In the inside-baseball game of media criticism -- and especially online media criticism -- everyone seems to have an opinion about how content sites should make money (or why they never will). And this week has been a big week for words when it comes to the tribulations and lessons of three prominent online publications: Word.com, Inside.com and Slate.
First off, Word is apparently dead. Again. Is this the second or third time it has been mourned now?
Regardless, it's a demise that is both poignant and apparently inevitable. The veteran lifestyle magazine, helmed by the patient Marisa Bowe, has lived a turbulent life -- first as a zine owned by Icon, then as one bought by Zapata (the Texas fish meal company that bought 31 independent sites, then decided to jettison the business), then as the producer, in the past year, of the critically acclaimed book "Gig" and the game Sissyfight. Alas, that doesn't seem to be enough.
News of the site's reported demise set off a small flurry of hand-wringing. Guy Guglielmino, general manager for Word.com, told Inside.com that Zapata couldn't puzzle out the economics for anything besides a basic advertising model, which wouldn't work with Word's "sophisticated audience." We'll probably never know if another model would have worked. But Word shouldn't feel alone in its suffering -- Inside.com itself, the much bigger media zine with much heavier coffers, underwent an even more public humiliation in the past few days.
Last week, Inside.com announced that, despite Kurt Andersen's boasts that he would be the one to make the subscription model work, the company had a way to go to meet its target goal of 30,000 subscriptions by next spring. CEO Deanna Brown told the New York Times that this was because the site had gotten a slow start recruiting subscribers. At the same time, the site is moving into the world of old media and will launch a print magazine with the help of the Industry Standard.
Inside: The Business of Entertainment, Media and Technology, set to launch this winter, will have the assistance of one of the most profitable tech-business magazines on its side; but it's also going to have a tough time competing in a crowded niche that is dependent on dot-com ads, which could dwindle any day. Who knows whether such a magazine could support Inside.com's hefty expenses, too.
The response to this news was -- as usual when it comes to the woes of content sites -- swift and brutal. Michael Wolff mockingly called the move "purely Desperationville," as did a number of devoted Jim Romenesko readers. Jim Cramer at TheStreet.com, in turn, postulated that the print magazine made perfect sense: "You have to amortize the newsroom beyond simple Web-based fare."
Yes, there's an opinion on every side of the fence, and fortunately for us media critics, the Web offers infinite space to print them all (including mine). There's nothing more fun than poking holes in an optimistic editor's vocal business-model predictions. Word's fate, however maligned, may be unique; or it may be where Inside.com is also headed. Sadly, it's a shame that there's more finger-pointing and business-model-bashing and "I'm smarter than you" pontificating than working together to keep the industry afloat.
But there was, finally, one last voice offering guidance to the Kurt Andersens and Marisa Bowes of the Web: Slate editor Michael Kinsley, who on Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal bragged, in a lengthy editorial, that "it looks like we're probably going to make it." Why would Slate make it? Because of "that other, less-fashionable variable -- costs."
Kinsley calls himself the "tortoise" who will win the dot-com race because of his slow-growing ways and thrifty budgets. Of course, Slate -- being a Microsoft venture -- "doesn't even have an official profit-and-loss sheet of its own," explains Kinsley, so we'll never really know how "slow" or thrifty he is.
But we do know this: In all the areas that independent Web-content outfits, no matter how frugal, have to fork out significant amounts of money to build their businesses -- stuff like server purchases and maintenance and advertising sales forces -- Slate gets to piggyback on its Microsoft sugar daddy, and benefit from its prominent position on the Microsoft Network (linked, you may recall, from a million Windows desktops worldwide).
"This approach ... will leave us alive when we might otherwise be dead," Kinsley writes. "Seems like a good deal to me." A good deal indeed, even if it borders on the Faustian. Listen to Kinsley, O Content Creators -- he has the answer you've all been seeking. The key to making money from online content is getting yourself bought by Microsoft (or an equally deep-pocketed competitor like America Online). Sure, you'd have to share a lunchroom with Kinsley, but we hear he doesn't mind sharing his mac 'n' cheese specials.
Hey, Bill, whatcha doing for lunch next week?