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Clicking onto Webzines

Collecting, selecting, and refining the stories that go online, web-based magazines are transforming the internet experience. But these embryonic publications don’t yet fully exploit the new medium’s potential-and their financial viability is in question.

It couldn’t last. Ever since bursting into popular consciousness in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web kept growing chaotically. Universities had Web sites. Companies had Web sites. Individual families had Web sites. Any organization that didn’t have a Web page seemed to be labeling itself a relic. But after the initial flurry of clicking around, most visitors to the Web wanted something to sink their teeth into. After awhile, grainy pictures of half-full coffeepots in England just didn’t cut it anymore. Oh, sure, if you poked around enough you could find a brilliant essay or collection of digitized art or clever interactive game. But it was every surfer for him or herself. Although a breed of Net users reveled in this chaos and unpredictability, many people who logged on found the Internet about as fulfilling as wading through a warehouse full of pages ripped from student notebooks.

It is amid this mess that Web magazines have risen to popularity in the past year. A visit to Salon-a webzine of reviews and essays founded by expatriates from the San Francisco Examiner’s arts section-guarantees a few snappy essays on life, culture, and politics in the ’90s by name-brand writers. Enter the electronic portals of Microsoft-owned Slate and you can eavesdrop on a high-minded debate among policy wonks about the political and economic issues du jour. Tap into HotWired for spicy and often abrasive commentary about the medium itself.

In editorial direction, webzines buck the trend in print publications, where success has recently accrued mainly to specialty titles, especially those that give advice on how to live and what to buy. Advertising dollars flow into these publications, attracted by readerships presumed to be in a buying or self-improving frame of mind. Two of the wealthiest people in America-Patrick McGovern and William Ziff-made their fortunes peddling computer magazines. The new breed of webzines, by contrast, appeals to readers less with buying advice than by projecting an attitude. They do this in the form not of practical articles of the sort that fill the bulging pages of computer and “lifestyle” magazines but with compendiums of commentary-essays, cultural critiques, political analysis.

A magazine on the Internet can do much that its printed cousin cannot. Articles can include links that readers click on to find additional information. Previously published stories can be read as easily as this week’s issue. Webzines can enrich their stories with sounds and video. Web publications can create structured online forums where readers can debate among themselves-and with the magazine’s writers and editors-the ideas presented in the magazine’s articles. Material online can be updated as needed, incorporating new information and correcting errors.

Overall, the dozens of webzines differ from each other as drastically as the array of titles on a conventional newsstand, ranging from the sassy countercultural rant-rags such as Suck (which devotes much of its space to bashing other webzines) to the sober and establishmentarian IntellectualCapital to the New York artsiness of Word. The quality can be quasi-New Yorker literary or just-past-amateur. Designs also vary greatly, from gray Slate to the self-conscious hipness of HotWired, with its gonzo icons and pages saturated in the neopsychedelic, Day-Glo colors that its print sister, Wired, inflicts on its readers. But a look at the top tier of webzines-including Slate, Salon, and HotWired-reveals most of what these publications are doing well, poorly, or not at all.

Follow That Link

A typical webzine invites the visitor not so much to study its text but to hop around within it, clicking on icons and highlighted phrases to see where they lead. In this exercise, the act of reading is submerged beneath the drive to explore. Pages are riddled with convenient electronic tunnels. The experience is less like reading a magazine than strolling through a bookstore or library, where you will expect to look at a lot of titles but may come out having actually read little.

A computer screen is not the best way to do extended reading. Thus it’s not surprising that webzines favor short pieces. Print magazine feature articles (like this one) typically run 4,000 words or more. In Slate, Salon, and other webzines, a typical article is 1,0001,500 words. These pieces may whet the intellectual appetite or stir up ideological fervor among those already in agreement with a writer. But because staffs are small and budgets low, and because the Web puts a premium on rapid production of new material, the stories generally lack the thorough reportage that makes for the most fulfilling reading experience-and that changes people’s minds.

