It's hard to believe,
but this is our "silver" edition; issue # 25 of the Albion Monitor is now officially closed. Gosh, it seems like just yesterday we were producing issue number 1.
That's what I'm supposed to say on this occasion, but it's not true. Those summer days of 1995 when the first edition was designed feels like the far distant Paleozoic. Heck, the production of the last issue seems like ages ago. I have glimpsed the future and it is this: We are living dog lifetimes, a full week crammed into every day.
Our pace accelerates; we race to catch up, but somehow never quite come even by day's end. That rushed life sometimes makes it hard to find perspectives, but last week I stumbled over an epiphany of sorts.
It was at the second annual Sebastopol Internet Festival, where I was again on a panel discussing publishing on the Internet. Again sitting next to me was Steve Pizzo. Last year, Steve was editing an exciting online magazine called Web Review; it combined news, investigative features, and techie Internet stuff. In May, Web Review suspended publication (mourned in a Monitor editorial at the time) and was only recently reborn, sans hard news, sans investigative features, sans Steve.
The original version of Web Review failed, he said, because they couldn't attract enough advertisers. They also polled the readers asking if they'd support a subscription-only version; the response was a resounding NO. He compared their experience with that of "Slate," Microsoft's attempt to enter the web magazine arena. After announcing that Slate would be available by subscription-only, Microsoft backed down and allowed the website to remain free. "The only things that people will pay for on the Internet are porn, sports, and entertainment," said Pizzo.
I disagreed. "Look at the Albion Monitor," I said. "It has a subscriber readership happy to send $9.95 per year, yet we don't have an entertainment or sports section, much less pornography. There are many services on the Internet that people will gladly pay for. I subscribe to the San Jose Mercury News Library, for example; for five bucks a month, I can search everything in their archives as well as the morgues of a dozen other papers."
Steve didn't look convinced. Then I realized that we had exactly this same disagreement at last year's panel. Although much has changed since that time, we're still debating the big question: who pays for your information?
There's an even bigger question behind that one -- who controls your information?
Too many media and publishing professionals think that the web is like print or TV. In those businesses, size is everything. Reader and viewership has to be many thousands, if not millions. Reaching a mass market like that requires an large production staff, distribution network, and more -- that means lots of money. (It also means that the producers will likely avoid challenging material, but that's the subject of another rant.)
With that more-is-better mindset, deals are made, money is spent in a vain effort to capture --somehow -- a big chunk of the Internet news biz. One of the more interesting partnerships was made last August between the Wall Street Journal and Microsoft, reported well in a San Francisco Chronicle article. The deal gave everyone using Microsoft's web browser free access to the Journal for the remainder of the year. (WSJ charges $49/year for web access, and claims to be successful.)
Immediately readers complained. How can WSJ objectively report on Bill Gates, they asked, when the newspaper has a financial interest in his company? The Journal wouldn't comment except to say that Microsoft was paying for those subscriptions.
I don't know about you, but I'll never again read one of their articles about the computer industry without doubting their credibility -- a question that's reinforced whenever the Journal prints articles championing Microsoft products, which it frequently does.
And speaking of Microsoft, the company everyone loves to hate announced that it will spend about $400 million this year on content development for its Internet services, and plans to continue investment at approximately that level over the next few years. Some of that content development money is presumably going to web magazine Slate.
But here's a curious thing; I've read Slate regularly since last fall, and I can't remember a single article they've published. Nothing quotable, no brillant writing, no bold design to catch my attention. Competely forgettable. To misquote Gertrude Stein, There's no there there.
By contrast, you can probably name at least a handful of important stories that the Albion Monitor has presented, even if you don't often visit. Judi Bari. Bear Lincoln and the Round Valley Murders. Project Censored. Jessica Mitford. The hard-right's war on abortion.
To create the Monitor we don't need a TV studio or a printing press; we need only the talents of writers, artists, and photographers. All of our 25 issues were produced on a shoestring budget, probably less than Slate spends in a single hour. And that's the beauty of the Internet; no multi-million dollar investment is needed to compete.
To me, the future of the Internet doesn't lie in creating something that appeals to the mass market. To be successful we don't need to appeal to everyone online; the web audience is so huge that we'd be successful beyond our fantasies if just 0.01 percent of people with Internet access subscribed.
Enough readers have now subscribed to make it possible for us to offer syndicated columnists like Alexander Cockburn and Jim Hightower. As I wrote in the editorial for the tenth issue:
We think you'll find the Albion Monitor is unique. Nowhere else on the Internet, nowhere on the newstand, can you find a newspaper, magazine, journal, webzine, e-zine -- whatever -- that covers the world like this.
That remains our mission still, and the Albion Monitor continues to hold a unique niche on the Internet, delivering the news you're missing. But we'd like to do more; the Monitor could be weekly, or offer daily original national and global stories. To move to that level, however, we need the support of far more subscribers.
But if Microsoft, Wall Street Journal, and the media moguls have their way, you'll always have to rely on them for breaking news. It comes down to a very fundamental question: who do you trust? Consider your answer to that carefully; much is at stake.
Jeff Elliott, Editor
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