As the Internet revolution continues to unfold, the attitude of the
international business media remains dominated by one factor: disunity.
From global news agencies to the giant newspaper and magazine groups on
both sides of the Atlantic, it’s hard to detect a common approach beyond
the need to have a presence on the Net. Attitudes to subscription and
registration vary wildly, as do policies on the advertising:editorial
ratio. As Peter Petre, executive editor of Fortune’s online edition,
puts it: ’Most big players understand they have to be in this, and
they’re determined to try - even if they don’t know what it is.’
The challenge, according to Steve Outing, the editor of Editor &
Publisher and columnist for Planetary News in the US, is ’to create
high-value stuff that’s worth paying for’. That’s one of the first
arguments a Website has to tackle: whether or not to charge for its
output. The online versions of magazines such as Forbes and Fortune are,
and insist they will remain, free. The Financial Times requires users to
register and thereby provide it with information about their spending
power. The Economist allows only non-subscribers to see about a third of
These different approaches are evidence of a multitude of business
models, and some plans are going better than others. Reuters announced a
modest (dollars 5 million) half-yearly profit earlier this year. Others
will have to wait a little longer. At the Economist, the online team is
being accorded the same status as its print colleague, ’but that might
change over ten or 15 years,’ according the brand business product
manager, Jonathan Church.
That should give it time to prepare some good excuses.
Attitudes differ but they all converge at one point: eventually the
online service must make money. Anyone hoping to make short-term profits
is playing in the wrong game.
Some say it’s all a question of presentation. That presentation takes a
variety of forms. If you scroll up and down the pages of
the_european.com, you will find pretty much the same words and pictures
you would if you bought the European - although you might be logging on
in Seoul or Sydney, where the European rarely makes it onto the
news-stands. Other players blessed with bigger budgets can aim
According to Paul Maidment, editor of electronic publishing for the FT,
’ft.com was a distinct notion from the start. We do not seek to
replicate the newspaper online.’
Maidment’s team selects 40 per cent of what is produced by FT staff.
Unconstrained by space, they can have fun with lists. Whereas the
printed FT publishes managed funds and reference prices by country, the
online team can rearrange them, for example, by fund manager.
The Internet’s role is to reinterpret the printed word, to offer an
alternative reading of it. Petre says that by opening up the letters
page to online readers, the editorial team has been exposed to a
demographic mix that might never otherwise have come to its
’It’s very exciting - and it’s nothing to do with journalism,’ he
When Wall Street Journal Interactive launched in April 1996 it quickly
acquired 600,000 readers. In August 1996 the company took the decision
to charge an annual subscription fee of dollars 49, and dollars 29 for
existing print subscribers. Its readership fell dramatically but by
August 1997 it had stabilised at 100,000. WSJ Interactive, together with
the New York Times site, are regarded as the market leaders by many of
their US rivals. wsj.com’s subscriber base is about to come up for its
annual renewal. Observers are waiting with interest to see what the
Bloomberg, another key player, unveils its dedicated UK service next
month. Anna Bateson, a member of Bloomberg’s media team, says:
’Editorial is way higher in terms of content but advertising is
That is seen as a priority which we are actively pursuing.’ Sixty per
cent of Fortune comprises ads but fortune.com has only 25 per cent. Can
they learn from each other’s successes and failures?
Success depends upon how you measure it. Church says the Economist’s
online edition is processing 700 to 1,000 new subscribers a day. The FT
is claiming seven million downloads per month. Bloomberg reckons it’s up
to 8.5 million page views per month. Fortune claimed one million page
views per week for September. One Monday in September, Forbes reported
400,000 single visits.
Such figures are bandied about like lucky charms. A more telling area
may be reader loyalty. One of the key questions is whether the Internet,
which started as one huge free read, can retain its popularity while
applying subscription and registration fees. It all depends on how you
read the surveys. According to one, by BBDO New York, 60 per cent of
online consumers objected to paying for an online version of their
Put another way, that leaves 40 per cent of readers who didn’t - and who
would, in many cases, still buy the printed product.
As the Internet expands, it seems inevitable online titles will
increasingly take on their own identities, and that similarities with
print titles will begin to weaken. Some media are actively exploiting
their Internet pages by animating the ads from their printed pages. For
others, this is a cyberworld away. It’s a question of what looks right,
The revolution rolls on. Soon, terminology such as push technology,
intranet and extranet will be as commonplace as search engines and
It is hard to believe that some of the most familiar names in business
media will not fall victim to the relentless tread of progress.
According to Maidment: ’No-one has yet got the business model right.’
The clock is ticking.