The strength of webzines as a new medium, then, depends on how well they take advantage of the interactive features that are uniquely possible online. Many webzines are still groping for how best to use the new technologies. Most of these publications amount to words on a screen-a vertical, glowing rendition of the magazines people have been reading for decades. Despite their multimedia cachet, webzines typically contain a smaller concentration of photographs, illustrations, and charts than one would find in a printed publication.

What webzines do provide are links to related information. The quality of these links varies widely. Slate takes particular care in its compilation of links. A recent article about how ballot initiatives in Arizona and California regarding the medical use of marijuana could affect the war on drugs, for example, links to the text of the referendums and to documents from organizations arguing pro and con. It is one-stop shopping for political information.

A well-compiled set of links can make a webzine worth visiting. By January, the Oakland school board’s controversial decision to formally recognize black English as a distinct language-Ebonics-had been pretty well hashed over in the media. But accompanying Slate’s article on the topic were links to a detailed synopsis of the decision put out by the Oakland Unified School District. Here the reader could find out without the filtering of reporters and commentators exactly what course of action the school board was recommending-a particularly helpful service in this case, given widespread confusion about the school board’s intent. For historical context, the reader could hop to a 1972 article by University of Pennsylvania linguist William Labov that provides scholarly underpinning to the Oakland decision.

Links can also give readers a handy “reality check” that pressures writers and editors to get their facts straight. Dan Kennedy, a media critic for the printed Boston Phoenix and for Salon, explains: “I like to think I’m a careful reporter when I’m writing for print, but in Salon I really have to get it right.”

But many webzine links seem thrown in with little thought and even work against a story’s theme. A Salon essay convincingly decries the reduction of Martin Luther King, Jr., to a “safe” icon of both the right and the left. The writer worries that for many people, King has become just a reason for a holiday and an “I Have a Dream” sound bite. Oddly, however, the article provides only two links-one to a photo of King making that speech, the other to the full text of the stirring address. The article thus perpetuates the narrow perspective that it critiques.

The presence of links changes the character of reading. A highlighted word tempts the reader to click-where will it lead? The webzine page becomes a platform from which to dive into the roiling waters of the Internet. Each link is like a little exit door, and if the pastures are richer on the other side, online grazers will be lost. For this reason Slate and some other webzines gather up their links and put them at the end of articles rather than permitting them to interrupt the flow of reading.

Editors of any publication strive for quality control. Links represent a kind of surrender on this front. Not only is the linked-to site beyond an editor’s control, but so are the sites that it links to, and that each of those sites links to, and so on throughout the Net. With each hyperstep away from the webzine’s site, the possibility multiplies that a reader will encounter unchecked or unsavory pages (or pages that have disappeared). One Slate story about body piercing, for example, provided a link to a site that prominently featured links of its own-to pornographic pages. Such missteps are probably unavoidable in a medium as big and uncontrolled as the Internet.

Bad links are worse than no links at all, if only for the deflating feeling of expectations dashed. A provocative essay in the webzine Suck, for example, pointed out that with operations like Wired magazine and America Online hitting bad patches and laying people off, the defiant “geek culture” that had been contemptuously thumbing its nose at management was finding itself having to be more circumspect; having even a bad job was at least a job. It is not hard to find “dozens of people swapping enthusiasm for misery,” said Suck-and highlighted this last sentence to indicate it was a hyperlink. But the link led to a newsgroup called alt.angst-an online bellyaching extravaganza filled with diatribes about atheists, Bill Gates, and many other pet peeves. A search through hundreds of recent postings found none discussing job anxiety.

Talk Amongst Yourselves

Some of webzines’ most interesting interactivity involves conversations among selected people on an assigned topic. Slate, for example, features a “Committee of Correspondence”-a panel of four or five people who post every day for a week on a given subject. Messages often respond to points made in the previous day’s submissions by the other panelists. The Committee of Correspondence operates under the gentle nudging of economist Herbert Stein, who frames the question on the first day, and then weighs in on every subsequent day to summarize what the other participants have been saying and to ask new questions.

