Computer users' nearest newsstand is in cyberspace

March 09, 1994|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

Without subscribing to a single magazine or visiting a newsstand, it's easy to:

* Read the latest issue of Time.

* Exchange ideas with editors of the New Republic.

* Compare automobile ratings from Consumer Reports.

* Get woodworking tips from the Family Handyman.

That's because those magazines and others, ranging from Kiplinger's Personal Finance to Road & Track, have become available electronically through commercial on-line services such as Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online. Magazines post their stories on-line and, in some cases, open new channels of communication among editors, writers and readers.

For those who don't mind reading from a screen, the availability of magazines on-line is valuable. Anyone with a computer and modem can subscribe to an on-line service for between $8.95 to $14.95 a month.

Because the on-line services are a precursor to the much-ballyhooed information superhighway, publishers are hustling to get in on the action. Computer publications such as PC Magazine and MacWorld began the trend, but such titles as Disney Adventures and Popular Photography are not far behind.

"It seems like there's a new magazine going on-line just about every week," says Judy Jorgensen, a vice president of the Magazine Publishers Association.

"Our big agenda is to get our feet wet in the information superhighway," says William Allman, a science writer at U.S. News and World Report, who manages the magazine's forum on CompuServe.

Magazines are experimenting with on-line distribution in various

ways. All place some, if not all, of their articles on-line, either as they are published or a few days before. Time and U.S. News both post their stories on Sundays, a day or two before those magazines reach most subscribers by mail.

Many publications make back issues available. By entering areas devoted to Consumer Reports on Prodigy or CompuServe, subscribers can search, by product category, the consumer ratings and recommendations for clothes dryers, instant cameras, house paints or walking shoes. For the dedicated consumer, this saves a trip to the local library.

But what's most unusual about reading magazines on-line is the chance to interact, electronically, with editors, writers and other readers. Most magazines have created message boards where readers can ask questions or join in discussions of issues or articles.

The results are as varied as your local newsstand. Kids who read Disney Adventures on America Online post messages seeking pen pals or making lists of "things that bug me." (Sample answer: "At church, when a lady throws her voice high and thinks she is the best singer." The New Republic message boards on America Online invite discussion of Bosnia and Oliver North's U.S. Senate campaign. In a more practical vein, readers of the Family Handyman on CompuServe join in on-line bulletin boards to trade tips in such categories as "Using and Buying Tools," "Appliance Repair" and "Paint and Wallpaper."

Tom Mandel, a futurist at SRI International in San Jose, Calif., and a consultant to Time, says few magazines are making much money on-line, but most are gaining valuable information about the potential of electronic publishing.

"It's time for us to start experimenting and learn what it means to have an interactive magazine," Mr. Mandel says. "What does it mean for how readers interact with writers? And what kind of business plan is going to make sense?"

For a bureaucratized, sometimes-stodgy publication, Time presents a fairly sophisticated face. It has created a space called an Online Odeon that enables newsmakers, its writers and readers to discuss current events. Among those who have appeared: evangelist Billy Graham and author Pete Hamill.

Time's rival, U.S. News, scored an on-line coup in January by persuading Vice President Al Gore to appear on CompuServe for an electronic conference. The U.S. News forum also uses the virtually unlimited space available on-line to provide information that goes far beyond what's in the print version of the magazine -- its users can call up the full text of health-care bills before Congress, read President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address or download the administration's policy on the information superhighway.

U.S. News writer Mr. Allman says other writers at the magazine have been given free modems, software and on-line time to encourage them to get closer to readers. "People have been really willing to respond to readers' queries and messages," he says. Journalists who go on-line are learning to tap the resources of the on-line work when they research stories.

The danger of electronic publishing, of course, is that readers who know they can get a magazine on-line may elect not to buy the printed version.

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