The COOK Report on Internet -> NREN Volume 2, Number 11, February 1994 Gordon Cook, Editor and Publisher [SEE SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION AT END OF FILE]
We describe Chris Locke's ideas about the future of electronic publishing and the Internet. Locke notes that most publishers have so far thought only in terms of transferring the standard Gutenberg hard copy paradigm to electronic format. He is not impressed by the ability to read Time or the New York Times online.
He also describes the controlled circulation technical publication as an endangered species. Why? Because as Internet growth and technical capability continues to increase, companies will so begin to question spending large dollar amounts for one time non dynamic hard copy advertisements. He foresees the ability to mount text and visual data on an internet gopher or web server at an order of magnitude less cost as an attractive alternative.
We conclude with Locke's description of MecklerWeb the commercial service he is launching for Mecklermedia. This service will offer companies a turnkey service for establishing an internet presence via the ability to announce goods and services on a World Wide Web based server accessible via such browsing tools as Mosaic. Additional services coordinated by industry based coalitions are planned.
THE INTERNET AS CORPORATE MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS PLATFORM
ANALYSIS OF WEAKNESSES OF TRADITIONAL PUBLISHERS' APPROACH TO INTERNET USE EVOLVES INTO MECKLERWEB
New Service - Announced Here for First Time - Has Potential to Change Commercial Use of Internet
Editor's Note: This article is the result of a conversation begun at the Mecklermedia Internet World conference in New York in early December and extended by voice and email over the next six weeks with Christopher Locke, former Editor of CMP's Internet Business Report. While the basic ideas are Locke's, many of the contextual interpretations are ours. During the course of these exchanges Locke developed some further insights that very quickly grew into the plan for MecklerWeb announced at the end of this article. At the same time he accepted a position as "General Manager, Internet Group" for Mecklermedia, publishers of Internet World magazine and presenters of the Internet World Conferences.
Old Paradigms Don't Transfer Gracefully to New Media
As large companies and entire industries debate the strategy that will determine the role they play in the Internet and in NII, none has more to gain -- or to lose -- than traditional publishing firms. The strategic question is how they will structure and implement their roles as electronic publishers. Their record so far has not been impressive. The software companies that defined electronic publishing a decade ago failed to demonstrate how their technology revolutionized anything beyond procedure. Most so-called electronic publishing applications have continued to focus on the production of paper pages. And most of the core assumptions have been much too closely tied to the Gutenberg era. In many ways, electronic publishing only masquerades as new technology while remaining bound to the world view of the printing press.
In contrast, the Internet offers the potential for genuine electronic publishing. Rather than being focused solely on the electronic production of hardcopy manuals and periodical literature, the Internet additionally enables full electronic dissemination. This is a critical difference. Why? Not only because it accelerates the delivery of information, but more importantly, because of the global audience to which it makes that information available. Beyond the chronological accretion of postings in USENET newsgroups, more selective and structured publishing mechanisms such as Gopher and World Wide Web are proliferating with amazing speed across the net. And their potential is not bound to just-emerging technology or vague hopes about possible audiences. While the technology will undoubtedly get much better very rapidly from this point out, it is perfectly viable today. The audience, growing at a phenomenal rate, already numbers in the tens of millions.
Locke sees the view of the Internet from the traditional publishing perspective as falling into three major categories, explored further below. He points out that while any such categorization is subject to over-generalization, these basic groupings may form a useful first-cut analysis that can help serious publishers -- indeed all companies considering an online presence that will take full advantage of the trends just defined -- to select more viable options than those they may currently be considering.
More in keeping with the "vision" of which this class of companies seem capable are bet-hedging alliances with old-paradigm providers such as CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online. The alliances are bet-hedging in the sense that, if electronic delivery ever does amount to anything -- which many of these publishing firms strongly doubt -- at least these online vendors offer far more recognizable business models, and hence more comfort than does the Internet. Online information vendors such as CompuServe and America Online have leveraged their potent public relations machines to try to prove they represent the wave of the future. However, the pre-packaged, "content provider" model they tend to adopt sounds a lot like what we hear, ad nauseam, about how the new world of interactive TV is going to give us everything we could ever hope for Real Soon Now.
According to Locke, this disingenuous top down approach fails to take into account why the Internet is so suddenly popular. Its popularity rests precisely on the fact that it represents the opposite of top-down decisions by powerful media organizations as to what constitutes "legitimate" knowledge, opinion, analysis and perspective. The New York Times' motto -- "All the News That's Fit to Print" -- is a good indicator of this mindset. In contrast to the content provider model, the Internet is based on a model in which subscribers and providers are often one and the same, frequently "consuming" and "providing" information in the same interactive session.
