Masthead CMC Magazine November 1, 1995 / Page 3


Utne's Growing Pains Send Ripple Throughout Industry

by Chris Lapham (

When the Utne Lens and lay-off staff members, the electronic publishing world sat up and took notice. Utne's retreat sends a ripple of doubt through the minds of new media professionals everywhere who are struggling to build a workable foundation for this new medium and establish its economic viability (or at least cover their salaries!)

Utne's announcement has special significance because this "field guide to the emerging culture" appeared to be doing everything right. The Utne Lens featured original content presented in beats such as "Community and Society," "Art, Travel & Culture," "Media & Technology," and "Body, Mind & Spirit." The Lens site is highly interactive hosting the popular Cafe Utne as well as offering readers "Mugshots"--an opportunity to create a mini-homepage and browse those of neighbors. Recognizing that writers are not always fairly compensated for their work, the Lens did what it could to "celebrate and reward creators" by allowing readers to purchase works directly from writers--with 80 percent of the profits flowing to the authors.

It is clear that the Utne Lens had vision and magnanimity. In a March/April '91 cover story in the Utne Reader, Eric Utne neatly described one of their lofty goals for utilizing the coming computer-mediated communications technology: "We'd like to introduce you to each other. Why? We're convinced that you'll find your fellow readers interesting, and that you may even find yourself collaborating in ways that can help change the world," said Utne.

Utne's warm and engaging approach was attracting readers--as many as 14,000 during a peak week--and averaged a steady 40,000 or so each month. All that, and advertisers, too! Sponsors of the Utne Lens site included Saturn, Apple Computers, Bantam Doubleday, Dell, HarperCollins, Microsoft, Working Assets Common Holdings, Voyager, and Stolie. The site's Kaleidoscope section is a graphically-pleasing and innovative way to present sponsors online.

So what happened? According to Online Manager Griff Wigley, the Utne Lens was "too ambitious." If Wigley could turn back the hands of time, he believes they should have "grew more slowly and used Utne Magazine's existing staff and content to grow a little at a time," Wigley said in a phone interview. "We saw Hot Wired and said 'Hey, we can do that!' But we're not high tech...not it's hard to get big numbers."

According to Wigley, the Utne Lens business plan was built on a projected readership of about 100,000 readers per month, but since its launch in July, the number of visitors to the site has hovered around 7 to 8,000 each week. "We hope to go up to 100,000 [per month]," says Wigley. Some new media analysts scrutinizing Utne's move suggested that the Utne Reader should have given the fledgling Web Lens more time to grow and blossom. Reporting in his October 23 column in Editor and Publisher, Steve Outing said "You can certainly argue that Utne pulled the plug too soon; that given a few more months Utne Lens might have made it in its original form.....In a volatile industry like online publishing, going into an ambitious Web venture you will have to allow a considerable amount of time and resources before breaking even."

But it's difficult to know where to draw the bottom line when deciding how much of an investment to pour into a new venture without seeing significant return. According to the Lens' Wigley, Utne's financial struggles are universal: "Everybody's struggling because it's not clear how to survive financially." he said. Wigley believes that even "the big guys" may not be meeting the cost of large staffs with their advertising revenue and are most likely struggling to get investors. "Nobody's bragging that they're making money," he said.

The New Biweekly Lens

The new scaled-down version of the Lens will feature content from the Utne Reader in lieu of original content created specifically for the Web magazine. Wigley explained that a high percentage of Internet users most likely wouldn't see the print magazine so they wouldn't know if the Web's content is original or not. He sees this bundling of content as a way to connect more strongly with the Utne Reader's readers and subscribers and an interactive vehicle that can be used to improve the content of both the print and online versions. (Utne Reader also has a Web site that now offers a sampling of the magazine but not full text of the articles online.)

Definitely not scaled-down however, is the popular Cafe Utne and the Lens' new Web conferencing platform--Motet--that was designed specifically for use on the WWW. "It's built for the Web so it's fast and it allows you to mange the stuff you're interest in," says Wigley. He believes this platform is better then Usenet groups and especially likes the "Bozo Factor"--the ability to filter out messages from undesirables. Despite the recent setbacks, Wigley, who has worked online for ten years, is optimistic about where online technology is going and is confident it will go mainstream. "This is a powerful technology. And as more people experience it there's no going back. " [CMC TOC]

Chris Lapham is an online content consultant and freelance writer and reporter who lives in the Capital Region of New York. She recently received a Master's degree in Communication and Rhetoric from Rensselaer in Troy, N.Y.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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