HOW DO ON-LINE 'ZINES STACK UP?
Thumbing through Word magazine doesn't actually require thumbs. And reading a story in the monthly on-line periodical (www.Word.com) can feel more like taking a guided tour than digesting a page-bound article.
See, for instance, this month's feature on the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, a four-story haven for medical marijuana advocates. A few clicks of the forefinger gets you from the magazine's cover page to the building's lobby, onto the elevator and up to the floor of your choice. Each page provides a little more text, crisp photographs and colorful backgrounds.
If it's not exactly a cohesive read, it's certainly an interesting ride.
And that is Word's raison d'etre. The Internet, says Word co-founder Carey Earle, is the ``new entertainment industry,'' and cyber magazines that subscribe to that theory, she and many others believe, will be best positioned to lead the on-line onslaught into the 21st century.
Slate rejects this premise altogether. Former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley's electronic magazine will hit the Net on Monday and, depending on its success, could be a turning point for the struggling medium. Where the majority of on-line mags rely heavily on their novelty quotient, Slate will exchange flash and frivolity for serious discourse, traditional journalism and intellectual banter.
It's a risky venture, even if it is being backed by the multibillion-dollar Microsoft Corp. And a few of Kinsley's new peers are already predicting Slate's demise.
``Web pages are not set up to tell journalismlike stories,'' says Carl Steadman, co-founder of Suck (www.Suck.com), a snarky anti-establishment 'zine that debuted in November. ``The magazine notion, if it's not already dead, certainly will die.''
But others in the industry are tentatively enthusiastic. ``Microsoft has a history of taking the lion's share'' of the market, says Anne Russell, editor in chief of Folio, a trade publication for the magazine industry. ``But they also might help sell the public on the concept'' of on-line publishing.
Nobody ever said democracy produces quality, and the electronic magazine rack is a good example. Anyone with a computer and a modem can publish on-line, which means reader-friendly design is scarce, and compelling writing even scarcer.
``I can't run 2,000-word features; no one will sit still for that,'' says Robin Thompson, managing editor at Spank (www.Cadvision.com/Spank), a Canada-based electronic magazine aimed at young adults. As a result, the most popular on-line periodicals keep stories to under 1,200 words - not a very meaty read.
Nevertheless, the industry does have an audience. Viewers pull up half a million pages of the on-line 'zine Salon per month, according to its editors. And Word boasts 100,000 individual users a week.
What do they offer? Suck, says Steadman, attempts nothing more than to ``provide people with water-cooler talk,'' while also critiquing the Net. HotWired (www.HotWired.com), perhaps the Web's most popular periodical, covers health, techno and political issues, plus ``Cocktail on the Menu,'' an in-depth look at the mag's drink of the week. Salon's popular ``Table Talk'' provides a place for readers to discuss issues in the magazine (www.Salon1999.com).
``People come to HotWired for an experience,'' says Steven Petrow, a HotWired producer. That experience ``is a combination of entertainment, information and community.''
Slate (www.Slate.com) will incorporate those qualities, too, but with a heavy emphasis on information in the form of traditional reporting and punditry. Its writers will be ``seasoned journalists who are extensively published,'' says publisher John Williams.
Most importantly, technology will support this effort, not overshadow it, Williams emphasizes.
But Steadman contends that this is a surefire recipe for failure. ``They think they've got something in their bag of tricks,'' he says of Kinsley and Williams. ``But as they go along, their articles will become shorter and shorter, and soon they'll realize'' that their formula is inherently flawed.
Other on-line publishers disagree, saying that an influx of high-quality journalism, a la Slate, might give intellects a reason to indulge their passion via their computers. Salon executive editor Gary Kamiya is one of them.
Kamiya's 8-month-old magazine aspires, like Slate, to be the on-line relative of Harper's or The New Yorker. Writers Amy Tan, Armistead Maupin and Camille Paglia have penned articles for Salon.
``The medium needs more quality; it is not yet a stellar editorial wonderland,'' Kamiya says. But ``once you start reaching a critical mass, even diehards like me'' will get used to reading on line.
``The most exciting and interesting thing about this medium is really the interactivity,'' Kamiya says. He points to the popularity of magazines' chat rooms and the forums they provides for instant reader feedback. ``How many people actually sit down, get out a stamp and send a letter to the editor?'' he asks. E-mail makes this a cinch.
Generating revenues has been more difficult. Not even the Web's most popular publications have turned a profit since their inception, notes Russell. That's because advertisers have generally shied away from the emerging technology as a way to hawk their goods. On-line advertising revenues for 1995 were $57 million, just a sliver of the total spent on print promotions by U.S. companies last year.
To offset reliance on advertising, Slate will charge readers to access its electronic universe. Rates will be announced the day the publication debuts. But Williams says they won't go into effect for several months, providing potential subscribers with a free trial period.
Russell, meanwhile, warns of a potential consumer backlash.
``The tradition of information being free on the Internet is so entrenched that it's a very hard problem to solve,'' she says.
But Williams says Slate's audience will see the value in his product.
``Our belief is that the medium will prove itself over time,'' he says, ``and people will pay for it.''
Sort of like cable TV. In fact, on-line publishing shares more features with television than it does with its print brethren, say Russell and others. Like TV, the Internet ``is very revolutionary. Nobody said that about magazines,'' Petrow points out. At HotWired, departments are ``channels''; editors are ``producers.''
And like the TV audience, Russell says, on-line magazine viewers (``I'm reluctant to call them readers,'' she says) are less interested in being educated than in being entertained.
Though Slate challenges this notion, Williams says his product can happily co-exist alongside Spank et al. ``We share a common mission'' in attempting to draw an audience to electronic magazines, he says. ``I don't think we're trying to change the rules.''
Signs of intelligent on-line life Slate (www.Slate.com): Michael Kinsley's highly awaited addition to electronic publishing will debut Monday. Right now, all you can do is sign up with your e-mail address to receive information about upcoming issues.
Word (www.Word.com): Graphically fresh and clever, the magazine currently features a hysterical photo essay by Karl Baden called ``Can't Sleep,'' plus an outtake from David Foster Wallace's novel, ``Infinite Jest.'' Word offers stories in text-only format for lower-power hardware.
HotWired (www.Hotwired.com): As cocky and graphically impressive as its print brethren, Wired (in which a recent political story referred to Bob Dole as ``the Bobster''), HotWired provides extensive coverage of Net issues, such as the killing of the Communications Decency Act. Regular features include the Daily Poll, Dream Job, Cocktail on the Menu and Ask Dr. Weil, a health/medical advice column.
Salon (www.Salon1999.com): A sophisticated and intelligent read. A recent issue included stories on the addition of `duh' to the dictionary, extreme sports and, believe it, redneck gays. Books receive heavy emphasis, and music coverage strays toward baby boomer tastes (Linda Ronstadt, ELO).
Suck (www.Suck.com): Describes itself to newcomers as ``an experiment in provocation, mordant deconstructionism and buzz-saw journalism.'' Sparsely designed with retro, ``Jetsons''-like graphics, the 'zine's irreverent commentary skewers everything from its on-line competitors to celebrity culture to Bill Clinton. A recent essay on Dennis Rodman posits him as the ``poster boy for the video game twitcheratti.''
Spank (www.cadvision.com/spank): The under-25 set surf to Spank for its up-to-date pop culture reports (an interview with Dog's Eye View's Peter Stuart), essays (``How to Avoid Prom Night Blues'') and contests (with CD prizes).
BOX: Signs of intelligent on-line life (see text)
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. Life|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Jun 20, 1996|
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