Publishing: A “New Yorker” for the 21st Century

I’ve bumped into a series of issues related to publishing recently. I don’t know that they ever will or should combine to form a coherent idea, but it feels like I should record them as though in a design notebook…

The audience for news is growing, but the newspaper business model is failing. Something like 40% of a newspaper’s costs are from the printed paper, 90% of the revenue, but a declining portion of the readership. Classifieds and inserts in the printed paper just aren’t working any more compared with what’s available online. News orgs across the country have been cutting back for a long time and are continuing to do so.

My boss is reading Cory Doctorow on his iPhone.

Every buying decision is painful to me. “Do I really want this? What exactly am I getting here and will it be worth it?” The trick is to make each sale seem like something that I have successfully bought before. Instead of wondering about whether I’ll be happy with some new book, it’s easier to buy “the current edition” of some magazine I like. I think micropayments for individual on-line content has not been at all successful (yet) because it converts every single purchase into a first-time purchase. If I’m going to take a risk on something for the first time, there better be enough “there” there for it to be likely to have been worth the time it took me to agonize over whether it was worth it.

Berk Breathed has stopped writing daily newspaper comics, citing a disappearing market. My daughter is a great fan of Ozy and Millie online.

I love local stuff in the paper.

Short stories and serializations work better online than novels. Newspaper articles are a good length. Comics are a good format for an iPhone screen.

A guy in San Francisco stuck two cameras out his window and set up the feed as It was a huge hit, with people making up games in the user-comment section. Thugs in Adam’s high-crime neighborhood shut him down, but others are now springing up in his high-crime neighborhood, throughout the city, and in other cities.

There’s free content on the Web that you don’t sign in to, free content that you do sign in to, and paid content. All three have their place, and sometimes cooperatively so. For example, each can act as a sales funnel for the next. Tracking what folks do in the larger parts of the funnel helps you to know what people are interested in generally, and it helps you qualify leads for your sales efforts in the more expensive tiers.

People haven’t figured out how to make money from blogging, but they want to.

Just-in-time is valuable for some things. I might read a free comic or column on a non-sign-in Web site when new stuff comes out each month, or whenever I happen to look. But I might pay for an electronic-newstand issue that has a bunch of stuff that I want to read without waiting. Particularly for stuff from a source that I know will be satisfying because I’ve bought it before, or at least read some version of it before.

I’d like to have a whole bunch of relatively short related stuff to explore on a timely topic. News, essays, fiction, visual comics/photos/movies on The Election, The Green Economy, 15 Ways Fuel Cells Will Change the World, 12 Free Things To Do With the Family This Weekend in Silicon Valley. Community commentary might or might not matter to me.

In a developing new market, it is important to build mindshare and marketshare, and to experiment with different business models.

A product must provide value for every participant in the value-chain. Contributors at various levels (e.g., unpaid, paid, superstar) should be able to build their own brand. Advertisers and subscribers should know that each payment is helping to build a sustainable ecosystem that is going to be valuable to them in the long run.

I think I’m imagining a “New Yorker for the 21 st century” that I purchase to browse and read over time. The content and design of each issue is created especially for iPhone viewing. A free form dribbles out and archives some or all of the same material and has targeted advertising. A sign-in version allows commentary, localized and personalized content, and possibly user-provided content, and acts as further targeting and as a farming mechanism for identifying and developing both subject and talent. All three formats are highly interlinked to help the reader to serendipitously discover other content of interest.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. My model has been to give away electronic versions of my book & sell printed copies.

    The whole reason I started wetmachine was to pimp my books. It’s my dirty little secret that I only invited all you other guys to blog with me so that wetmachine would be more interesting, hence draw more readers, hence maybe enlarge my audience a little so that I could sell a few books.

    Is it working? Who knows? I have no idea whether any of your readers, or Harold’s readers or Greg’s or Gary’s or the neutrinos’ readers have crossed over and bought any of my books.

    Something interesting in the last few days, in terms of online buzz (I’m going to write more about this soon): The Pains got boing-boinged yesterday. Boing-boing is one of the most popular blogs on the planet. It sent close to a thousand people to the site yesterday. Which resulted in the sale of a grand total of three books, two of them to somebody I already knew. Boing going is great for increasing general awareness of my books, it would appear, but not for selling them.

    By contrast, Jeffrey Zeldman’s nice post on his popular blog resulted in the sale of a couple of dozen books. According to technorati, Zeldman has an authority of 575 or so. Bling boing as 12,000. (Wetmachine used to rank at 110 or so but lately comes in around 80) Zeldman explicitly recommended that people buy my books, whereas boing boing merely said that they were there.

    Anyway, a zeldman post has a hundred times more influence than a boing-boing post, it seems. I think that says something not only about what the post actually says, but also about the kinds of readers the two sites have. Readers go to zeldman not only to be entertained, but also to learn stuff. I think people go to boing boing purely to be entertained.

  2. I think the crux of what I’m trying to say has to do with the application of the fourth paragraph. “Every buying decision…”

    In a way, Cheap Complex Devices blew your brand on this point.

    The idea behind a literary/news/art e-zine is that it can establish a brand that its readers consider a safe bet for a particular kind of material. The e-zine becomes a sales channel in which the authors can put out a certain kind of material — even as they pursue other material in other venues.

    I’m not certain that Wetmachine acts on those principles. If someone likes what Harold says, does that make buying “Acts” a good bet?

    I think Wetmachine could be a venue for you. While I’m not sure exactly how, it probably needs more you. But I gotta believe that folks you know like Doctorow, and folks on-island like that reporter fellow who launched the island’s early ISP, are thinking about some sort of new kind of vehicle. I’d be inclined to get involved in that effort, and then think of Wetmachine in relationship to that.

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