Originally created 11/14/97

E-zines: A window on people and their interests



Gary Vey and Linda de Jesus, graphics artists in Simsbury, Conn., were pleased with their success in creating Web sites for businesses, but they wanted a way to draw in more visitors.

Their solution? Publish an electronic magazine.

The result was ViewZone, a slick monthly that chronicles Connecticut life and business. Readership has been building steadily for 15 months.

"We try to have something for everybody so that our advertisers can get the best of the Internet," De Jesus said. "Putting up a Web site and thinking, `If you build it, they will come,' just doesn't work."

Freedom of the press, they say, belongs to the person that owns one. And these days, you can buy your own "press" for the cost of a personal computer and an Internet account.

Technology is giving thousands of people the chance to produce their own electronic magazines, or "e-zines." That's creating a boom in electronic publishing. From the bizarre to the marvelous to the ridiculous, it's out there on the Web someplace.

The increase in electronic publications is providing a fascinating window on people and their interests, said Josh Schroeter, director of strategic planning at Columbia University's Center for New Media.

"What is happening out there is just a reflection of the world," Schroeter said. "It's a reflection of every cause and interest group and constituency that exists. Because people are able to distribute information globally at almost no cost, you're seeing this plethora of information.

"It's probably more significant than the invention of the printing press. It means you no longer have to be a rich man with a printing press, or special rights to use the airwave spectrum, to distribute information globally. Practically anyone with a computer and a modem can be a publisher."

But along with the fun and freedom comes the publisher's headaches. Putting out a magazine - even an electronic one - can be a lot a work with no guarantee of return. Even big, comparatively well-funded operations are searching for the magic combination of content and advertising that will allow them to turn a profit.

Still, the promise is there. Some have already built businesses that rival traditional print publications for readership and, they hope eventually, profitability.

One example is Feed, a magazine founded in New York just two years ago by Stefanie Syman and Steve Johnson. For the first few months, Feed was essentially run out of the bedrooms of their apartments.

"We didn't really have an option. It never would have occurred to us to do a print magazine because we never could have afforded it," said Johnson, who has seen Feed grow into one of the biggest and most-respected electronic magazines on the Internet.

Even so, the magazine is not yet making enough money to break even, although it is well on its way with such well-heeled advertisers as IBM Corp. and Barnes & Noble.

"Our strategy was basically, let's run as lean as possible for as long as we can and build the Feed readership and the Feed brand. And then once we've established that, we can go out and raise some money based on the strength of that reputation," Johnson said.

Another early entrant to the e-zine scene is Salon, a hip and savvy blend of news comment, cultural critiques and arts and literary reviews.

Michael O'Donnell, Salon's president and publisher, said the Internet offers many advantages to electronic magazines over their traditional print counterparts.

"Our view is that publishing on the Web is a combination of the immediacy of broadcast television, the thoughtfulness of print and the interactivity of talk-radio," O'Donnell said.

That kind of flexibility came in handy when Princess Diana died after a late-night car accident. Within hours, Salon had online a complete package of stories and comment, something a print magazine could not hope to achieve.

At the same time, the magazine, its writers and its readers, began discussing the event via e-mail and in the "Table Talk" online forums.

Another advantage is that Web publishers create searchable archives of their back issues, so that readers can always find what they want. "It's really the best of all worlds," said O'Donnell. "It's like having a bookcase of all your favorite magazines from months gone by."

These features were so attractive that Microsoft jumped into the e-zine publishing business with a sophisticated product called Slate at www.slate.com. Run by former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, the magazine offers a balance of pop culture, politics and literary topics.

Although such high-profile sites now have an edge, many observers believe there's still plenty of room for small e-zines, especially those that serve a clearly defined market niche.

That sounds good to Steve Steinhardt, publisher of Online Magazine at www.online-magazine.com. Steinhardt started the New Haven, Conn., e-zine in 1995 and has been nurturing it along ever since, waiting for advertisers to follow.

To support the magazine, which focuses on computer- and Internet-related topics, Steinhardt has continued working as a commercial Internet-access provider. But he hopes one day the magazine publishing effort will pay off.

To those thinking of starting their own e-zine, he recommends thinking hard about the commitment, their revenue expectations and their expenses.

"Most people don't realize that good content comes from good writers and it's hard to find them," Steinhardt said. "To have editors and writers, you have to have a revenue stream to pay them. Otherwise you're going to be writing by yourself."

Not all e-zines have to be commercial efforts.

The Trincoll Journal, published by students at Hartford's Trinity College since 1992, is one of the oldest e-zines on the Internet. Current editor-in-chief Sally Bullock said the journal has tremendous freedom to pick its subjects and its writing style, options not always available in the traditional press. "I think that magazines on the Internet tend not to have as much censorship as published magazines do," she said.

A simple semiweekly text journal known as the Computer Underground Digest has been operating for seven years now without a budget or much of a staff.

One of the editors, Jim Thomas, a criminology professor at Northern Illinois University, said he sifts hundreds of e-mail messages each week looking for items to include in the publication, which is distributed to an estimated 500,000 readers. The cost of the newsletter is defrayed partly by the university, which hosts the CUD Web site at http://sun.soci.niu.edu/cudigest/, and partly by a volunteer who manages the mailing list.

Thomas said the technology makes it easier than ever to start electronic publications these days, but that it is increasingly difficult to get noticed amid all the other publications circulating on the Internet.

"I think it's much harder to get started because there's so much more out these days," he said. "Anybody can start it up, but getting the readership isn't that easy."

Still, Thomas wouldn't discourage anyone who thought he or she had a good idea for an e-zine from giving it a try. "Start small. Who is your audience? What ideas do you want to communciate with people? If you think you can do it on a regular basis, then go for it," he said.