The power of Slate’s panels lies in the credibility of the participants. The webzine has managed to assemble groups of thinkers who know what they’re talking about and write well (or are the beneficiaries of fine editing by the Slate crew), and who refrain from turning political issues into personal attacks. For an Internet discussion, that’s a rare triple whammy. A panel arguing the merits of a balanced-budget amendment, for example, included Jim Miller of George Mason University, director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1985 to 1988; Robert D. Reischauer of the Brookings Institute, director of the Congressional Budget Office from 1989 until 1995; Robert Shapiro of the Progressive Policy Institute, an economics adviser to the Clinton administration; and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). Slate’s contribution was not in giving these analysts a spotlight-they are for the most part the same talking heads that appear on Sunday TV political shows-but in constructing a forum where they can respond to one another’s arguments and move beyond the glib answers that television often fosters.

In another Slate feature, two people engage in a long-term correspondence with each other on a provocative subject. The “Dialogs” column has grappled with whether there is a God and whether divorce should be more difficult to obtain, and featured a highly charged debate between Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and the New Republic’s William Powers over whether the press is going too easy on President Clinton by underplaying the administration’s scandals. While occasionally sparks fly, these debates are a good example of the kind of thoughtful and civil exchange often said to be missing from public discourse.

Even experts can become a bit cranky, of course. HotWired’s “Brain Tennis” feature-a week-long debate between two people on a technological issue-veers toward flaming, with flavorful put-downs such as this one from a spirited conversation about whether nanotechnology is more hype than substance: “To call this concoction a straw man is an insult to straw.”

Feed, more than other Webzines, constructs its panel discussions in the spirit of the Web’s nonlinear structure. A selected group of people post short essays on a given topic. But reading through the forum you come across hyperlinks embedded in the text. Clicking here takes you to a response by one of the other panelists to the particular point being made in that specific sentence or paragraph. And within that response are other responses. Reading a Feed debate is like stepping into a hall of mirrors-the discussion swirls endlessly around in a manner that would be impossible to duplicate in print. Slate has started to use a similar style in its Committee of Correspondence.

Webzines also offer readers the opportunity to converse with one another online. Authors and editors occasionally wade in to join the stream of commentary and response. Democratic strategist and former Clinton campaign adviser James Carville, who writes a column of political commentary in Salon called “Swamp Fever,” has posted frequently. So has novelist Anne Rice, who has published a series of diary entries in Salon. This kind of give-and-take occurs in print as well, of course, such as when a magazine appends an editor’s or writer’s response to a published letter from a reader. In webzines, however, the commentary can take on a life of its own and, without the delays of printing and mailing, the conversation assumes a more bantering, informal quality.

Print publications try to select and edit letters columns to roughly the same level of erudition and sophistication as the articles on which they comment. In webzines, however, this is not the case; reader forums are distinctly lower in intellectual power and cogency. Many contributors to these forums are curt, defensive, off-the-point, and have a tendency to substitute passion for intellect and knowledge. The moderator of Salon’s “Table Talk” spends much of her efforts “dousing waters on flame wars,” admits David Talbott, Salon’s founder and editor.

Pictures and Sound

Some webzines are cautiously taking advantage of the Internet’s multimedia capability. A HotWired article about Jimmy Carter, for example, provided a link to a 20-minute audio of a conversation with the former president, in which he expounded in his gentle Georgia drawl on his philosophical and religious views at far greater length than appropriate to quote in the article. To hear the interview requires RealAudio software, which its creator, Progressive Networks, offers free over the Web.

The interview is one of a series that HotWired’s “Netizen” section has run. In others, civil rights leader and ambassador Andrew Young has talked about affirmative action and Chinese human-rights activist Harry Wu has spoken of his experiences in a Chinese labor camp. Listening to Wu’s tense voice and elegant statement, for example, one senses his pain and his passionate ideals for a better future in a way that a transcript of the interview could not convey.

Unlike listening to an interview on radio or watching it on television, the Web’s audio capabilities allow the user to pause the playback, back up, or skip forward. Oddly, given that such interview tapes are essentially “free” content whenever a webzine covers a story, neither Slate nor Salon offers such audio features. Their hesitation stems partly from the low quality of sound. Ears accustomed to CDs and FM radio may find Web audio a step back in time. The warbly sound resembles, at best, a strong AM radio station, and often is more akin to that of a shortwave broadcast from overseas.

