Beyond Paper

By Tom Abate

Going from print to publishing on the Web involves more than electronic translation of materials, as three case studies reveal.


It has been called the most important advance in publishing since the invention of the printing press. The World Wide Web has sparked an exponential increase in the ability of companies and individuals to share ideas, information or entertainment with aud iences anywhere in the world. Since its inception in the early 1990s, the Web, with its graphics-driven, point-and-click style of navigation, has been receiving thousands of new information sites each month. Everyone from individuals at home to multinational corporations is adding new home pages--which are essentially the tables of contents of Web sites--so fast that search engines work day and night just to index them.

Given that the range of Web publications is so broad, drawing meaningful generalizations about this activity is a tough exercise, according to Ted Julian, senior Internet analyst for International Data Corp. in Framingham, MA. "Web publishers run the gamut from human relations directors putting corporate handbooks online to startups that add video and audio to text to create new forms of online multimedia," Julian says. "You have to look at them as case studies, because there are few rules or generalizations that pertain to all publishers across the board."

But whether they are performing the relatively simple task of transferring company manuals to the Web or trying to invent a new style of entertainment, Web publishers large and small are all pioneers who are trying to understand a new medium. One of their chief challenges, Julian observes, is keeping information current and correct. For instance, he notes that Web sites are often "mirrored." That is, if the main Web site is often busy, second or subsequent sites are established to give users other options for accessing information. That complicates the work of a Web site manager, who must keep track of all the mirrored sites to make sure the latest change in corporate policy, for instance, is noted in all the locations.

"Many Web publishers face the problem of managing hundreds if not thousands of pages where the information can change on a daily or even an hourly basis," Julian says. "Our knuckles are barely scraping on the ground in this regard, and it's labor-intensive. If we don't learn over time to automate and manage this problem of information currency, I wonder if companies will stay with Web publishing or give up in frustration."

Clearly it is vital to have a plan to manage whatever Web publication you build. Three Web publishers with a variety of projects from the simple to the complex were willing to share the issues they've encountered and their strategies for overcoming problems.

U.S. Social Security Administration

An Audience of Millions

One of the first uses for corporate Web publishing is to put health, retirement and other benefit information online where employees can access it at any time. Many human relations (HR) directors have audiences measured in the hundreds or thousands. But Michael Naver, director of editorial policy and communications for the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) in Baltimore, has an audience of literally millions of Americans who want the latest information and forms to help them collect the various benefits of the federal Social Security program.

As the equivalent of an HR director for the general public, Naver began in May 1994 to consider how SSA could get information more quickly to the thousands of people who seek it daily. "We were looking for ways to cut down the time it took for people to get the information they wanted, and we could see that online distribution would be a good supplement to print," Naver recalls.

One thing he decided early on was to publish online information in four formats: Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), PostScript, Page Description Format (PDF) and plain text. Naver says it was a natural choice to publish in HTML, the coding format that gives Web documents their distinctive look. But many users also want documents in PostScript, the common desktop publishing format. Regional SSA offices and senior citizen counseling centers sometimes download the PostScript version of a document and laser-print copies to give to people who don't have computers on which to view them.

Wherever possible, Naver likes to preserve the design of a document, even one meant to be read online. "A lot of documents depend on their look as a crucial element of making information easy to comprehend," he says. Toward that end, he publishes most Social Security documents in the PDF format backed by Adobe Systems of Mountain View, CA. Finally, for people who just want the basic information with no frills, most documents on the SSA Web site are also published in plain text format.

First Steps

Naver says it is a relatively simple process to convert print booklets into the various Web formats. "Once you've got the documents ready to go to the printer, it only takes a few hours to get them into one or more of the Web formats we publish in," he says. One reason for the quick conversion is that since 1990, all Social Security documents have been created on DOS- and Windows-based personal computers using the WordPerfect word processing program and the Ventura Publisher page composition program from Corel Corp. of Ottawa, Canada. WordPerfect has utilities to convert documents into text or HTML format. Ventura Publisher allows output to the PostScript format. In order to create the PDF files, Naver purchased two programs, Adobe Acrobat Exchange and Adobe Distiller, which take a PostScript file and create a version that can be transmitted online so it appears exactly like the printed original, with all print and graphics in place. The recipient of such files has to have the Acrobat reader application, which Adobe furnishes for free. The Social Security site offers a Web link to a site where users can download Acrobat.

