Magazines enter cyberspace, more or less

MAGAZINES

July 31, 1994|By Scott L. Powers | Scott L. Powers,Boston Globe

The action in the magazine industry these days has nothing to do with paper and ink. From Time to Backpacker and even Mad, online magazines are hotter than the weather. As their delivery service, publishers are using commercial computer networks such as CompuServe and the aggressively expanding America Online (AOL), which has close to 40 magazines or newsletters available.

At $3.50 an hour on AOL, connect-time rates don't make reading a magazine such as Time a real bargain, especially during heavy-use periods when the network slows considerably. But Time junkies can read the magazine Sunday, before it hits the newsstand on Monday or the mailbox by snail mail on Tuesday or even Wednesday. This speed enhances the shelf life of a news weekly such as Time, which has had freshness problems in the video age and since the arrival of USA Today.

Typically, online versions of magazines offer the text from all or most of the current issue, plus features such as chat (reader-to-reader), message boards (reader-to-magazine), expert advice areas, archive access and other services through which the magazine staff can communicate directly with readers. The first official explanation of Time's controversial O.J. Simpson cover was through its online edition.

But with all those enhancements and the enjoyment information surfers can get by riding different waves of news, the technology isn't there to make an online version of a magazine more valuable than the print version. The Aug. 1 issue of Time is a good example.

Computers, modems and phone lines are great at sending text efficiently, but images, especially photographs and page designs, can take many minutes or even hours when sent to the equipment typically in homes. Words are the lifeblood of magazines, but as television demonstrates, images and the way they are presented are essential to effective communications.

Books underscore the ease with which words can be read off printed pages when compared to flickering computer screens. Right now, with the exception of some icons, most online services -- even the new and elegantly designed e-World from Apple -- can't combine complex images and text. US News offers its cover and some illustrations as separate downloads, but most magazines, such as Time, offer few, if any, images and seldom with the text.

The cover story in the Aug. 1 Time is the tragedy in Rwanda. Nancy Gibbs' report is moving and colorful, but the opening two pages, with a huge picture of a scared, crying child reaching for a bloodied woman's body -- supported by the bold headline "Cry the Forsaken Country" -- tells the story in another, equally vital way.

On the next page, a map helps locate where the refugee exodus is taking place, and, deeper inside the story, more of Luc DeLahaye's photos chronicle the horrific death and suffering. On AOL, the same story is found only through the title "COVER: RWANDA: REFUGEE CRISIS." There are no pictures, no page design to enhance the story.

A magazine's appeal is often tied to its identity, as those who have followed Tina Brown from Tatler to Vanity Fair and then to the New Yorker know. This identity or image comes not only from the bylines and words, but from how the page is designed.

There are prototypes of online publications at MIT's Media Lab and elsewhere that combine not just images, but moving images with text. As it now stands, the online magazine is little more than a vehicle for sampling -- the circulation tool publishers use to attract subscribers. But until the prototype technology is as common as the VCR, the printed magazine seems worth the wait.

*

Jane and Michael Stern have their taste buds on the road to real food again, this time in Gourmet (August) as they tour Maine to compile the "Lobster Roll Honor Roll." Why? Because "Maine is the only state in America that features a picture of cooked food on its license plate."

As the Sterns rated lobster rolls, they also rated the places they were created, savoring one in the middle of a gaggle of outlet stores ("no one has yet proposed that the license plate's 'Vacationland' be changed to 'Outletland' "). Their journey takes them to a half-dozen or so places, including the Maine Diner in Wells; Mabel's Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport; President Bush's hangout, the Clam Shack; and in Winter Harbor the Donut Hole +, where the Sterns combined doughnuts, blueberry pie and lobster rolls at 9 in the morning. Hope the coffee was strong.

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