However, the content provider model plays well to large publishing outfits who often recognize their own received wisdom flatteringly reflected within its seldom explored axioms. Core to this approach to electronic publishing is the notion that publishers can lock up market channels, and that such positioning then enables them to make their real money from advertisers. Publishers have an understandably hard time letting go of this habitual pattern, for the simple reason that they have profited so handsomely from it.
In the global marketplace, positioning for mass-market hegemony misses the fact that, in most other business arenas today, economies of scale have long since given way to economies of scope. The Internet is a perfect example of such a truly global market. It is entirely unclear how large publishers can profit as advertising mediators to mass markets that don't want to pay for such advertising -- and on the other hand, collect revenues from advertisers who are quickly discovering they can establish much cheaper and far more effective direct channels to specific niche markets via the Internet (more on this point below).
Other than timorous alliances with non-Internet online service providers, the most popular stance of this group seems to be "wait and see." The results are largely predictable. The big computing companies of the 60s and 70s were almost without exception losers in the PC revolution of the 80s. And for the same reasons: the new paradigm failed to match the models in which they faithfully believed and their consequently skewed expectations. Blind arrogance is not simply a turn of phrase. Such firms literally cannot see -- they often cannot psychologically afford to let themselves see -- the next market. Few if any of these publishers will win in the changes that are coming, and many will be astounded to find themselves fighting to survive after missing out on the critical learning curve today's Internet presents.
One of the primary factors these publishers seem unable to grasp is the opportunity the Internet provides for advertisers to reach their intended audiences without the need for the market mediation that publishers have traditionally claimed as their exclusive ability to deliver. Say Company A pays Publishers B, C, D and E a total of $5 million per year to reach its market. Additionally, Company A must pay a non-trivial amount to determine that these publishers do in fact, as they claim, have the ear of their particular market, then far more to produce and mail corporate communications to advertising respondents. Now suppose that Company A begins to realize that a significant portion of its current market is either already online or fast moving in that direction.
What happens when Company A decides that, for a fraction of these costs, it can mount state-of-the-art multimedia information servers directly on the Internet? The knee-jerk response from publishers is that this scenario will never come to pass. The real question is how much they'll bet on it. Many publishers today are betting their entire businesses on the hunch that radical change is impossible in their industry. Maybe they should look more closely at the experience of other industries in which such bets have been disastrously lost in recent memory.
High-tech trade publishers are especially at risk in this regard, since the demographic constitution of the net is historically skewed toward the technical. Everyone accessing the Internet - regardless of how green -- is already using a computer and a modem at a minimum. The content of such publications has often been a thinly disguised excuse for the real content they carry: advertising. Separated from this, the editorial matter might not be worth paying for at all -- and indeed is not paid for today in the "controlled circulation" model so popular with the trade press. Can such publishers continue to offer their traditional high-dollar mediation to "owned" market channels via the Internet? No, because they don't own the channel in the same manner that a databased mailing list confers ownership.
Such firms will enable companies to achieve powerful market presence on the Internet by helping them to organize unique and valuable corporate information, select appropriate delivery modalities, and attract virtual communities of interest to their servers. The "advertisers" involved need not fit the Internet's typical high-tech model, either. Expect to see such market presence established in the reasonably near term by many purveyors of non-tech-oriented mainstream goods and services. The winners here will be those publishers adopting the basic attitude that this challenge is going to entail some very hard work, but that they are building the ground floor of a whole new industry.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the companies most likely to prosper in this new arena are those with the least cognitive baggage from the Old Boy School of Big Publishing. Interestingly, it is precisely these Old Boys, typified by Compuserve and AOL, that want to be commercial Internet alternatives. A key part of their strategy seems to be to "lock in" as content providers for the New National Data Superhighway Information Infrastructure (drum roll, flag flourish) as many big traditional publishers as possible.
In contrast to much of this criticism, traditional publishing is exploring some very worthwhile directions involving online editorial interaction with readers. Publications have long requested reader feedback, and some have actually paid attention to it. However, the hardcopy "Letters to the Editor" mechanism draws far less response than might be imagined at many publications. The relatively few letters actually published serves to discourage many who might otherwise share their views on editorial content. Also, the postal mechanism is slow and involves the usual search for the proper address, and the required stamps and stationery.
