And Now, the Next Big Thing

A web publishing conference helps make sense of a new medium.

January/February 1998

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Here's an impressive statistic: In the last three years, the number of households connected to the Internet has grown almost 100-fold -- from 250,000 to 22.4 million. No surprise, then, that publishers are scrambling to figure out what to put in front of all those info-hungry web surfers.

With that enormous potential audience in mind, more than 200 magazine, newspaper and book professionals gathered recently in Monterey for the three-day Publishing on the Web Conference, sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association. One of the questions they tackled: What makes web publishing different? Most conference-goers already "publish" much of their conventional print content -- news stories, press releases, magazine features, photographs -- on an Internet website. The trick is coming up with ways to take advantage of the web's uniqueness -- its capacity to deliver audio and video, supply instant updates, link related databases and open channels for two-way communication.

The 20 web honchos brought in to lead the sessions covered everything from the best ways to create news and entertainment sites to new ideas for selling over the Internet. Participants learned some of the secrets to attracting big-name writers (just ask them, advised Scott Rosenberg, senior editor at the savvy online magazine Salon) and picked up some of the finer points of cyber-design from David Siegel, author of Creating Killer Websites (horizontal dividing lines are out, he said; uncluttered screens with lots of white space are in).

It was the third year that the alumni association has held a web publishing conference. "Every year has been hugely different because the industry is moving so quickly," says Holly Brady, '69, director of the association's professional publishing courses. "Unlike most conferences, this is an event where people come together to learn from each other as much as from the speakers."

Most of the professionals on hand are putting their websites up alone or with a small staff and figuring out the new medium as they go. That's true even at some of the more elaborate sites, said William Allman, new media editor at U.S. News & World Report. He spent a couple of hours advising participants on "Building a Website on $10 a Day." The spiffy U.S. News site has a staff of four but maintains its timeliness and depth by borrowing staff and brainpower from the print side of the magazine. Allman pushes his online producers to experiment. "Make as many mistakes as possible," he said in his talk. "It's a great opportunity to learn."

That advice hit home for Katy Kennedy, website manager for Chronicle Books in San Francisco. She returned from the conference with a new sense of what is possible at Chronicle's site, which promotes and sells the small publisher's high-gloss books. "What I got out of it was that you have to embrace chaos and do the best with what you have," Kennedy said one day after returning to work.

Despite its unique features, online publishing is a lot like traditional media, several faculty members said. Create compelling "content," and the audience will follow. Then you can sell that audience to advertisers and make a profit. That was the model described by Peter Winter, president of Cox Interactive Media, which is a part of a larger company that owns television stations, radio stations and newspapers. "We have done this before," Winter said in his session on business and profit. "There are some unique challenges, but the fundamentals are the same."

And the fundamentals reach beyond the business model, according to Rich Jaroslovsky, '75, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal interactive edition (and also president of the Stanford Alumni Association's board of directors). "Yes, the technology is great," he said in a presentation on online content. "But there's no substitute for human creativity, for human ingenuity, for hard work."

And, he might add, no substitute for taking a three-day breather from a revolution in order to see the big picture.

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