European Publishers Get Serious About ‘Net Profits

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By: Steve Outing

The third Interactive Publishing conference in Zurich, Switzerland, came to a close on Friday, with European publishers feeling a little more confident of their ability to go it alone — without relying so much on the American interactive publishing industry to point the way.

Conference organizer Norbert Specker, in his remarks to close the sessions on Friday, said that this year’s proceedings demonstrated that many European publishers had completed the first steps to doing business on the Internet. Now they’re asking, “What’s next?” and “How do we make money at this?” Many are realizing that creating a profitable Internet strategy is hard work, and that it requires skills that their organizations have not yet acquired — especially those of community building, which is such an essential element for an online publishing venture.

Specker noted that the conference and its attendees have changed radically in the two years since he began. In 1994, the meeting’s focus was a mixture of new media, including fax services, audiotex, CD-ROM and online. Last year saw a shift to the Internet as the primary focus, but attendees came largely out of a sense of fear. “I’ve been told, ‘Norbert, you’re in the fear business,'” Specker said. This year, there was more seriousness among the attendees — the majority of them Europeans — who are looking for solutions to turn their Internet ventures into real businesses. Next year, Specker predicts, the Internet will be much less American, as Europeans set off on their own.

Echoing themes told throughout the conference, he pointed out that e-mail was touted as the “killer app” at each previous Interactive Publishing event — even if publishers as a group weren’t aggressively pursuing e-mail strategies — and he predicts that it will be the dominant theme next year, with more publishers having found ways to turn e-mail into a business.

Here are some highlights from the last half of the conference.

Steve Yelvington, The Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.

“The Web is not enough,” says Yelvington, editor/manager of Star Tribune Online, “because Web visitors are occasional visitors.” In his session on “push” vs. “pull” approaches to Internet publishing, Yelvington pointed out that much outstanding content published on the Web is simply not read because it is not delivered to the reader; the reader must come to the content. He predicts that 1997 will see a surge of activity in e-mail and “push” strategies for getting content to Internet readers.

Yelvington’s newspaper is a regional content partner to the Pointcast news screensaver network, which he views as an outstanding push model. He also points to Mercury Mail, a free personalized news e-mail delivery service; Freeloader, an off-line Web content viewer; and Juno and Freemark, two e-mail services that provide free e-mail access accounts to computer users, as early competitors in what is destined to become one of the most active areas of interactive publishing.

E-mail has been “boring,” Yelvington acknowledges, but it is beginning to come out of the text-only stage. Delivery of HTML documents, such as is being done via Netscape’s Inbox Direct program and by Mercury Mail, is emerging as the standard for multimedia e-mail.

Contact: Steve Yelvington, stevey@startribune.com

Derek Fattal, The Jerusalem Post, Israel

Fattal, who is deputy director of electronic publishing for Israel’s leading English-language daily, is pleased with the success of his paper’s e-mail news service, which has attracted around 1,000 subscribers who pay $5 per month. This “push” strategy is particularly effective for the Post because the paper’s audience is primarily non-domestic. 77% of the paper’s Web site readers are from the U.S., and the newspaper itself is influential to a global audience. Internet publishing, offering inexpensive delivery costs worldwide, is the perfect approach to expanding readership.

The Post’s audience looks to the newspaper and its Web site and e-mail service for news about the Middle East, Fattal points out, so a strictly “shovelware” approach to Internet publishing is effective. “Shovelware works for us,” he says. “Readers come to us for news,” not for games or other trendy interactive content.

Contact: Derek Fattal, derek@jpost.co.il

Ted Weinstein, Miller Freeman Inc., San Francisco, U.S.

Weinstein, online new business development manager for the California-based trade publisher, says that his company’s aggressive moves into Internet publishing have paid off by generating a modest number of new customers for Miller Freeman’s print properties; MF’s Web sites have not cannibalized print. The Internet also has opened up new publishing opportunities, such as “instant” newsletters that respond to breaking industry news events, he says.

Some of MF’s sites will soon include annotated news feeds from Reuters, which are industry-news offerings filtered from the Reuters wire. Thus, the savvy trade Web site becomes the single stop that a reader from a particular industry need monitor for all relevant industry news.

Contact: Ted Weinstein, tweinstein@mfi.com

Leah Gentry, Excite, U.S.

Gentry, former Internet editor of the Chicago Tribune and now assistant managing editor for Internet search and directory company Excite in California, explained the concept of “non-linear story-telling” for journalists writing for the Web environment. Writers and editors must look at their work differently in order to present a package that is palatable to Web readers, she says. In its simplest form, non-linear story-telling involves dividing a story up into component pieces — which might include text, audio, archive stories, statistics, interactive features, etc. — then reconstructing them to build the Web site. Use storyboards for the process, then identify holes in the site by examining the storyboard, Gentry advises.

In designing a Web story presentation, keep in mind that readers will enter the site in places other than the “front page,” and will bounce around the site in unpredictable ways, she says. Stories presented on the Web must be structured to accommodate the reader who enters via a side door or who chooses an unconventional route through the site.

Contact: Leah Gentry, lgentry@excite.com

Bill Skeet, Knight-Ridder New Media Center, U.S.

Skeet, chief designer for the giant Knight-Ridder newspaper chain’s new media research and development operation, urged publishers to create Web sites that make life easier for the reader. Anticipate errors that users might make, and build in graceful returns to the correct path for those who do make mistakes, he advises. The key is, “don’t set the user up for failure.”

It’s the architecture and user flow of a Web site that is the most important design consideration, he says. Aesthetics is a secondary component of the design process. Skeet is an advocate of letting users get to the information they desire quickly, thus his “3-click rule”: no piece of information should be more than three clicks away from when the user enters a site. Skeet also recommends that every Web site have a site map, or schematic, placed somewhere on the site for use as a handy reader reference guide.

Contact: Bill Skeet, bill@skeet.com

Paul Maidment, The Financial Times, England

The venerable and tradition-bound London business newspaper is braving the new world of electronic publishing, says Maidment, the paper’s editor of electronic publishing, because it recognizes that a fundamental change in the publishing industry is under way. The FT is now competing with its suppliers of information, he points out, such as the investment banking firm that produces a daily market commentary — just as the FT does. And many of these non-news companies — like Microsoft, for instance — are willing to give away news on the Internet for free, since news is not their core business. Publishers like the FT, Maidment says, must differentiate themselves by producing information that is much better than what these companies are producing.

Maidment urged conference attendees to remember that they are producing intellectual property, “not 64 pages of paper to wrap fish and chips.” At the FT, he expects 60% of the newsroom’s output to be electronic within five years.

Contact: Paul Maidment, paul.maidment@ft.com

Bernt Olufsen, Verdens Gang, Norway

Olufsen, editor of Norway’s largest newspaper and instigator of the company’s aggressive Internet strategy, concedes that he was caught napping when his chief competitor went online first, forcing VG into action. The site has grown quickly, with double the activity of VG’s nearest competitor, Olufsen says. First year advertising revenues have been about $400,000 (U.S.), and he expects $800,00 in revenues next year. One of the most popular pieces on the VG Web site is Norway’s hit music list (similar to Billboard’s Top 10), which features 30-second sound clips from the music CDs, plus links to music reviews that have run in the newspaper. An “incredibly popular” feature allows users to post their own music reviews.

Contact: Bernt Olufsen, bernt.olufsen@vg.no

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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