Getting Magazines Online
At the Folio: Show, magazine execs detail the battles of network publishing

(Originally published on Global Network Navigator (http://www.gnn.com), Nov. ,1994. Defunct hyperlinks have been removed.)

By Thom Forbes

When I started last March to put together a panel about publishing online magazines for the Folio: Show this fall, I was looking for people who were not your usual suspects. First, since this was to be a nuts-and-bolts session for magazine publishers, I didn't want anybody who'd be selling a particular commercial service -- or even the idea that a magazine should be online because there's a lot of money to be made in cyberspace. There's not at present.

Second, I hoped to get three panelists who had approached the idea of getting online from different perspectives. Editors' expectations are different from publishers' expectations, and operations people have a way of bringing both back to earth. Finally, I hoped for public candor of the sort that has been part of the Internet culture but is not particularly widespread in the print milieu.

Things happen fast in cyberspace. Indeed, I personally photocopied a handout of resources -- including the phone numbers of the appropriate sales reps at the commercial service as well as pointers to newsgroups and URLs -- just the day before the conference because I knew the information would be hopelessly out of date if I were to have met Folio:'s deadline of several weeks before.

One thing that happened really fast between March and November was the population explosion of "commercial" sites on the World Wide Web and the proliferation of Web browsers that continue to make navigation on the Internet easier and more entertaining.

I can't say that I saw it all coming in March, but the three panelists who appeared on "Getting Magazines Online: When, Where and Why" at the Folio: Show in New York on November 3 made it look like I did. Each has been involved in the nitty-gritty of getting their organizations' publications online, or -- in the case of one -- almost online. The organizations and publications are very different from one another, as are the backgrounds of the panelists. But between the three of them, just about every online option has been considered.

As diverse as the goals and publications of each of the participants are, one overriding message emerged from the seminar: The World Wide Web is not just a fad du jour.

The three panelists were:

  • Mark Obbie, president and CEO of Lexis Counsel Connect, a division of American Lawyer Media, and former editor and publisher of Texas Lawyer. Obbie, a reporter by training, talked about American Lawyer Media's online publishing operations, including its 70-person proprietary online service, its Court TV areas on America Online and Prodigy, and its plans for a WWW server.
  • Bob Kelly, ex-IBM softcopy publishing expert and now director of journal information systems at the American Physical Society, who is fluent in SGML, HTML, and all sorts of technical issues, as well as in plain English. Bob talked about the APS' WWW site, as well as plans to develop a comprehensive e-pub strategy for the society's $25-million-a-year publishing business.
  • Jack Horstmeyer, director of new business development and VP of multimedia for Times Mirror Magazines. Horstmeyer, a creative director by training, talked about all of the many online options Times Mirror has considered for titles such as Field & Stream, Golf, Outdoor Life, Home Mechanix, Ski, Skiing and Yachting and announced that it soon would be establishing a WWW presence. using the Web to The American Physical Society

Horstmeyer announced at the seminar that he had just come from a breakfast meeting where it was decided to put several Times Mirror magazines up on a Web server. I frankly was surprised that Times Mirror had decided not to put at least some of its magazines up on one of the commercial online services, which are reportedly offering some good deals for desirable titles. Times Mirror's mix of outdoor and sporting books come with demographics that are neat matches for the commercial services.

Looking at the larger picture, though, I think that Times Mirror's decision is indicative of the shift in power from online distributors to content providers that has been evident for several months.

Print publishers are feeling more confident that they can master the technological hassles of e-publishing than they did just a year ago. Even those that have titles on commercial services (Time and, of course, Wired for starters) are turning up on the Web.

A Web site gives publishers more control over content and timing. Stories can be hotlinked to others stories or databases. Advertising can be discreetly displayed and effectively hotlinked, and marketers can provide instant digital catalogs, prices and responses to qualified buyers.

All three of the panelists believe that the online technology of today is as transitory as CD-ROM, and that we are basically in training for a new online media that will probably be radically different from what anyone currently envisions. But until then, publishers have to deal with the reality of making money and staying in business.

One reality is that as much as the Web has been hyped, and as much as its traffic has increased since Mosaic was introduced, it's still very far from commonplace in the home or office. And the bandwidth required for real-time multimedia is still a pipedream. Perhaps a dozen of the 70 to 80 magazine folk in the audience said that they had seen Mosaic in action when the question was posed. But the Folio:Show panelists expected the number of Web users to increase dramatically in the coming year because of

  • the introduction of such products as Internet in a Box
  • the incorporation of Internet connectivity into operating system software (such as OS/2)
  • The commercial online systems' pending introduction of their own Web browsers.

Here are some of the presenters' key points in their own words:

Mark Obbie, American Lawyer Media

American Lawyer Media has spent "millions" thus far in establishing its proprietary system, Lexis Counsel Connect. It is in electronic publishing as a business, and it expects to start turning a profit within a few years. The core of Lexis Counsel Connect is communication between its lawyer members, who must sign a confidentiality agreement, although editors and writers also participate in discussion threads.

