I feel like I've lost a brother or a sister.
Friday, May 17 marked the last issue of Web Review, one of the better journals published on the Internet. Although the back issues will stay around in a searchable archive, there will be no new additions to its stylish pages in the forseeable future, if ever.
It's painful because both Web Review and the Albion Monitor came from little Sebastopol, California, and I know several people who worked there, including editor Steve Pizzo and publisher Dale Dougherty. And by coincidence, both of our journals launched the exact same week last August.
Steve was probably the first person outside our company to see the Albion Monitor prototype last summer. With considerable pride I gave him a tour of that first issue, pointing out aspects of presentation as much as the contents of the issue. And though that offering might seem a mite shabby today, it was state of the art back in the dark ages of August, 1995, when most web pages were only unformatted text. When I was done, Steve said, "Great; let me show you what we're working on, too." And on his screen popped the first issue of Web Review.
Simply put, I was blown away. The graphics were clean and understated; the user interface made navigation easy. The content, for the most part, avoided the gushy, "way cool!" attitude that infected much of the other writing about the Internet.
For its short nine month lifespan, Web Review lived up to that early promise. Steve wrote several groundbreaking stories; one of my favorites was about the rapid growth of offshore 'net gambling. Another was his scoop that InterNIC, the company that controls the registry of all Internet domain names, is owned by a ex-military and superspy veterans including former CIA director Bobby Ray Inman.
So what happened? Who -- or what -- killed Web Review? The culprit was my archenemy, and target of many of these editorials: advertising.
Or rather, Web Review was silenced by its inability to attract high-paying ads. "The advertiser-supported model isn't really covering costs for targeted publications, and Web Review -- which requires a dedicated staff of editorial, design, production and technical resources -- is expensive to produce," Dale wrote in a final letter. While they built a substantial audience of readers, he noted, "...In the end, however, we cannot keep giving it away."
And sad to say, Web Review is probably in the vanguard here, too; the advertising shake-out is just starting. Internet journals like Web Review -- with good content and loyal (but relatively small) readership -- have to compete with sites like Yahoo! that receive umpteen kabillion hits per day. Guess which site is going to attract those big ad agency bucks?
One recent sign of change came from mega-advertiser Proctor & Gamble -- coincidentally, Web Review's last sponsor. No longer is it enough for their ad simply to be seen on a web page, reports Advertising Age; now they'll only pay according to how many people actually select their ad and visit the P&G site.
More bang for their buck, advertisers want. According to the New York Times Magazine, the big Yahoo and Lycos search engines are now selling rights to individual words. Look for references to "golf" and you'll see customized ad from golf-related companies. According to the article, both AT&T and Sprint have bought the word "telephone" from various search services.
Let's explore some of the implications. If Yahoo and Lycos currently display selective ads depending on the search, will they also agree to bias the list displayed, with advertisers always shown at the top of the search results? Would a sponsored listing of sites advertising golf balls, golf clubs, golf sportswear, and golf-whatever always appear first?
And nowhere is it written in stone that the search results must be limited to boring old text. That search for "telephone" could present ads for AT&T and Sprint, as well as any of the other phone companies who want to purchase their nouns.
Maybe you don't have a problem with these scenarios; maybe it seems like a sensible trade-off to keep the information available free. But what if Playboy and other skin mags bought the word "breast?" Why should women looking for info on breast cancer or breast feeding be presented with little pictures and blurbs for these magazines? And if some of those offshore gambling enterprises bought the verb "gamble," should someone seeking information on "Gamblers Anonymous" be required to first see ads tempting them with promises of luck and fortune?
Dale closed his letter with a strong appeal to Web Review readers:
Several of us came up with the idea of polling readers to see if they would pay for Web Review. Conventional wisdom says users will not pay for content on the Web. But we thought: How will we know if we don't ask?
If it sounds a little like an appeal from public television, I guess in some ways it is. Web Review began as an experiment in an experimental market; it seems fitting to keep experimenting now.
Here are the stakes: Would you pay $19.95 for a six-month subscription (about $3.33 per month) to Web Review? Is the information you find worth that commitment? If 5,000 readers (about 10 percent of you) are willing to support it, we'll come back in June with a prototype of the new Web Review.
Remember: You are voting on the future of the Web and what you will find there. Web Review is not alone in having these problems.
I couldn't agree with him more. Yes, this is about the future of the Web. Who pays for information? You, or a sponsor? And is "free" information always delivered with no strings attached? I don't think so.
Yeah, I could be smug and boast to the folks at Web Review, "I told you so." That the Albion Monitor -- supported entirely by its readers -- is alive and robust, while their journal is apparently defunct. But that's not how I feel, and I deeply mourn their passing. I hope that it will resurface in some format.
Instead I want to echo Dale's comments; if you liked what you saw at Web Review, let them know. Subscribe. There's a short questionnaire currently available as part of his letter, and I encourage you to let them know what you think, one way or t'other.
Similarly, if you want to support the kind of information you find here, vote with a subscription to the Albion Monitor. If you live in Sonoma County, the completely painless way is to switch your Internet provider to Monitor Publishing. You can read the Albion Monitor free while enjoying the best Internet access and customer support available anywhere. If you live outside the county, subscriptions are $29 per year.
And many of our readers are far outside the borders of Sonoma County. In the past few days while we've been producing this special edition about the First Amendment confrontation in Mendocino, we've had visitors from all over the U.S. and Canada, with others from Europe, Africa, Asia, and points even beyond. As Dale says, if only just 10 percent of these people subscribed, we'd be happy indeed. With that extra income, we could have offered you a photo essay of Gypsy life to accompany Steven Barmazel's excellent "Caravans of Fire" feature in this issue. We could also offer you more original investigative journalism, including a closer look at many important local topics.
As Dale said, the future of the web is what's at stake, here. Do you want investigative journalism and the kind of coverage we offer? Then join us. Did you like the columns, features, and Internet news that Web Review provided? Then subscribe to them. Because without your support, we're all going to follow the lead of Web Review -- and the only original news you're going to find on the web will be the peppy, uncritical slosh that companies like Proctor & Gamble or AT&T will support.
Our next issue will appear June 12, with an exclusive investigative story on a major Internet con game. Hope to see you then.
Jeff Elliott, Editor
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