However having editors accessible online is a big plus, not just for readers, but for publishers as well. Wired magazine, for example, has done a great job here, and because of that publication's wild success, the formula is being emulated in more mainstream publications. Beyond e-mail, reader forums in which editors and writers participate are moving in the direction of genuine corporate presence -- the corporation in this case being the business organization that produces the publication. As in any such online enterprise, active discourse is the key to effective presence. Participation generates visibility while intelligent participation generates positive visibility. Sometimes reader feedback online can attempt to correct editorial misinformation.
The Editor recently incurred an interesting example of how this phenomenon can work when, on the Well, Dave Hughes, the nationally known Cursor Cowboy, took on Philip Elmer-DeWitt the Time magazine reporter who had recently written a major story on the net in Time. The debate between Hughes and Elmer-DeWitt centers on the latter's acceptance of the assertion by the National Science Foundation that it was getting out of the business of funding the network when in reality the NSF is preparing to spend far more money on the net than ever before. Hughes actually embarrassed Elmer-DeWitt into coming to the Editor. We tried to educate him. He assured us that our message had been heard. The next few months should show whether his public position on these issues has changed.
But, to return to more basic issues, Locke points out that we should remember that these efforts are made for business and not public service reasons. Therefore the channel through which they travel is critical. While instituting such conversations via CompuServe or America Online is certainly better than not having them at all, the Internet is best suited to such initiatives, because it interconnects almost everyone. While any CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy, GEnie or Delphi user can exchange e-mail with Internet addresses, the far greater population of Internet users cannot access online forums on these commercial services without first establishing a customer relationship with each of them.
A so far missed opportunity, Locke says, is for a well-designed, well-marketed commercial Internet "commons" rich enough in its content and organization to attract high traffic from users and a critical mass of commercial publishers. (When we asked him to define more precisely what he meant by this statement, he said that we should watch what happens over the next several months with the MecklerWeb project he is about to launch.)
Much earlier on in our discussions, he had pointed out that in contrast to the Big Boys, truly viable candidates for success look more like the small but agile players such as O'Reilly & Associates (with its Global Network Navigator), The Internet Company (with its Electronic Newsstand), and Mecklermedia (with its roots in the genuine information world -- through its library affiliations -- and well established beachhead in Internet-related publishing and conferences).
Locke believes that successful electronic publishers will use these and similar tools to help companies orchestrate their net presence in altogether new ways -- not as in-your-face advertising, but as well structured value-added information about products, services and issues of interest to specific markets. By offering clients high-traffic cyber-malls in which to present themselves to customers, these publishers will also lower many current hurdles to commercial Internet development. But success will not be assured to those who simply grasp that this scenario constitutes a "Good Idea." As in most new businesses -- especially in emerging industries -- solid marketing skills will be required to forge the many relationships necessary to create critical mass: a "publication space" informationally rich enough to attract hundreds of thousands of Internet users.
The firms we are describing here will be neither publishers nor advertising agencies in the traditional usage of those terms, though they will combine aspects of both. Paradoxically perhaps, the thin line between editorial content and commercial message may begin to blur even more than it already has in the trade pubs, where claims of objectivity are seldom entirely believable anyway. In this new mode, "advertisers" will not increase their credibility through hyperbole; instead, they will best serve their business objectives by demonstrating deep understanding of issues affecting their markets, and helping readers to make sense of developments in their respective domains of operation. As in the Internet as we know it today, respect will accrue to those who are most helpful -- and that respect should, in enough cases to count, translate directly into sales. Needless to say, caveat emptor will still apply, but buyers should be more, not less, informed in this scenario than they are today with a handful of advertising-based hardcopy publishers telling them what's what.
Locke pointed out to us that he reminded readers in the premiere issue of Internet Business Report, that A.J. Liebling once remarked that "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." It is unfortunate that Liebling, a staunch defender of the First Amendment, could not have lived to savor the delicious irony his words have assumed in the context of the Internet. The capital outlay of the the Gannets and the Murdochs is no longer necessary to make this work. Also obsolete are the old-guard assumptions they bring to the "party." In contrast, the online publishers we end up paying for "content services" will be those who have understood the mind and heart of the Internet and have made common cause with its best interests. Most of those players have yet to emerge, but will earn their success the hard way -- and deserve every penny of what they reap.