In addition to publishing documents in English, the Social Security administration makes many of them available in Spanish, following the same steps outlined above. The result is a Web site that gets about 50,000 hits a month, a figure that keeps growing as more seniors find out about the site. "One thing we've realized is that it's not just the end users who access the page," Naver says. "We've got financial counselors, benefits administrators, even our own employees at regional offices, who have found that the quickest way to get a booklet or form may be the Web site."

Having made the first step of converting printed information to Web form, Naver is now looking ahead to the next level: letting people interact with the Web site to register for benefits and perform other transactions that now have to be done in an office. "We're moving fairly slowly on this, because there are all sorts of problems with security and privacy that we have to solve before we can go fully interactive," he says. Another advance that he is exploring is the creation of a specialized search engine that would allow visitors to the site to find information more easily. "The way we post things right now, you almost have to know which booklet or form you're looking for in order to find it," he says. "We're working on a search tool that you could put a question to and get guided to the answer without having to know all of our booklets by name or title."

Those improvements involve technology that isn't quite as simple as converting print information to Web formats. But Naver is proud of what the department has accomplished already, particularly since the entire Web operation has been added to his print publishing effort without the addition of more staff. "We didn't hire any new staff to do any of this," Naver says. "The same people who prepare the documents for print publishing convert them to Web format." When the documents have been formatted, Naver's staff ships the files off to the central computer operation, where a webmaster maintains the SSA's Unix-based server. "It's just like sending files off to the printer," Naver says.

Sunworld Online

Streamlining the Print Model

In late 1994, Michael McCarthy, editor of Sunworld magazine, had a problem. Advertising revenues for his San Francisco-based magazine had softened dramatically. The drop was so severe it threatened the existence of the 10-year-old publication, which was mailed to about 70,000 users of workstations and software from Sun Microsystems. "By early 1995, the ad market for all the Unix books was off by 15 to 30 percent," McCarthy says. "It was a real shock."

Sunworld, which was published by International Data Group (IDG) of Framingham, MA, tried to increase its ad market by using a tactic also employed by other Unix trade magazines. It changed its name to Advanced Systems, attempting to broaden its appeal. The tactic failed. With the May 1995 issue, the print publication folded. Other Unix trade magazines tried similar tactics and met similar fates during the year.

Even as the print publication was dying, however, IDG was talking to Sun about the possibility of reincarnating Sunworld as an online "magazine" that would be hosted on Sun's corporate Web site. A deal was struck in which Sun would help sponsor the online version until early 1997, to give Sunworld a chance to attract enough advertising to make the online magazine self-sustaining. In July 1995, just a few months after it died as a print magazine, the publication was reborn as Sunworld Online.

"We knew how to create a magazine that would appeal to a technical audience, but we didn't know how the change from print to Web medium would affect our operation, so we changed as few things as possible," McCarthy recalls. That meant keeping deadlines the same and issuing just one edition per month, instead of attempting to continuously update the "web-zine" as some other online publishers have tried.

Thinking in Online Form

One of the most important changes driven by the online format was to deemphasize artwork and graphics. "Most of the art in magazines is for appearance's sake," McCarthy says. "But it impedes the download. If the graphic doesn't directly illustrate the point of an article, I'd rather leave it out." On the other hand, publishing online has freed him from the space constraints faced by print publications, which can devote only so much space to stories, because they have to reserve space for the advertisements that support the venture and because more pages mean more cost to the publisher. "[Now] I never have to cut an article or hold an article just because I've run out of space," McCarthy says.

User surveys have shown that these readers appreciate longer articles, provided the subject merits extended treatment. "Our readers are people whose professional lives depend on knowing the [computer] systems we write about," McCarthy says. "If we're telling them how to fine-tune a server to get 10 to 20 percent more performance, they'll stay up all night reading it, because you'll make them heroes to their users."

In its first year of online publication, McCarthy says, Sunworld Online has gotten more than 35,000 registered readers, about half of its peak print circulation. Sunworld Online is free, but readers are asked to indicate that they want to continue receiving it. "Only 25 people have unsubscribed," he says. The cost of putting out the online publication is approximately one-third the cost of the print version. "The biggest savings were paper and postage, but we also needed fewer production workers because we simplified the graphics," he says. Having lowered expenses by two-thirds, the publication has been able to reduce its need for advertising by a corresponding ratio. McCarthy claims that Sunworld Online is on target to be financially self-supporting by the time Sun withdraws its sponsorship next year.

