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Home >Press > SFExaminer

Media | Press Releases | Founders | Media Kit

Sunday, December 12, 1999


Web content may be a prince, not a king

By Matt Beer
Examiner Technology Writer

On the World Wide Web, the slang for stories and news reports is "content" -- the digital form of what keeps the ads from bumping into each other in magazines, newspapers and television.

If you're reading this on the Web, you're not looking at a story; you're looking at content.

In the early days of the World Wide Web (some five long years ago), the mantra was "content is king." Web sites with the best content were going to be the virtual rulers of this new medium.

But no one at the time could figure out how to make a lot of money from content Web sites. Advertisers couldn't "wrap their minds around" (as they said at the Internet start-ups) the concept of how ads on a computer screen were supposed to get users to buy things.

In 1998, a popular award-winning literary Web site called Word folded for want of funds, sparking cries that "content is dead" on the Internet.

Then came Amazon.com and other online sites that were more catalog than content, selling stuff directly to Web surfers. This online retailer movement, collectively known as e-commerce, pushed what remained of content off the stage, the better to make room for sites hawking everything from best-sellers to lingerie and pet food, much to the delight of investors who poured billions of dollars into these e-commerce sites.

Now, ever so slowly, content Web sites are finding a new foothold in the online world. While observers say it won't exactly be a king again, content does stand a good chance of being a prince.

Investor interest, always a weather vane for a coming Web fad, has been piqued.

Myprimetime.com, which publishes articles and essays for the baby boom generation, has opened in a bustling operation behind the deserted Federal Mint building on Fifth Street near Market. The site has received $4.5.million from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, a $550.million venture capital fund.

"People are back on the Web looking for compelling information," said Donald Van de Mark, myprimetime's co-founder and editorial director. "They've already had the buying experience. Now they're looking for more."

"I'd say content is making a play again," said Joey Anuff, co-founder of Suck.com, a daily satirical Web site that recently received an undisclosed round of funding from Conde Nast, the folks who publish such magazines as GQ and Vanity Fair.

Kurt Anderson, co-founder of Spy magazine, along with publishing luminaries like Michael Hirschorn (Esquire, New York) and Deanna Brown (Entertainment Weekly, Brill's Content) are getting the content buzz going on the East Coast by announcing that they've received $5.million in seed money from the venture capital arm of the Chase Manhattan bank to start Powerful Media.

Powerful Media will soon unveil a Web site dedicated to reporting on the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the media world, including music, film and the growing Web content industry.

"I've every expectation and belief that the rise of online content is now due," said Power Media's Michael Hirschorn. "People were scared off by the business model of content for the Web, but they're coming back."

Content sites will tell you their numbers are way up these days.

ISyndicate is a San Francisco Internet company that distributes third-party content to various subscribing Web sites -- the Web's version of an old-fashioned press syndicate, which distributes columns and news stories to newspapers and other print outlets.

ISyndicate says it is posting stories to 104,531 sites, up from the 20,000 sites it serviced just this past February.

"Everyone wants content," said iSyndicate co-founder Allison Hartsoe. "They can't get enough."

Continued Hartsoe: "Sites realize that having content gives a site a sense of being something more than just someplace that's selling something.

"Being an online brochure or catalog just doesn't cut it anymore."

This time around, however, the content-filled sites are taking a few lessons from their e-commerce brethren.

Cultural journalism sites such as Salon.com and Slate, which weathered some hard financial storms, are offering ads that act as fast digital doorways to e-commerce sites like BN.com, the Barnes&Noble.com book-selling site, and Neiman Marcus.com, the tony department store chain. Salon and other sites take a cut of products sold through these ads.

Instead of the long stories that appear in printed magazines, Web sites are posting shorter dispatches in keeping with the still difficult task of reading long stories on a computer screen.

"Brevity, levity and utility" are the bywords, said myprimetime's Van de Mark.

Hummer Winblad's Ann Winblad said the new content sites will practice "contextual commerce." She points to ehow.com as an example of this new content model. At ehow, another Hummer Winblad investment, a visitor is shown how to, say, carve a turkey. Along the way, ads pitch a new carving knife or a mail order turkey.

"But the content experience has to be very, very good," cautioned Winblad. "Those sites that try to cut corners there won't make it."

Content sites are also offering their own products, such as quick updates beamed to small hand-held computers and cell phone screens and subscriptions to longer versions of articles and other features.

"For us, the killer moment is when a guy sitting in a business meeting with his Palm Pilot and gets a bulletin that his company has just been sold," said Hirschorn. "That's a very powerful idea."

"And that," added Hirschorn, "is when content is going to be running things again."



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