The Court TV areas on AOL and Prodigy are viewed more as good public relations for Court TV than as profit centers, though they are very active. For example, as many as 2,000-3,000 users have downloaded full transcripts of the O.J. Simpson proceedings.

Lawyers, the target audience of Lexis Counsel Connect, are technologically impaired. Voice mail is a challenge. Getting lawyers to use the proprietary service has required a lot of hand-holding and customer support.

Lexis Counsel Connect uses Reach Networks to provide its hardware and software, the CompuServe phone network for local access numbers, and has allied with Nexis last year primarily because of its hundreds of salespeople nationwide.

To learn more about American Lawyer Media's online operations, see Mark Obbie's paper, American Lawyer Media's Multimedia Strategy.

Bob Kelly, American Physical Society

The first thing you have to do is define what it is that you're trying to do. Think again if it's just putting up an electronic version of your print product. You must break the metaphor of paper.

The APS has saved 45% of its production costs by switching production for Physical Review Letters from cut-and-paste to SGML markup. In addition, SGML assures that the APS's publications will be adaptable to any electronic format in the future, whether it's CD-ROM, online or next-generation.

Whether you're a scholarly publisher like the APS or a commercial publisher, there are two underlying questions that you should always be asking:

  • How do we make money?
  • How do we protect the business we have?

Jack Horstmeyer, Times Mirror Magazines

We don't think this is a business for us [at present]. We can't figure out how to make money. . . . Don't focus so much on the business plan, or on trying to be something that perhaps you're not, but think of [going online] as going out to learn a new skill.

We're not in the business of predicting the future. But we do know who we are. We're content providers. We're the caretaker of brands. . . .We know what our readers want. . . . Our goal is not to be online specifically, but to be facile in other media. We see being online almost as a form of exercise, of getting in shape.

Our magazines are monthly, which provides an interesting challenge because an online service . . . has got to be an ongoing process that yields almost daily satisfaction. On the other hand, the editors of a monthly never have the space to put everything they want into a magazine, so there's a large storehouse of stuff that currently isn't being printed.

In making internal presentations, a "huge zero" always accompanies the term "revenue projections" on the white board. But believe me, we'll figure out how to make money. If you have good content, and people are interested in what you have to say, you make money. But I'm not going to worry about it now, and I don't think anybody else should either."

The panel then addressed six areas, with questions from the audience interspersed: Why yourmagazine should be online; how to get started; how much to invest; how to make money; how to engage readers; and how online advertising works.

Here are some of the points the panel made:

The changing nature of editors

Peer-to-peer interaction does not put the editor out of business. Editors add value, and smart editors will be in demand more than ever as information proliferates.

Readers become sources, critics, sounding boards. Instant feedback from them can be exhilarating as well as humbling.

The lines between editorial and other functions are somewhat blurred online, but with no loss of integrity. When reporters get online to chat with readers, for instance, they are partially circulation salespeople.

The cost of publishing

Talk to three different people at any one of the commercial online services and you'll get three different sets of figures on the prices or costs of going online. Negotiate.

Paying writers and artists for electronic use of their material is an emerging hot issue. Contributors should have a reasonable share in revenues from electronic publication of their work.

Getting online can cost from $6,000 for a basic BBS service and software with a few phone lines to $20,000 for a Web server capable of handling about 90,000 accesses a day. Development costs can run into the millions for a proprietary system; Times Mirror expects to spend $300,000-$400,000 this year in developing its Web site.

Marketing issues

No one has seen reliable figures regarding magazines gaining print subscriptions from having an online presence.

You should use your print publications to heavily promote your online presence.

The Internet culture is such that even fierce print competitors should consider cross-promotions of information that's of interest to your audience.

Several companies are developing ways of conducting commerce (safe transmission of credit card numbers; online cash schemes) but none of them are ready for prime time.

Can you sell advertising?

Paying writers and artists for electronic use of their material is an emerging hot issue. Contributors should have a reasonable share in revenues from electronic publication of their work.

Getting online can cost from $6,000 for a basic BBS service and software with a few phone lines to $20,000 for a Web server capable of handling about 90,000 accesses a day. Development costs can run into the millions for a proprietary system; Times Mirror expects to spend $300,000-$400,000 this year in developing its Web site. Advertising agencies are suddenly very interested in the WWW, but they want evidence that a sufficient number of people are visiting Web sites. What's sufficient? For a Ski or Skiing site, perhaps 5,000 skiers.

Demographic information is necessary for attracting advertisers, but collecting it can be a touchy issue.

Nonintrusive, informational advertising is welcome by people who are looking for information about products or services.

Intrusive advertising, or spamming forums or newsgroups, will not work and will backfire on the marketer.

There were answers, but no definitive ones. I believe that the seminar was successful precisely for this reason. Most participants seem to leave with more questions -- informed questions -- than they came with. All I can hope is that some of them will join us here, and elsewhere online, as we all try to figure out how to make this new medium become what it could and should be -- and keep up with the rent while we're doing it.

What do you think?

Do you know something these guys don't? Let us know what you know -- or think -- about magazines publishing online by filling out the comments form.

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