In fact, McCarthy says Sunworld Online has done so well that he has been authorized to launch two similar all-online publications, Java World, which had 40,000 registered readers within four months of its launch in February 1996, and Netscape World, which attracted 6,000 registered readers in its first month. The formula was the same as for Sunworld: Target professionals who want to stay abreast of the latest technical developments, and give them useful tips, tricks and information. "What we've learned is that when you do a launch in a niche market online, you can do it fast," McCarthy says. "We're putting out the type of specialized information our readers are hungry for." About the only thing he misses about not being in print, he jokes, "is not being able to hand my mother a copy of the magazine."


Designed for the Web

David Zweig had at least one advantage over other Web publishers in 1995 when he cofounded Salon, a San Francisco-based literary publication. From the start, Zweig, who has a long track record in newspaper and magazine publishing, conceived of Salon as an entirely Web-based publication. There was no print version to limit the vision of what could be done online. With principal backing from Adobe Systems and Apple Computer, Salon attracted editorial writers and set out to create a literary destination in cyberspace. In a sense, Salon was the model Microsoft would follow a year later in hiring the noted Washington, DC, editor Michael Kinsley to create the online publication Slate.

With a year of online experience under his belt, Zweig is more sanguine now about the potential and the pitfalls of Web-based publishing. He says he's discovered that, for a general-interest Web publisher, the biggest challenge is finding the audience.

"A few years ago, I started a free home-circulation paper in Portsmouth, New Hampshire," Zweig recalls. "I could buy a carrier list and deliver the paper right to people's doorsteps. On the Web, you haven't got a doorstep. You have to create awareness [of the publication] and make the reader come to you. Paradoxically it's much harder to do online than in newspaper or magazine." He explains that this is because Web publishing is still in a primitive stage where, for instance, the online equivalent of direct mail doesn't exist.

A second major problem is that advertisers have been reluctant to support Web publications or at least haven't been sure how much to pay for a Web-based ad. Zweig says in some ways Web publications are a victim of their own ability to count things. Web tracking software can record each time a visitor sees each given page in an online publication. The software also records when a reader clicks on an advertisement contained on that page. Many online publishers would like to base their advertising rates on the total number of people who view a particular page that contains an ad. But some advertisers only want to pay when a reader actually clicks on an ad to be taken to the advertiser's Web site. Zweig believes that this holds Web publications up to a lot more accountability than print publications.

"If an advertiser puts an ad in Time magazine, Time can certify that four million magazines went out, for instance, but that doesn't mean four million people looked at each and every ad," he says. "The fact that we can track each and every thing a reader sees is actually hurting us. It's harder for us to get credit for simply putting an ad in front of someone's face."

Rude Awakenings

Another thing the Salon staff has learned is that cyberspace can be cruel to editorial egos. Zweig says Salon started out to be a highbrow publication but quickly found it had to cover pop culture to attract readers. The ability to track what people read taught the editors what worked and what didn't. "The instant feedback is incredible. The Web is scary, because you know what is read."

Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that readers like to hear what each other have to say as much as they like to read the views of the professional writers whose work is featured in Salon. Zweig says "Table Talk," Salon's reader feedback area, has proven to be one of the most valuable devices for pulling people back to the site on a regular basis. "We've come around from a crew that publishes words to a crew that brings people together to talk about the words," he says. "When we started, we thought the thing that would build our franchise would be the editorial people. The come-from-behind story was getting readers together to talk about what they'd just read."

As Salon heads into its second year of online publication, Zweig says he will be watching closely for evidence that Web readers will be willing to pay subscription fees to support their reading habits. Few general-interest Web publications have had luck with this, he says, adding that people on the Web seem reluctant to buy subscriptions. He believes that eventually this will have to happen to put Web-based publications on par with their print cousins.

For now, Zweig notes somewhat wistfully that Web publications have at least one enduring disadvantage over print: They are less portable. "Paper and toilets seem to go together," he says. "I know lots of people who say I love my computer, but I'd rather read in bed or in the bathroom."

In a year or so, the stories of these pioneering Web publishers may seem charmingly old-fashioned, as technology advances provide new wrinkles and readers and advertisers become accustomed to the online model. Today's startup worries will be swept away, but we can expect more challenges to this new method of publishing to arise. Perhaps tomorrow's Web publishers will even long for the simpler days.

Tom Abate covers science and technology for the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at