A WAKE-UP CALL FOR PUBLISHERS

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Attending last fall's American Magazine Conference in Orlando was something like riding a roller coaster.

Time Warner chief Gerald Levin shook things up on the first day, warning that the digital revolution was at hand and "anybody who thinks they can relax and wait is indulging in self-defeating illusion." The next day brought a more objective-and easier-to-swallow-view from ABC-TV analyst Jeff Greenfield: "The odds are that we're not going to be bludgeoned into extinction by new technology."

Those who make their living putting ink on paper breathed easier after that speech, but not for long. Hotel employees placed a bomb outside every room on the following morning, in the form of newspapers carrying word of the planned (and later, failed) merger of Bell Atlantic and TCI. Magazines were not the dominant discussion topic on the conference's last day.

Having covered the magazine industry for Advertising Age for several years, and having been closely involved in the launch just weeks earlier of Ad Age's Interactive Media & Marketing section, I got a close-up view of the industry's struggle to define its role in a changing marketplace.

As this section marks its first anniversary this week and the magazine industry prepares to convene again later this month in Laguna Nigel, Calif., it's obvious publishers have accepted the inevitability of new media, but still don't understand the consequences.

The cover of this year's conference brochure features the faces of six participants, among them Disney's Michael Eisner (who actually backed out at the last minute), Barry Diller and Al Sikes. Not a publisher among them. There are workshops on intellectual property rights in the electronic age and the challenge of interactive advertising.

Jim Guthrie of the Magazine Publishers of America says more than 200 magazines are already online and half that many have done CD-ROMs. But several major publishers, Conde Nast and Meredith among them, have stayed largely on the sidelines.

Let's spell out the opportunities vs. the risks. The opportunities include extending a brand name into new distribution platforms; using new technologies to deliver additional information to audiences-and get immediate feedback; creating added-value programs for advertisers; and, eventually, tapping ancillary profit sources.

The risks? Just one: If publishers don't take their information and re-create it in an electronic format, someone else will, only under a different brand name. If there's no online edition of GQ, someone else will deliver men's fashion and life-style information electronically.

The truth, however, is that nothing beats an established brand name-and the reputation, credibility and built-in audiences that come with it. Readers trust the news more if they know it's coming from The New York Times.

Every new-media service provider recognizes this fact, giving publishers the opportunity to negotiate more lucrative revenue-sharing deals. Solid print brands are adding backbone to the new-media market.

That said, the worst thing a publisher can do is simply regurgitate its print product in an electronic environment. Print still has inherent advantages over online services, notably in graphic presentation and portability. Online products have to play to the strengths of the medium.

When Time first went online, it dumped the entire contents of each issue onto a computer screen, the one advantage being that you could access it a day before you could pick it up at newsstands.

Time then added a daily news feed, extending the brand by doing electronically what it simply can't do with its core product.

At least Time is among the 200 already out there. A few words of advice for those who aren't: Don't fret the technology delays. Dismiss the question of whether there are two million or 20 million people on the Internet (it's not meant to be a mass medium). Ignore comparisons of online chat to CB-radio.

This is not going away. Nor is print as we know it going away. But publishers can bet on missing real opportunities if they don't gamble on interactivity.

Scott Donaton is editor of the Interactive Media & Marketing section. He can be reached at YWKJ04A@prodigy.com. or SDonaton@eworld.com.

Contact Associate Editor Debra Aho Williamson at YNXB44A-@prodigy.com.

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