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Hot on the Web

Welcome to the jungle

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 4, 2008
(Issue 2601, Virtual Lives)

And so here we are, in the new ComputorEdge – the online-only version.

Many of you have only been reading CE on the Web anyway, so it's no big deal. Others have you have been picking up ComputorEdge (and The Byte Buyer before that) for a decade or two from your local library, computer store or bookstore.

Change is hard – I'd be lying if I wrote here that I was happy to see the print edition go away, along with the jobs of some folks I've worked with for 15 or more years.

But I'd be sadder to see CE die altogether, and if Jack can keep it going online, then change is, indeed, good.

Besides, ComputorEdge has had an online presence for almost two decades. The old ComputorEdge BBS allowed readers to post questions to CE writers and other, more experienced, readers.

Plus, the predecessor of this column, the old San Diego Online column, goes back at least 20 years – where we followed the goings on of San Diego's dial-up bulletin board systems.

So ComputorEdge being online isn't that different.

The new economics of publishing

\Like many publications, ComputorEdge is caught in a technological transition. Every industry has them from time to time: Book publishers experienced a biggie in the mid-1400s when Johannes Gutenberg rolled out his new printing press. Up to that point, all books had been produced by hiring scribes to copy a new book from an existing copy or carving printing lates by hand from wood blocks. Thus, books were expensive and rare. The result was that there was a fairly small canon of a few thousand titles in circulation in the whole world, and most businessmen who produced books for their clients tended to offer existing books only. New titles were rare, even in the late Middle Ages. Most of the books available were reproductions of the classic Greek and Roman books, handed down through the ages, along with the Bible and Christian philosophy.

When the printing press came along with its metal type, suddenly once you built the templates you could run off a large number of books before the type on your plates began to wear down, resulting in an illegible copy.

While the first presses still concentrated on offering more affordable editions of the above books for the rising merchant (soon to be middle) class hungry for the luxury goods previously available only to the rich, it was soon apparent that with a larger pool of readers there was a greater demand for books of all kinds. Soon, new books were being published in addition to the classics. Today, some 10,000 new titles are published each year in the United States alone. (How many of them are worth reading is another question.)

The broadcast networks had to transition from radio to a business model with radio and television some 60 years ago.

And so today, newspaper and magazine publishers are having to figure out how to run a profitable business in a period when it is the Internet that's changing the rules.

However, it may be that the current transition is more profound than the move from handwritten books (called codexes) to printed books, or from radio to TV. In both of these cases, the basic business model didn't change: Publishers still sold books – albeit for less money, but their overhead was less and they could sell a far greater volume. Broadcasters still sold advertising time – it's just that the ads appeared on TV instead of (or at least in addition to) radio.

But with the advent of online information on the Internet, primarily the World Wide Web, nobody's sure quite how to model their business plan.

With magazines and newspapers, you generate most of your income from selling advertising space. But you also make some off of selling subscribers. (Although there are also free distribution publications, like the former print edition of ComputorEdge that generate all their income from advertising.)

You charge your advertisers a fee based on the size of the ad and how many readers you have.

That model isn't working nearly as well online as it did in the print world – at least, not from the publishers' point of view.

In the print world, there is a clearly defined and easy to recognize hierarchy. The New York Times is able to charge much more for an ad than a local newspaper, which can still charge more than a weekly newspaper or a college paper. This is true because the Times is a well-established commodity , whose readership is sought after by advertisers.

And the advertisers know that putting an ad in the paper will work. It's a business model that's existed for over a century – there's a reason your Sunday paper is chock-full of ads placed by local real estate agents and new car dealerships. It works.

But what about online?

The costs are so much lower to publish an online outlet than a print version that there has been an explosion in the number of online "publications." You don't have to buy paper or ink, nor do you have to pay postage or hire someone to deliver your finished product. Lowering the threshold to publish has vastly increased the number of people who are publishing – including yours truly, who publishes a literary magazine online at I could never afford to do that if I had to print up copies.

But with that explosion in the number of Web sites offering the sorts of news, analysis and entertainment that were formerly only available in various print publications has come a massive state of confusion from advertisers about just what they should do online. The rules that seemed to clear and absolute in the print world are hard to even find online, much less follow.

Can ComputorEdge publisher Jack Dunning make a go of ComputorEdge in an online-only edition?

He's betting he can, and I'm certainly rooting for him.