Guerrilla Publishers Fan Out on the Net

Who Needs a Printing Press When You Have a Point of View?

January 27, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

Adam Engst "conservatively" estimates that his computer newsletter, TidBITS, reaches about 110,000 people each week.

Addicted to Noise, Michael Goldberg's new rock 'n' roll magazine, has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people a month since it debuted in December.

TV critic Aaron Barnhart reaches more than 10,000 people each week with his Late Show News, and close to 40,000 subscribe to his daily mailing of the David Letterman Ten-Best List.

Thousands more read whatever investigative reporter Brock Meeks has to say about the telecommunications industry in his CyberWire Dispatch.

None of these publications ever stains paper with ink. They're part of a new wave of electronic journals distributed for free on the Internet and created by entrepreneurial writer-editor-publishers, working alone or in small teams, often with little or no financing. They share one trait: a personal touch.

"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," press critic A.J. Liebling famously wrote in the New Yorker in 1960.

But Liebling's celebrated dictum may need to be revised for the digital age, as computers -- and the increasingly widespread networks linking them -- change the nature of publishing from the ground up.

One of the many functions the Internet is beginning to perform is that of a massively distributed, open-to-all printing press. In the new world of Internet publishing, location isn't all that important -- anyone hooked up to the network can publish, and anyone can subscribe. You don't need a press, ink, paper, staples or postage.

All you need is a computer -- and a point of view.

"Publishing on the Internet is a fabulous way for people to make a name for themselves," says Engst. He started TidBITS with his wife, Tonya, back in 1990, making it a long-term success in this young field.

TidBITS keeps readers up-to-date on developments in Macintosh computing and the Internet. Engst's popular and incredibly useful "Internet Starter Kit" books help bring new subscribers into the fold.

"I've always kept it very first-person. The reader knows where I'm coming from," says Engst. "I try to give the facts accurately as I know them, but in a lot of ways it's like a movie review. You don't have to agree with what I say, but hopefully, you'll learn enough to know whether or not you agree."

TidBITS, like Barnhart's Late Show News and Meeks' CyberWire Dispatch, is all text -- allowing it to be sent via electronic mail, posted to Usenet news groups and distributed online as widely as possible. Addicted to Noise, on the other hand, offers up a colorful riot of brash images to accompany its articles by well-known music critics like Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus.

That's possible because it's distributed on the World Wide Web, the easy-to-navigate, fast-growing Internet neighborhood-cum-mall that lets publishers embellish text with images, sound clips and video.

For Addicted to Noise, that means readers of a music review can also listen to excerpts as they read. The Santa Cruz-based Internet Underground Music Archive, with which Addicted to Noise shares its Internet address and technological base, also offers a big selection of music by unsigned bands for curious net-cruisers to download.

"You can look at it as random-access radio," Goldberg says. "It's like being your own DJ -- it puts the control in the hands of the music fan. You don't have to sit around and hope that maybe you can hear what you want on the radio."

Institutional journalism is out in full force on the World Wide Web, too -- from hip, independent startups like HotWired, the offshoot of Wired magazine, which launched last fall, to corporate behemoths like Time-Warner, which recently opened a Web site named Pathfinder. But the structure of the Web helps to level the ground between big and small players -- from the low cost-of-entry to the way page design is set, which has as much to do with the reader's software as with the publisher's investment.

The new Internet publications resemble underground print 'zines in their informality and irreverence. But they reach much wider readerships, and often they're written and edited with much more professionalism.

The big difference today between the Internet's institutional publishers and its small-scale independents is, predictably, money. Someday -- experiments are likely to begin this year -- net visionaries expect publishers will be able to charge each reader some tiny amount of digital cash each time they visit a spot on the Web. Those fractions of cents, multiplied many times over, could add up to enough revenue to support a whole new publishing industry.

In the meantime, the old mantra still holds: Don't quit your day job. Meeks is Washington bureau chief for Inter@active Week, a trade publication; Barnhart works in a Chicago real estate office, though his Late Show News has led to a burgeoning freelance writing career.

Yet Addicted to Noise, like HotWired, has been able to sell some advertising. And for Engst, TidBITS and related book projects have become a full-time business. The newsletter now has several commercial sponsors, on what Engst calls "the PBS model."

"You don't have to be a big company, you don't have to have a lot of money," he says. "This really is a great way for an individual, in some small way, to change the world."

Or, at the very least, to reach the world.


Addicted to Noise is at http://www.addict.com/ATN/ on the World Wide Web.

To subscribe to CyberWire Dispatch, send e-mail to majordomo@cyberwerks.com with SUBSCRIBE CWD-L in the body of the message.

To subscribe to Late Show News, send e-mail to listproc@echonyc.com with SUBSCRIBE LATE-SHOW-NEWS [your name] in the body of the message.

To subscribe to TidBITS, send e-mail to info@tidbits.com for information.

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