More and more, traditional media companies are facing that question as commercial services open their doors to the Web. Suddenly, the idea of creating a separate area for each proprietary service seems like an inefficient use of time when all the effort can be concentrated on creating one super Web site.
But commercial services still have two powerful advantages: community and a ready-made audience. And not every media company is willing to give that up.
"We're trying to offe....content on our sites and then facilitate [community and discussion from] it," said Tina Nederlander, senior VP-programming and executive producer at iVillage, a family and parenting suite of content "channels" that appears on America Online now and the Web next year.
Commercial online services will increasingly assume a browser role, analysts say.
"If you're going to start now, you should start on the Web," said Josh Bernoff, senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass.
"The Web looks better now," said Laura Klancer, Lang Communications' director of new media. She added that talks this year with commercial online services for Women's Web (http://www.womweb.com), a site with business and service content for women that went live Oct. 11, were "mostly break-even" and to her not worthwhile.
"What they wanted to pay, you couldn't make a profit doing," she said. "Content is my business, and I can't afford to give it away because it's how I make my living. I will customize it, make it valuable and sell it to you, but I won't give it away."
Representatives of commercial services say they're not afraid-obviously.
"They used to say, `You're not paying us enough'*" before AOL opened up to the Web, said Ted Leonsis, president of America Online Services Co. "Now they say, `How much can I pay you'*" to advertise or to buy a link.
A healthy number of media entities remain committed to commercial services.
Time is jumping from AOL to CompuServe, wooed not only by a better financial deal but prime positioning. Forbes recently launched on CompuServe without a Web counterpart, and some insiders think the deal was the result of a particularly attractive financial package.
Cyberpublishers that stay with commercial services still have to face the issue of differing design and text tools.
"With the commercial online services, you always learn that they don't have this or that capability, but on the Internet you might be able to do it in three weeks," said Greg Stuart, senior VP-director of interactive communications at Wunderman Cato Johnson, New York.
"We want to take our content and produce it once," said Dan Fisher, editor of online services at the Los Angeles Times, which is moving its TimesLink service to the Web and may leave Prodigy as well. "And we want to get as many people to see it as possible."