Print publishers want to stay ahead of the online game, Alasdair Reid
Lots of publishers have been dabbling with the Internet in the last year
or so - everyone from technical business magazines to the Conde Nast
glossies and the major national newspapers. It’s all desperately
fashionable but there’s always been a feeling that most of the players
are there merely because everyone else is.
Do they really believe that online publishing will be a mainstream part
of their businesses?
They may be about to find out sooner than they’d anticipated. The
Internet is great in theory, but its emergence as a mass medium is still
seen as a rather distant prospect. It needs someone to come along and do
what Alan Sugar and Rupert Murdoch did for satellite broadcasting.
Someone, or something, like British Telecom, in fact. Last week, BT
announced that it was preparing to launch an easy access system for the
Internet aimed at residential and small business users. It won’t be
cheaper than existing systems but that, argues BT, isn’t the point. BT
hopes that it will begin to generate mass interest because it is a
trusted big-name company and its arrival will help to ‘legitimise’ the
market - in other words, convince people that it should be taken
It can also put its considerable marketing expertise behind the venture
and is planning a significant campaign to launch BT Net, with direct
response press ads through O&M Direct.
It’s not going to spark an overnight revolution - you already have to
own a powerful personal computer - but it could be a big stride in the
right direction. Is this good news for publishers? Or should it fill
them with alarm? Is their bluff about to be called?
IPC Magazines has been an enthusiastic adopter of the new technologies.
It participated in the initial stages of the BT Colchester interactive
trial and then transferred its loyalties to the rival Videotron
Cambridge test. Many of its titles are available online and others, like
the New Musical Express, are due to follow suit. Mike Matthew, chief
executive of IPC Magazines, admits that there’s some truth in the notion
of publishers getting involved because they are ‘scared to miss the bus’
altogether. But he argues that, for publishers, the opportunities
outweigh the threats.
‘We like BT’s initiative and it’s good that things are moving forward
quicker than anyone could have predicted even six months ago,’ he
states. ‘The real knack will be to be truly aware of how quickly it’s
moving on the consumer front. Yes, you can miss the bus, but it would be
equally dangerous to get too far ahead of yourself. There is still the
potential to lose your shirt on this. We are well placed. Much of what
we do on the New Scientist is commercially viable and though it is tiny
in revenue terms compared with the rest of our business we continue to
take it very seriously indeed.’
Another company which does have undoubted commitment - both from a
content and a commercial point of view - is Conde Nast. Colin Lansley,
the company’s director of special projects, says that BT’s aim of taking
the Internet mass-market will bring its own problems. ‘Capacity will be
an issue and content providers will have to decide whether to have one
site or a number located around the world. But the important thing
remains content. It has to be superb because that is what will separate
you from the rest.’
Lansley concurs that BT’s commercial nous could add a fresh impetus to
the Internet, and says Conde Nast is ready to capitalise on that. ‘We’ve
developed a lot of expertise on the commercial side. We look forward to
a day when everyone has access - and it will not be as far off as you
think. As far as we are concerned, the commercial opportunities are