Magazines flood online services

August 17, 1994|By Elizabeth Sanger | Elizabeth Sanger,Newsday

Last February, U.S. News & World Report devoted eight pages to the various health care plans being debated in Congress. Readers who craved more could turn on their computers and read the plans in full from the magazine's library online.

This month's Self includes articles on violence and gun control and invites readers to debate the topics on the Well, a small but widely known electronic service based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Each month, the Yoga Journal makes its table of contents and a sampling of current stories available electronically, hoping to attract new subscribers.

In the past year, swept up in the fascination of the much-hyped information highway, hundreds of consumer magazines have joined the electronic newsstand in cyberspace.

Many are finding a receptive audience. Time magazine has logged more than 2.5 million visitors to its America Online site and expects to pass 3 million when it hits the one-year mark in September. Jon Katz, media columnist for New York magazine, has received nearly 5,000 pieces of electronic mail in three months. The Electronic Newsstand, which features magazines' current tables of contents, a sample of articles and subscription offers, was launched a year ago with eight titles. Now it boasts 150.

"It's amazing how crowded it's gotten," Time spokesman Robert Pondiscio says. "We were in Montana, off on a prairie by ourselves, a year ago. Now it's like being on I-95."

About 200 magazines are available online in some form for computer users who connect to information services, and more than 100 magazines have produced multimedia CD-ROMs, says James Guthrie, executive vice president of marketing development for the Magazine Publishers of America.

Magazines generally have been quicker than newspapers to embrace the emerging technologies because they have national audiences and are specialized. People interested in home decorating, fitness or O.J. Simpson can connect and converse, even if they live across the country or around the world.

But profits are harder to come by. While magazines concede they haven't made much, if any, money from electronic publishing, they still aren't willing to ignore it, for fear they will be shut out of the next hot market. "We're keeping our finger in the pool, but I don't see anything emerging as a monstrous business for a number of years," says Fred Drasner, president of U.S. News, which has a presence on CompuServe. "I still think people are more comfortable reading in print than on a terminal."

Reading a magazine electronically is more expensive and cumbersome than in print; it involves phone bills and fees to information services. But electronic publishing is well-suited for searching data bases of back issues, opening up communication between readers and writers, providing new information and sponsoring live forums with newsmakers.

So far, most information services don't include photos or graphics on the same screen with text and don't have the feel of magazines. Many are upgrading, however, and new services with greater capabilities are starting. But another big problem is how to run advertisements. Merrill Lynch and Compaq computer placed ads on Time Online and Saab advertises in U.S. News's area, but computer users have to seek them out. Magazines are figuring out how to price them.

Times Mirror Magazines thinks electronic classified advertising would be an "obvious fit" with its titles if they go online. Skiing and Ski Magazine could display ads for mountain lodgings available the following week, which could be booked with a few keystrokes. Print magazines, by contrast, are prepared months in advance.

Currently, most commercial information services give magazines about 15 percent of the revenues derived from the time spent in their area of the service. Fed up with meager returns, some magazine groups, such as Time Inc. and Times Mirror Co., are considering starting their own services and bypassing CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy and the like. Ziff-Davis Publishing, the leading computer magazine publisher, is starting an electronic service for its titles and others called Interchange, and will let participating magazines price their own services.

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