Sink or Shift
Will we ever curl up with a magsite or will publishers take a bath trying to make us?
The offices at Shift Media are rarely silent. Phones ring constantly and lively conversations buzz along, meshing with hypnotic bass-heavy electronic music pouring out of computer speakers. Located on the second floor of a downtown Toronto art deco building, the space looks like a glorified university student’s residence room. The mix of comfortable furniture, young, street-savvy people and technology only furthers this impression. A painting hung high on the wall reads “Your Children Don’t Need You” in bold black letters over blue and yellow splotches of paint. Amid all the music and chatter that fill the room, a plain, innocent-looking web server, nestled in the section of the office devoted to Shift Online, quietly works away as staff members zip past it on wheeled chairs.
This inconspicuous web server – and others like it – will probably play a crucial role in the long-term health of Canadian magazines. Large and small publications have started their own websites, though they aren’t seeing profits yet. Shift Online is leading the way with the most impressive, and most expensive, site. Other magazines are wary of investing too much money in an unpredictable medium, but they’re also afraid to miss an opportunity to build reader loyalty. Nor do publishers want to be mere onlookers if the profits do come rolling in.
Less than a decade ago, people laughed at the Internet. Back then, CD-ROMs got all the attention. “The Internet was CD-ROM’s poor bastard cousin who won the lottery,” laughs Dave Sylvestre, lead online designer at Shift. “Everyone used to sneer at the Internet, but now it’s where all the action is.”
With the number of wired Canadian households growing – it blossomed to 24 per cent by December 1999 – publishers can no longer ignore the promising medium. “The demographic that is not interested in the Web is dying. I mean actually dying,” says Rachel Ross, an interactive producer at MSNBC. “I’ve heard of kids who don’t know how to turn on the TV but love to go online and surf.”
In 1994, Shift became the first Canadian magazine to go online, and it remains the trendsetter. “Shift Onlineis the model that everyone would like to aspire to,” says Craig Saila, online Money editor at CANOE, Canada’s leading news and information site. For a magazine devoted to digital culture, a website was a natural – perhaps even essential – offshoot. “When we started, it was just the beginning of the World Wide Web,” says Andrew Heintzman, who recently resigned as publisher of Shift. “We just had a hunch that this was an interesting new opportunity for us.” But it didn’t take long for other magazines to join the growing Internet frenzy. Around 1996, several magazines launched sites that mirrored their print versions, but these trial balloons soon took on lives of their own.
For some magazines, the Web became a valuable way to build the brand. The Canadian Business site, which started in September 1997, has done this so effectively that the magazine now plans to expand the site until it becomes a self-sufficient hub where business-to-business transactions take place. “There was an awareness that sooner or later we had to get more serious about the Web and having a brand that is an information provider, not just a magazine,” explains Alex Beckett, website manager at Canadian Business.
Other magazines wanted to get on the Web to reach a wider audience. As Paula Gignac, web business manager at Chatelaine Connects, says, these sites link Canada’s population, which is small compared with the huge distance it spreads across. The Chatelaine site, which started in 1996, gets over one million page views (the number of times a page is fully downloaded) per month, putting it in the top three Canadian magazine sites for traffic, according to 11 CORINFO Research and Information Services, Inc.
Although the Web still involves a lot of experimentation, there are a few basic guidelines to building successful magazine sites. In a 1997 study published in the Canadian Journal of Communication, researchers found that two main factors influence the acceptability of electronic journals: human factors (such as the searching capabilities of a site) and economic factors (such as online subscription fees). Given that few Canadian magazines currently charge users, the success or failure of a site can rest on the design. Since very few people who get information from the Web read every word on a page, it is crucial for designers to incorporate easy-to-read text into their layouts. Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook, says readers are used to professional layouts in print magazines and expect the same high calibre from websites. “People won’t go to a site and stay there if it looks amateurish,” he says.
Many magazines continually redesign their sites to keep up with demanding audiences, but the small staffs at most sites make this a difficult task. These changes range from minute text alterations to massive navigation modifications. Working within the limitations of HTML, Alex Dordevic, the editor and publisher of TRIBE Magazine, and Dan Rice, the brains behind the colourful TRIBE site, put a hard-to-miss Pictures icon on their main page after readers complained they couldn’t find the popular snapshots of raves and clubs. In an effort to make listings more accessible on the simply designed broken pencil site, which went online in 1995, Hal Niedzviecki, editor and publisher of the indie-culture magazine, added a search engine in 1998.
Another central element to these sites is editorial content.In March 1999, the Saturday Night site underwent a massive redesign to better reflect the site’s print sister. In addition to the Canadian Letters section and other content from the magazine, the site now offers Web-exclusive material. Clive Thompson, a technology columnist for Newsday and editor at large at Shift, likes the way the Saturday Night site, which started in spring 1998 with a budget of $25,000, holds many archives – a read-’em-and-toss-’em subscriber’s dream. But MSNBC’s Ross, who worked as an online editor at the Toronto Life site in 1997, stresses the importance of posting more than just shovelware from the print magazines on these sites. “You know how you can just watch Canadian television and tell it’s Canadian television just by looking at it?” she asks. “I think the mark of a Canadian online magazine is a lack of original content.”
If Canadian sites are short on fresh content,many try to make up for it by building online communities. Reader interaction, a key part of successful websites, can be anything from signing electronic guest books to emailing staff. Chat rooms, which are usually monitored by an editor or webmaster, make people feel like part of a community – and that brings them back to the site.
Today’s Parent has had success with its well-used forum groups, which span topics from nutrition to single parenting. The five original message groups have increased to 16. Online editor Dan Bortolotti was shocked to learn how popular the site’s old chat room was when he shut it down for a few weeks of maintenance. So many readers complained about the disappearance that the online team had to put the simply designed chat room back up.
