Whenever I come across a magazine or newspaper published on the Internet, my initial reaction is always the same as when I see a theatre that's booked Little & Large or Gary Norville - how can they possibly be making any money out of that?
The answer, of course, is that in most cases they're not. This isn't necessarily a reflection on the quality of what's on offer (although it has to be said, most of these dedicated Net publications exude the same sort of desperate "is anyone out there?" aura as the presenters on Live TV). Rather, it's to do with the fact that they're not making proper use of the Internet. What do I mean by this?
The thing is, online editions of established papers like The Sunday Times and The Independent aren't actually intended to pay their publishers' drinks bills. Their function is twofold. First, they allow the people who've created them to get the "we-need-an-Internet-presence" feeling out of their system. Second, and more importantly, they act as an advertisement for their inky counterparts. Nothing else.
Sadly, though, there's this naive new breed of Internet publisher on the scene who seems to imagine that you can take what is essentially a conventional magazine or newspaper, stick it up on the Web and people will read it, as they do The Times. Ergo, they reason, the advertisers will be happy, money will roll in and next year's holiday in Tuscany is assured.
Sorry, but it won't happen like that. It isn't just the cultural thing about people preferring to read from paper rather than from a computer monitor. Nor has it to do with the fact that BT's meter is ticking away in the background like some malevolent deathwatch beetle. It's primarily to do with users' expectations of how a Web page should function. In other words, surfers expect it to do something other than just sit there and tell them about Gazza's sex life or Tony Blair's election promises. If the only interactive element is "Click here to turn page", you'll piss them off very quickly.
There are just two ways of making money from an Internet publication.
Either make it fully customisable - make it do something a printed publication can't - or have it so that the Internet is simply the delivery medium.
The first is exemplified by Yearling's Interactive TV Guide at www.yearling.com, which carries comprehensive listings not just for BBC and ITV, but for all the satellite and cable channels, too. If you refuse on principle to watch BBC2, you can set it up to exclude it from the listings. Or, if you're an insomniac and you only want to see listings for programmes between 1am and 6am, you can request that, too. You can even enter search terms if you want to get really specific. It could be that life has no meaning for you without Felicity Kendal, in which case you input the words Felicity and Kendal and only those programmes featuring her charms will be listed.
Here, then, is a publishing venture, supported by adverts, that can offer you what the Radio Times can't. And, from a user's point of view, offers it gratis (save for the telephone bill, naturally).
The second method for financial success is to make the Internet work in conjunction with a PC and printer, rather like an Economy 7 radiator.
In other words, shortly before retiring for the night, the user taps in his credit card details and says to the PC: "Go and get me Nympho Nuns Monthly, download it, print it and bind it while I'm asleep." Come the dawn, he wakes up to find his magazine ready and waiting, without the hassle - or embarrassment - of having to go to a newsagent.
In this case, by using the Internet simply as a hi-tech delivery boy, the publisher eliminates printing and, most importantly, distribution costs, thus saving himself a hefty sum. Which ultimately means his profit margins are going to be much bigger, which in turn means he can produce better publications and/or more of them.
Exactly how many Internet publishers will have to go bankrupt before people realise this is how it should be done remains to be seen.
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