A fair slice of corporate America is quite turned on about what it's heard so far about the Internet. However, when companies begin to explore how they can achieve even entry-level presence in this medium, they are confronted with a daunting, and ultimately discouraging, set of hurdles. Most firms cannot afford to devote multiple person-years to investigating how they can best get up and running on the net. MecklerWeb will offer a very different means of becoming a part of the commercial Internet.
It will be a World-Wide-Web-based commercial service offering companies Internet presence for a fixed fee. No previous knowledge of the Internet will be assumed, though counsel will be available as to what kind of corporate presence is likely to be most effective. Mecklermedia business partners will assure high-level network capabilities, professional system maintenance, and fast conversion of electronic or hardcopy documents (annual reports, to take one example). Additionally, since the CPU and storage on which MecklerWeb is run will be co-located with a major Internet service provider, this Mecklermedia business partner will provide corporate customers with any level of physical network connectivity they may require.
A minimal annual subscription fee will entitle Internet users to access MecklerWeb and its contents, most of which will be freely accessible at no additional charge. Although we understand Locke's reasons for doing this we urge him to proceed in such a way as to not raise any barriers in front of individual net users who may want to see what MecklerWeb offers. This Web space will be partitioned by topical domains of interest moderated and facilitated by professionals in each area. Existing professional associations will form the nuclei around which corporations will group themselves (e.g., pharmaceutical companies around the American Medical Association). These associations will share in revenues they help to generate by attracting commercial sponsors that have a strong interest in reaching their memberships. (For example, to name an area close to the Editor's interest: a Russian partner could become the intermediary for Russian businesses or individuals with services they'd want to present on MecklerWeb. In addition to data, that organization would make available one or more talented moderators to answer user questions and serve as intermediaries between sources in Russia and users in the rest of the world.)
Joining Locke as systems architect in this effort is Keith Porterfield. Former Technical Editor of Internet Business Report, he was also Systems Manager at Avalanche Development Company, a leading developer of software technology for SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language, the international standard for electronic documents upon which the World-Wide Web is based.)
Porterfield told us that he would play a catalytic role in the creation and management of Meckler Web. "We're not talking about technological breakthroughs, because we're going to be using existing systems. The breakthroughs will be cognitive. Most of the Web servers on the Net have been built by people who are essentially programmers and have little experience in building hypertext. As a result they are difficult to navigate. With MecklerWeb we're going to be pulling together hypertext expertise, a wide variety of domain (subject) expertise, and commercial interests. It's analogous to architecture, hence my title.
I may not be doing the working drawings, and I'm not the electrician, but rather I'm responsible for the grand design and putting together the team that will erect the building. I don't get very excited about technology per se, but I do get turned on by what can be done with it."
We wanted to know why the choice of the Web tool. He replied: "There are essentially two ways of approaching network resource discovery: searching and browsing. In order to search, you have to know both what you're looking for and how it's going to be classified. Now that's fine for doing a review of the literature, but you're not going to create any new connections that way. Browsing, on the other hand, is serendipitous -- you start seeing unexpected relationships between things. What's exciting about hypertext, and why we've chosen to use World-Wide Web, is that it combines the best of both worlds. You can search and browse within the same system, plus you've got transparent gateways into all the other Internet tools (ftp, telnet, gopher, etc.). Moreover On MecklerWeb, you'll also be tapping into the knowledge of the domain experts who'll be helping us structure the information."
"The multimedia aspects of WWW are fascinating, and we'll certainly be taking advantage of them, but it's critical to keep in mind that the vast majority of Internet users are sitting in front of an ASCII-based screen. Far too many of the current Web servers are set up in such a way that they're only useful to people running Xmosaic on Silicon Graphics boxes with T1 Internet pipes. A little design effort up front can make the same information available to everybody without sacrificing the bells and whistles for those with high-end client systems and high-speed Internet connections."
According to Locke, "The plan is essentially simple. It offers companies "one-stop shopping" for a commercially-oriented space in which to test the waters of the Internet at low cost and low risk. It claims to be unique in only one critical dimension: its approach to offering a nucleus of experts who can quickly solve the full range of problems associated with Internet marketing. If the efforts we have seen to date represent the best we are likely to encounter, then the prospects for commercial Internet development are slim indeed. The two criteria that must be satisfied to make this work are corporate credibility and critical mass. So far, both remain standing challenges that MecklerWeb intends to meet head on.
Interested readers can contact Christopher Locke at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is currently negotiating with potential business partners and actively signing up companies and associations that will participate in MecklerWeb's projected mid-year launch.