Be on the Web or be square, if you're a magazine

In two weeks a new magazine from Time Inc.'s People Magazine Group will hit newsstands. While the first issue of "Real Simple," aimed at mothers and professionals in their 30s, is still under wraps, it already has a Web site encouraging people to subscribe.

Such pre-release buzz is one example of how the Internet is changing the way magazines are marketed and maintained.

Publishers have been slow to embrace the Internet (some have yet to), but they haven't fought it the way they did TV when it debuted and bumped magazines off as the main national marketing tool. Today, they are exploring the Net's ability to do everything from improve circulation to converse with readers.

"It's all evolving very, very quickly," says David Abrahamson, an associate professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.

If successful, publishers may eventually create an information circle that keeps readers constantly toggling between newsstand and computer. In the meantime, many need to figure out how to translate their publication's glossy pictures and lengthy articles into something consumers will look for online.

"I can't imagine sitting in front of a computer" to read a magazine, says Nadia Casiano, an avid magazine reader, as she selects something for her commute home at Eastern Newsstand in New York's Grand Central Station.

A few feet way, Phyllis Lemonier looks through rows of titles. She says she gave up on reading magazines on the Internet: "It's a waste of time because I can't see the whole thing."

Editors say they want to use the Web as a place to have a dialogue with readers and create community, not duplicate their content. "I love the idea that we can use the Internet this way," says Ms. Magazine editor in chief Marcia Ann Gillespie. "I don't see it as taking away from the magazine."

Christine Ferrari, managing editor of two-year-old Teen People, says the conversation they have with readers on their site makes the magazine "much more reflective of what the audience wants to read about." It also allows them to get readers' voices into stories. And for her audience, she notes, you have to be online or you're just not cool.

Yet it's still not clear that magazines need the Web to survive. Gear, an 18-month-old men's magazine, has a circulation of 300,000 and growing despite not having a site. But with increasing postal rates and direct mail proving less effective, more publications will likely turn to the Internet for marketing help. The Nation magazine generated 3,500 subscriptions from its Web site last year, and Teen People picked up 50,000.

Publisher Andy Sareyan says via e-mail that the "Real Simple" site is primarily for marketing: "We used it to promote the magazine to consumers and to prospective advertisers." Gradually more features and interactive tools will be layered in. He adds, "We are planning on relaunching the site in the fall."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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