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National Perspective | THE MEDIA

New Internet Magazine Inside.com Covers--and Joins--a Chaotic Industry

June 13, 2000|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The provocative ads, splashed on bus stops in Manhattan and in magazines, reflect a media world in turmoil: "No dot-com schmuck is going to tell me how to run my studio," declares a middle-aged business executive, identified as a soon-to-be "retired" movie mogul.

Brash and brainy, the campaign for Inside.com, an ambitious media Web site that formally launches this week, warns that the worlds of film, television, books, print media and the Internet are rapidly converging, and that this is a perilous moment for those working in them. But it's also a perilous economic moment for media-related Web sites such as Inside.

Last week, there was heavy carnage among such online firms, and some Internet experts, while praising Inside's philosophy, question whether it will collapse on the same shifting sands. Citing financial shortfalls, Salon, a respected online magazine, cut 13 employees; APBNews.com, an award-winning criminal justice news Web site, was forced to close and lay off 140 reporters. Newswatch.org, a public interest media criticism site, also ceased operations.

Still, amid the dot-com setbacks and the babble of competitors covering the media and entertainment worlds, Inside's backers sound unfazed. "This is a very bewildering and anxious time for the media," says Kurt Andersen, a former editor of Spy and New York Magazine and one of Inside's founders. "Our goal is to report information online about all these industries that you're not going to get anywhere else--both as they are now and as they evolve."

The fledgling Web site promises breaking news stories, elaborate databases for film, TV and publishing and eye-catching graphics, all designed to attract subscribers from America's sprawling media-entertainment complex. In its first few days, Inside has pumped out original stories about Hollywood agents, overnight TV ratings, the future of WebTV and regional book sales.

There are bells and whistles galore: A demographic study of CBS's "Survivor" by Nielsen Research indicates much of the audience is young and affluent. A daily Power Index, based on input from customers, rates America's top media moguls (Time Warner's Gerald Levin topped Monday's list). "Weekend Read" lists the magazine articles and unpublished books currently being sent to L.A.-based producers.

But will online customers pay $19.95 a month or $199 annually for this information? Although some of the stories and the links to other sites will remain free, readers will eventually have to pay for the bulk of Inside's data.

"These guys are right on target intellectually, because the media world is in huge flux and there's a need for such broad-based information," says Michael Wolff, media critic for New York Magazine. "But it's not clear if people will pay for it, especially now, with so much material available free elsewhere on the Net."

Others are more blunt: "I'm sure the people at Inside have a good game plan and pitched their bankers well," said Jim Romenesko, who operates the lean and popular MediaNews Web site. "Still, people have only so much time and the Web audience wants information free, with no excuses. I hear all this talk about media convergence and my eyes glaze over, because I really don't know if the average person cares about this."

To hear Andersen tell it, Inside is aimed at savvy, upper-echelon players in the media. The company has raised $23 million from an array of New York-based blue-chip investors. And the rationale, he says, is simple: A cutting-edge Web site covering all of the media and entertainment businesses under one roof is an educated bet on the future.

Inside was conceived last year by three refugees from "old media," including Andersen, CEO Deanna Brown, former president of Brill Media Ventures, and Michael Hirschorn, co-chairman and editor in chief, who was previously editor of Spin magazine. The Web site, which has hired reporters away from the Wall Street Journal and Daily Variety, has 70 employees in New York and Los Angeles, according to Andersen.

"We're not just covering inside business information, because what happens to the media conglomerates affects our whole culture," said Hirschorn. "And in some ways, the rapidly changing structure of the media-entertainment world is more interesting than the products themselves."

Inside's debut comes at a time of severe media turbulence. One minute Time Warner is an independent giant; the next, it's swallowed by America Online. Amid the rapid growth of e-publishing, the book business confronts the possibility that some authors may no longer need New York publishing houses to print or distribute their work.

Brown argues there is a vast natural audience waiting to be tapped: "It's the music executive, the literary agent, the lawyer and publisher, the publicists connected with all of this," she notes. In addition, she suggests there is a class of "fascinated outsiders" willing to pay for such information.

With proper marketing and development, she says, Inside has a chance to garner 100,000 or so subscriptions, and Andersen believes the Web site has a three- to four-year window of opportunity.

But others say Inside's game plan runs afoul of the very trends it purports to be covering. Jon Katz, an online media critic, says Powerful Media Inc., Inside's owner, has an overly Manhattan- and Hollywood-centered focus.

"In the 21st century," he says, "the powerful person in media is not Tina Brown in New York. It's the 13-year-old kid downloading Napster in Seattle. It's the woman in Akron, Ohio, who runs her own Web site on quilting and gets more than 500,000 hits. These days, most people want to make their own media--they don't want to be reading so much about it."

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