Michelle Houlden, a graphics editor with a young daughter, visits Today’s Parent‘s forums daily. She gets as excited finding out whether fellow users have had babies or become pregnant as she does watching her favourite soaps. “The forums are a place to meet cyberfriends, share ideas and unload frustrations to willing ears,” says Houlden, who got hooked after asking how to get her daughter to brush her teeth.
In addition to offering interactivity, by including a users’ poll, the Shift site takes advantage of advanced design technology – another element that sets it apart from the sometimes drab world of online magazines. When Barnaby Marshall became online editor and producer of Shift Online in December 1996, he knew he wanted to use Shockwave Flash technology, which allows designers to create moving images that combine sound and animation. When Marshall first introduced the alternative Flash version of the site in 1997, most users became frustrated with the problems they had downloading the program, though they could have opted for the standard HTML version of the site.
Today, Marshall feels vindicated by his decision to use Flash because 88 per cent of Web surfers now have it. More important, Shift Online records 1.2 million page impressions (which are measured by how many times a rectangular banner ad is shown) each month. One of the benefits of Flash is its ability to make a simple image come to life by simply rolling a cursor over it. “It’s a good visual metaphor for the idea of digging deeper,” says Sylvestre, who has been at Shift for three years. “With the Web, even at its best, you can drill down until you’re exhausted, or you can just sort of skim the surface.”
Marshall is not interested in people who skim the continued on page 69 surface. With his tech-savvy audience in mind, he’s constantly working to improve the suspension of disbelief on the site. When you watch a movie, he explains, you aren’t thinking about the frames of film or the projector. “But with the Web, the technology is so in-your-face – crashing, burning, not working properly – that it is very difficult to lose oneself. Not knowing how somebody does something, that’s the magic of all entertainment media. You look at it and let it wash over you and you’re absorbed in it.”
Ruining the suspension of disbelief is one of many complaints about the technology. Peter Giffen, editor ofSympatico NetLife, says some print publications try to recreate their magazines online without taking full advantage of the multimedia aspects available. This defeats the purpose of having a site. But Peter Wilson, Net Works editor at The Vancouver Sun, says technology for technology’s sake can also be bothersome. “Fill a website with all the latest dancing, jiggling, morphing bits and then add them to various forms of music streaming and you just have a dancing, jiggling, morphing, all-singing, all-dancing jumble,” complains Wilson. He cites Shift Online as an example, dismissing the Flash-enhanced version of the site as irritating and distracting. “Nothing seems content to stay still or remain solid for a moment. Sorry, but reading is a linear activity.”
Whatever their design, few people expect websites will replace traditional magazines. “The vast majority of readers still like to curl up on the couch and look at a good magazine,” says Carroll. “When VCRs came out 20 years ago, everybody ran around saying ‘Movie theatres are dead.’ And look where we are today.”
But like a VCR in fast forward, the Internet shows no signs of slowing down. Bortolotti, whose Today’s Parentsite cost less than $30,000 to launch in 1996, says publishers have reached the point where they’re no longer content to simply have a website because everyone else does. They now want to make money. “It’s a business,” he says. “You can’t provide a service to readers if you’re just pouring money down the tubes.” Carroll suspects there is great frustration in magazine boardrooms across the country. Publishers think they need sites because their competitors do, but it’s costing a fortune. “You have to feel kind of sorry for them because it’s a massive sinkhole,” he says. “Nobody wants to talk about the fact that they’re losing their shirts.”
With this grim thought in mind, publishers are still confident that profits are possible. Judging by the approximate $100,000 in revenue the Shift site made in 1999, the potential exists. “There’s such an opportunity for growth that what you’re doing by forcing it to make a profit early is capping its ability to grow,” Heintzman explains. At this stage, Shift is still putting resources into it, trying to boost traffic. Shift Online‘s original budget of $1,000 has soared in the past six years, but because Shift Media is a privately owned company, Heintzman will only say it is now somewhere under $500,000.
For online magazines to flourish financially, they also have to start thinking about subscription fees. Canadian Business may soon collect micropayments (minimal fees that readers are charged to read online articles) for archived stories. “The Web is a good environment for offering archived information,” says Beckett. “We’re probably not enthusiastic about offering it for free.”
In 1999, 11 CORINFO reported that 74 per cent of Canadians would be willing to pay for online content, up markedly from only eight per cent in 1996. E-commerce is also part of the industry that is expected to explode. Many sites, including youth-culture oriented Vice, have major plans for this type of business in the near future. Within two years, Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice, wants to bring in at least U.S. $100,000 a week selling products such as streetwear and sex toys from its site. And Shift Online may soon start an online store that would catalogue merchandise of interest to their readers, like electronics and clothing.
Money is never far from a publisher’s mind. “The Web is this great opportunity, but at the same time, it’s not the kind of thing that you can stick one toe in. You have to be fully committed to it,” says Heintzman. “The problem for a lot of people is they’re like, ‘Oh well, we’ll put up a website, and then we’ll be rich.'” Most of these sites are not raking in much revenue yet, but the Internet is growing and has gained mainstream acceptance. And just like retail stores with “clicks-and-mortar” strategies (meaning they have both an Internet and a physical presence), Carroll says Canadian magazines will have to get online to be successful.
Adds Ross, who now works in Seattle: “Canada better catch up because it’s getting fast-kicked at the moment. I think Shift is the only one that could even compete in the ring with U.S. magazine websites.” With that weight on its back, the magazine industry may have to stop flipping pages and spend more time at its computer screen to brace itself for an online future.
Alicia Androich was the Managing Editor, Advertising for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.