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Growing Up

Webzines face a tough battle in establishing themselves as a viable medium. They are certainly nowhere near usurping the place of print publications (not a goal that they espouse in any case).

Technological innovations are arising faster than webzines incorporate them. RealAudio has been available for two years, yet few webzines offer sound links. The reason lies partly in the low quality of Net access that most people have. Only about one U.S. household in five has a modem, and that will rise to about one in four by 1999, according to E-land, a company that compiles Internet usage data. And a substantial number of these modems crawl at 14.4 kilobits per second. At that speed, downloading graphics-not to mention sound and video-is an exercise in finger-drumming tedium, leading to more frustration than gratification.

Looking into the future, some predict the convergence of webzines with print. Picture an ultra-lightweight, ultraslim computer display that connects to the Internet and that receives data through a high-speed wireless transmission. This tablet would prove almost as portable as a print magazine but would offer all the added value that the online publications provide.

Journalistically, webzines have some growing up to do. The dearth of original reporting forces the webzines to establish identities, say some commentators, not by delivering information but by striking poses-Suck as an arbiter of what is good in Net journalism, Slate with its inside-the-beltway, know-it-all punditry, Salon with its literary pretensions. The need to keep readers on a page instead of hopping off through a hyperlink leads writers and editors to indulge in a kind of substanceless edginess. “The problem with these publications is that they’re nothing but attitude,” complains media critic Kennedy.

At the same time, the new media do provide a chance to make a clean break from print journalism, which the public has harshly criticized for flaws ranging from an obsession with violence to overreliance on information handouts by government officials and corporations. “The Web’s great adventure is that it puts the reader in control,” says NYU’s Harper, whose present status as new-media scholar comes after a 20-year career as reporter for Associated Press, Newsweek, and ABC News’s 20/20. “The Web isn’t the end-all and be-all, but it does gives us a wonderful opportunity to reexamine how we tell stories.”

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