Webzines use video sparingly. Slate, for example, accompanies each movie review with a brief clip from the film. Unfortunately, technical quality is poor. The webzines have to trade off picture quality against transmission time, and choose speed. Not only are the images low resolution, but small as well, typically occupying a rectangle about 1 by 2 inches in the middle of the screen. Longer segments of video that would look sharper and occupy a larger portion of the screen are technically possible but would take impractically long to transmit. As it is, these 30-second video nuggets take a long time to download-for a computer chugging along with a 14.4 kilobit-per-second modem, the download will chew up typically 15 to 20 minutes, Slate warns.

Sometimes, however, this constraint makes little difference. Take Slate’s Varnish Remover column, which analyzes television ads. The Web reader can click on a link to download the video of the entire ad, not just an excerpt. During the presidential campaign, the column was devoted mainly to political TV commercials; now it has moved on to the kind of product ads that fill the screens in nonelection years, including Everready batteries and Levi’s jeans, as well as two product categories-liquor and condoms-that recently were the subject of first-time-ever TV ad campaigns. The ability to view the ads and read the commentary at the same time gives this feature an almost scholarly value.

Multimedia links can also provide historical context. A Slate article by historian Michael Beschloss about the political problems that bedevil second-term presidents, for example, links not only to the Gallup poll’s quarterly public-approval ratings for every president since Eisenhower but also to audio clips from two infamous moments in Richard Nixon’s aborted second term: the “I am not a crook” passage from a speech he made while the Watergate scandal was unfolding, and his resignation address. The medium makes such additions uniquely possible; television delivers pictures without the intellectual depth that text provides; print cannot bring events back to life.

Lost in Space (and Time)

Browsing the current webzines yields the impression that no one has completely figured out how best to adapt a print tradition to electronic form. Simple matters such as knowing how to get from place to place and knowing whether an article is old or new seem to stymie the designer; a zine surfer must acclimate to different interfaces at every electronic publication.

Some differences are cosmetic; Slate’s maroon, gray, and white color scheme stands in sedate contrast to HotWired’s highly contrasting colors (a different glowing hue every day) and Word’s melange of moving images. Some entries into the field have yet to master Web basics. IntellectualCapital, which comes off as a weighty magazine of political and economic issues, has not yet figured out that long tables of contents on the home page are difficult to penetrate.

Webzines spawned by the print magazine establishment sometimes reveal unhelpful allegiance to print conventions. Slate, for example, assigns “page” numbers to articles. The idea is to make readers feel that they can navigate the way they do in print. But Web surfers don’t generally think of online material as numbered pages, and this system seems anachronistic-as if Henry Ford had built a set of reins into the dashboard of the Model T. (Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine numbered its pages when it started up three years ago, says founder and editor John December, but abandoned the system because the numbers seemed arbitrary in a nonlinear medium.)

If Slate errs by trying to be too printlike, the opposite tendency mars Word, a New Yorkbased lifestyle webzine. In Word, nothing stands still; the graphic images dance and shimmy, usually without any particular meaning. The table of contents looks like something from TV Guide, with six fine-print listings of articles arranged in columns under inscrutable department titles like “habit,” “gigo,” “pay,” “machine,” and “desire.” Graphical paraphernalia seem goofy; a gallery of animated dancing toilets, for example, adorns a page of self-described stupid jokes.

Salon and HotWired have probably devised the most fully Web-like sites. Salon’s main page presents links to the webzine’s departments: “Sharps & Flats” (music reviews); “Newsreal” (commentary on the news); “Media Circus” (media criticism); “Sneak Peeks” (book reviews) and “Taste” (food and wine). Clicking on one of those choices brings up a page with content divided into compartments, known as “frames.” The main frame contains the article of the day; along the left-hand side of the screen a narrow vertical frame presents an index of every article in that department for the past month, any of which you can read with a click.

Different webzines have different approaches for displaying articles that are too long to fit on a single screen. Slate delivers an entire article at once, no matter how long it is, allowing readers to scroll up and down through it much as they would flip through the pages of a long article in a printed publication. Salon and HotWired, on the other hand, often present articles in segments. A Salon essay analyzing the prevalence of libertarianism on the Net, for example, leads off with the first 500 words, along with a link to click on to get the 2,500-word balance of the piece. Salon breaks other articles into multiple, equal-sized chunks, with no apparent logic to guide the partitioning.

