Will online magazines work? Most content on the Web from established publishers is of the recycled kind. All very well if readers are unable to get the original publication in printed form, but of limited interest otherwise. Few disagree that reading on-screen is best done for short periods only and invariably lacks the pleasure of a well laid out printed page. Ironically the Web has actually managed to heighten our appreciation for print, radio and TV. They are all more accessible and reliable than the Web, and in the case of print, infinitely more portable. For the moment, at least, dead trees still have their uses.
Is this likely to change? For print publishers it's a difficult balancing act, perhaps made most evident in the world of newsletters. Newsletters make money by selling high-quality editorial for a price, usually between #200 and #400 a year for weekly or fortnightly publications.
For those that deliver pages of short but concise news, the Internet is a threat as well as a challenge. The threat comes from the breadth of news services on the Internet; the opportunity comes from being able to reach a massive audience, if a way of charging for the information can be established. Smarter newsletter publishers are extending their readership by using the Internet to deliver their publications to a wider audience without eroding existing readerships.
"Don't mess with the readership" seems to be the mantra of any publisher that goes online and yet needs to protect and see continued growth in traditional products. It's a bit like British Rail (as was), investing in an airline running between London and Scotland. Easy does it or you're simply involved in persuading your revenue base to shift to a different mode of travel.
It's with this in mind that it is most interesting to watch new media publishers with no print legacy to protect. I would also hazard a guess that in the short term the only advertising that will seriously benefit from the Web is classified ads. Not surprising then that the localised City sites are the new media battleground with major US cities now under attack from Microsoft, Excite, Yahoo and the lesser-known CitySearch. These online-only publications pride themselves on being a kind of editorial hybrid between print and TV, with no print titles to protect.
No one doubts that these players are prepared to invest for some time to achieve a respectable readership that will make classified ads profitable. The question is, with so many players targeting major cities, can any of them make a profit? London is likely to be the first city in the UK to experience this online media frenzy but real investors seem to be keeping their hands on their wallets until the US experiment shows a payoff.
With such a competitive market, payday could be a long time in coming.
Ken Young, Group Editor - [email protected]
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