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