The virtual extinction of the online magazine is upon us. Slate exists primarily as a massively-subsidized bulletin board for narcissistic Washington and New York publishing and media people -- it wouldn't last an hour without Microsoft's cash. Word folded last year and Salon is in almost continuous decline, struggling to stay afloat by doing something it really, really, didn't want to do -- charging subscribers for some of its content. Earlier this year, the floundering, media-centric, super-hyped Inside.com was swallowed up by Stephen Brill's Contentville.
One of the persistent myths about the Net has been that because it costs so little to publish online, and the technology makes it so simple, diversity can flourish in cyberspace no matter how big "Big" media gets. As we're learning, that isn't so. The history of media, especially of the large corporatized media of modern times, is that individuals, small groups, and people with some common interests can spout off to their heart's content on their own websites, pages, mailing lists, and in chat rooms, just as they once did in pamphlets and on posters. But independent, distinctive and varied media entities find it just as difficult to compete with conglomerates online as off.
This creates an odd new reality for media online. Individual voices have never been freer, more numerous or outspoken -- witness the rise of instant messaging and inward-looking p2p forums. But they've also never been more marginalized or insignificant.
What happened to the traditional media -- acquisition by conglomerates that offer diverse services which happen to include tepid and homogenized content -- is happening in cyberspace, too.
As Feed and Suck, two of the smarter, more attitudinal publications of the Net's first generation, vanish, they will not be replaced by similar kinds of publications. The difficulties of competing for staff, services and content with Big Media have become dauntingly obvious. AOL Time-Warner is now the largest media company in the world, with revenues of $36.2 billion. Disney is second, at $25.8 billion, followed by Viacom ($20 billion), Vivendi Universal ($17.7 billion), Bertelsmann ($15.7), News Corporation ($14.2 billion) and Sony ($10 billion). Feed and/or Suck could each have gone a decade on one day's petty cash from any of these companies.
Against these behemoths Feed and Suck had a combined editorial staff of between four and eight people, according to the New York Times, and the publications had no marketing budgets with which to reach beyond their small, and generally, elitist, readerships. Nor did they have enough of a sales force to generate additional revenue. They couldn't drawn enough subscribers, or raise even a small amount of money. That's a pretty chilling bit of media truth.
AOL Time Warner has Wall Street investors drooling over its new "all you can eat" Net access strategy. It's now a company that can deliver to its subscribers nearly every form of media content -- magazines, movies, web sites -- via every form of delivery -- including print, Net, wireless, digital, cable and phone. Sure, countless grown-ups and adolescents can still spout off on its mailing lists and public discussion forums. But individualistic sites like Feed, Suck and Salon can't deliver in all those different modes, can't offer large numbers of consumers the same range of services. They can't give you all you can eat, or even that big a meal.
This is a danger that much of the hacker universe has missed from the beginning. The problem isn't that cops will show up at your doors, and close down our sites and shut us up. Why should they bother? The real threat is that companies like AOL Time Warner and media outlets like MSN are already marginalizing, then eliminating lesser competitors by offering vast amounts of content and service to middle-class consumers at relatively low cost. Idiosyncratic Net voices get stilled by economics: they're forced into positions where they can't function independently or competitively. And a lot is going to be lost - like diversity of opinion. AOL Time Warner's idea of fierce civic discussion is a spokesman for the left, and one from the right, screaming at each other.
Salonhas for years provided some of the smartest coverage of technology anywhere. None of the big media companies offer smart and smart-ass commentary the way Suckonce did. What's the last provocative story or discussion you saw in a Disney or AOL Time Warner property or on AOL?
In an only-recently different world, Time's reporters would be keeping an eye on companies like AOL. Now, Time itself is one of the behemoth's smallest and least significant properties. What's the last story you read there?
"This has got to be some type of conservative plot to restrict free-thinking attitudes," Plastic contributor Star Freed wrote in the site's chat area earlier this week. "I'm sure of it." But he's flattering himself. In the Corporate Republic formerly known as the United States, neither liberals nor conservatives need a plot to wipe out a small magazine website. Big Media will do it for them.
Weblogs and blogs can be vibrant and fascinating. So can mailing lists and me-to-me-media media entities. But they don't reach significant numbers of people; the don't have significant influence; they don't offer any real bulkwark against the AOL-ing of the Net. Nor are they a substitute for truly free-wheeling, idiosyncratic media outlets.
These defunct sites aren't blameless. While Feed and Suck offered interesting original and provocative reading, they never quite embraced the power of interactivity. They never really gave readers a role in agenda-setting, and they clung too long to old, top-down media sensibilities. Salon has never quite shaken the feeling that it's at heart a newspaper/print magazine grafted onto the Web.
For all that, these online magazines were and are interesting and important. Disney, AOL and Sony are, at their core, entertainment entities, not journalistic ones. They aren't interested in free speech or outspoken opinion that might offend potential consumers or spook advertisers and stockholders; they function according to the principle of mass-marketing, not hell-raising or intellectual exploration.
The corporatization of media ought to be a hot political issue, but who's going to raise it? AOL? The members of congress whose campaigns are funded by large corporations? The public has little consciousness that its media have been taken over by conglomerates.
The process that has essentially homogenized the popular press and made it irrelevant to anybody under 50 is spreading online, unopposed by regulators or by the Netizens who ought to be up in arms about the creation of a monstrous entity like AOL Time-Warner.
The demise of Suck truly sucks.