Webzine designers face a dilemma. The surest way for any Web site to draw traffic is to change the content frequently-nothing feels as stale as an unchanged Web site. Too much churn, however, confuses a print-oriented reader. Magazines as we have come to know them are defined by the issue date that anchors them in time; cover images and other cues help readers recognize what’s new and what’s old. And once an issue is read, it can be consigned to the trash or storage pile. Webzines treat time more cavalierly. It’s not immediately apparent when you have already read something, so you find yourself revisiting the site in search of fresh material. And sometimes a label of “new” on the contents page indicates only a small addition to a department rather than an entirely new piece. Slate took a helpful step toward anchoring its articles in time by offering, as an option, a contents page that sorts articles by date.

The ease of dipping into a webzine’s archives of past articles further muddies the reader’s place in time. With last week’s or last month’s articles only a couple of clicks away, webzine sites make it about as easy to tap into their well of previously published material as their current issue. It is as if Time magazine came to the mailbox every week with a 100-pound box of carefully indexed back issues. The most current edition loses some of its primacy when stacked against all that history.

The best webzines are finding ways to update their material often while acknowledging many readers’ preference for discrete “issues” pinned to a particular day or week. Slate, Salon, and HotWired, which change at least some of their content every weekday, all send out weekly e-mails summarizing the articles “now playing” at their sites; these notices go to all who have signed up for these webzines’ (free) alert services. The e-mail contains hot links that allow recipients to jump immediately to read the piece that the blurb describes.

Who’s Paying the Bills?

Most of the cost of publishing a conventional magazine goes to buy paper, operate the printing presses, and distribute the finished product through the mail and to newsstands, according to Christopher Harper, a journalism professor at New York University. A webzine incurs none of these. At first blush, therefore, any revenue that a webzine can produce “seems like free money,” says Michael Mooradian, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, a market-research firm specializing in new media. Salon, which was launched in November 1995, began with one-tenth the capital that would have been required for a comparable national print magazine, asserts Salon founder David Talbott.

Nevertheless, whether webzines’ unique attributes will lead to financial success-and hence long-term survival-remains an open question. Writers, editors, and computer programmers don’t work for free. Slate has a staff of about two dozen, according to publisher Rogers Weed; Salon, says Talbot, is put out by 18 people. Thus maintaining a high-quality webzine requires a substantial flow of income from somewhere. The big webzines are still running on the momentum of their deep-pocketed founders-with Microsoft bankrolling Slate, and Apple Computer and Adobe Systems supporting the launch of Salon.

Print magazines make money in two basic ways: selling copies to readers and selling readers to advertisers. Neither source of revenue translates very well onto the Web. Internet users, steeped in an ethic of free information, are loath to pay for anything other than hooking into the Net itself.

Slate’s saga shows that the day when webzines will charge for subscriptions seems, if anything, to be receding into the hazy future. When Microsoft launched Slate last June as a free service, the company warned that the deal was only temporary. Starting in November, Slate readers were going to have to pay $19.95 per year for the privilege. As November approached, however, Slate backed down. Access would continue to be free until February 1997, Microsoft announced, because the company had been unable to perfect the software needed to keep billing records. Cynics scoffed at that explanation, suspecting that Microsoft’s real concern was a potential drop in readership.

And indeed, in January, Slate postponed this financial day of reckoning yet again-this time indefinitely. “Maybe in the future,” wrote Slate editor Michael Kinsley, “people will happily pay for access to premium sites” on the Web, as they pay now for premium cable channels. But Kinsley acknowledged that with the possible exceptions of pornography and financial information, that day has not arrived. “Even in our headiest moments,” he continued, “we couldn’t convince ourselves that people lust for political and cultural commentary the way they lust for sex or money.”

