Originally published in the May 1998 issue of The Silicon Alley Reporter
March was a cruel month for the Web content industry. Everywhere it seemed new signs came up that content might not be something that is doable online. At Total NY (wwwtotalny.com), a black page announced the sign-off: “Everything Must Go,” it screamed in blood red letters.
Meanwhile, a few clicks away, the happy fun face that once graced the front page of Word (www.word.com) seemed to be crying, its content frozen in time along with Charged (www.charged.com), its sister publication.
In the news category, Newsworks (www.newsworks.com), the site born out of several newspapers’ fears of competition on the Net, took its journalistic detachment to the ultimate level: “We will no longer feature packages of news and feature stories edited by Newsworks editors.”
Humor site Spanker (www.spanker.com), meanwhile, got its last laugh by posting – among other things – a lamenting picture of “Greatest American Hero” star, William Katt.
In contrast, across the country, Jerry Yang, CEO of Yahoo!, was addressing the Internet World audience, saying that the switch from search engine to media company had probably saved Yahoo! over the long run.
Trapped between those conflicting messages, many on the Web seemed confused. Would content die? Was this proof that it was impossible to run a profitable Web-published magazine?
If the demise of those properties proved one thing, it is that Web business is not that different from regular business – Web-based companies are required to make money at one time or another. It seems that time has arrived and investors are now cutting their losses, much as they would do with a print-based business. While our industry was shocked by the news of those companies closing their doors, let’s not forget that the same thing happens all the time in the print industry. As someone who has straddled the fence between print and online publishing for the past several years, I’ve developed a certain immunity to publication death.
Let’s just look back to two years ago: It was an auspicious time for the Web; new online publications were flourishing right and left and a new Net-related print publication seemed to pop up every week.
Since then, many of the print guys closed their doors: Cybersurfer Digest (edited by the publisher of SAR) didn’t survive past its first year. NetGuide was folded into Windows magazine. Internet World and Web Week were merged into a single publication. In the consumer market, titles such as The Net, The Web, and Intemet Underground came and went.
Did people say that print was dead when those magazines disappeared? No, they pointed to the fact there weren’t enough advertising revenues to support all of them.
And that’s exacfly what is happening to the Web nowadays. Publishing is really simple, when you think about it: Give the readers the content they want, get them to read your magazine more and more often, and sell advertising against it or sell subscriptions to it if people are willing to pay for it.
A lot of the publications that died failed to produce when investors screamed “show me the money!” last year to people who thought money was no object. While they may have been a bit hasty in their decision (after all, it takes three to five years for a print publication to break even), one can hardly fault them.
Let’s hope, however, that this lesson will not be lost on other online content publishers out there. If you’re in that business, keep an eye on your bottom line, don’t hesitate to stop publishing material that doesn’t attract readers, and hire good adverusing sales people. As one Internet World attendee lamented at the last New York show, “this is now big business.”
In the meantime, let’s not forget another little thing. In 1994, no one was making money on Web content Today, at least some sites are generating revenue, an early testament that content can succeed. if the very recent past has taught us anything, it’s that anyone can set up a site and stumble upon a content model that might actually work.