The analogy with cable TV is telling, says David Card, an interactive services analyst at the market-research firm International Data Corp. Premium channels like Home Box Office didn’t really take off, he says, until free TV and basic cable channels were glutted with very-low-quality programing. Only then were millions of people willing to pay for a service that they had been receiving for free. There is still plenty of valuable and entertaining material on the Web that costs the user nothing, Card contends. As long as that is the case, webzines will find subscription sales a tough path.

Web surfers have at least another year of free reading, analysts say. The only online publications that will be able to charge for access are those with gold-plated brand names that command an instant audience, says Jupiter’s Mooradian. The Wall Street Journal has already begun charging for access to its online interactive edition; Barron’s and ESPN might similarly get away with levying such fees for their financial and sports information.

Meanwhile, most webzines are trying to make ends meet by tapping into the explosively growing market of Web-based advertising. Companies spent $55 million on Web ads in 1995 and $260 million in 1996, according to Mooradian at Jupiter. The total is expected to top $1 billion this year. Web advertising has great allure because readers can do more than simply gaze at a picture or read the copy-they can also click through to the advertiser’s page, where they can request more information, download trial versions of a software product, or place a credit card order.

Such advertising appears in two basic forms: long-term sponsorship of a webzine’s department, and banner ads that appear on the top of pages anywhere in the webzine. A successful example of a sponsorship is the relationship between Salon and Borders, the national bookstore chain. In return for sponsoring Salon’s book review page, Borders gets a sweet prize: reviews are accompanied by links to the bookstore’s order forms. Click on the order form, fill in a credit card number and address, and within days the item arrives at your door. The bookstore, in turn, prints excerpts from Salon reviews on the bookmarks that it gives away to customers. Judging from Salon’s often-critical reviews, this cozy relationship has not seemed to compromise the webzine’s editorial integrity.

Still, webzines may have difficulty surviving on advertising dollars. A print magazine sells ad space by promoting the demographics of its readers. While publications like Slate and Salon attract an upscale audience-Salon, for example, claims that its readers have a median household income of $80,000-this profile does not stand out in bold relief from the Internet as a whole, which is still largely an affluent preserve. “Slate and Salon have great demographics, but on the Internet that’s no big deal,” says Mary Doyle, a new-media analyst at the market-research firm IDC/Link in New York. It therefore makes more sense for a company to place ads in sites that millions of people surf by-the Netscape home page, for example, or one of the major search sites such as Yahoo and Infoseek. In fact, Doyle says, webzines will skim off only a small fraction of the total Web ad revenue; 1996 advertising revenue for all webzines totaled a mere $13.5 million, she estimates, puny compared with the $61 million spent on ads at search sites.

Mooradian of Jupiter counters that webzines do have special appeal. A company selling Scotch, he says, is not going to find a general-purpose Web page very attractive as an advertising site, since so many Net users are under the legal drinking age. “A company like that is going to be much more likely to put an ad on Slate than on the Netscape home page,” Mooradian says. And Salon, which claims a readership that is 50 percent female, should attract advertisers who would otherwise dismiss the Web as an inappropriate medium.

Advertising is a numbers game, and Web sites are still struggling to come up with the solid numbers advertisers want-namely, how many people visit a site. One way is to have readers register. All the top webzines require registration to enter their forum, or to sign up to receive e-mail notification of what is in the webzine. Such registration is free to the user and gives the webzine its most reliable tallies of how many people are reading it. Slate, for example maintains about 15,000 people on its e-mail list. The webzine also claims that 50,000 to 60,000 different people visit the Slate site “on a semi-regular basis.” Salon says more than 27,000 people have registered for its “Table Talk” forum. These are small numbers by magazine publishing standards; if advertisement is to sustain webzines, the companies placing the ads will need to believe that the Web is providing an added benefit beyond what they could get in print. An advertiser needs to be convinced, for example, that buying space on a webzine will do the company more good than an ad that reaches the same number of people in print.

Other streams of income are also possible. Word, for example, licenses some of its articles to companies who want to liven up their own corporate Web pages. The Net access and web-page-design company that owns Word-ICon-also rakes in consulting fees for dispensing advice on how to set up an attention-getting Web site. Word functions as a promotional tool for its parent company and therefore does not need to make money in its own right.

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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