Joint, or asunder?

Mergers are megalomaniacal and outdated (“I’m in murders and executions”), but here’s one that might just work: Suck + Feed + alt.culture := Automatic Media.

The clever people at Suck and Feed seem to think they can do more together than apart. Possibly. But both publications hew to the Village Voice/Spy axis of snarky leftist writing. (The late-’80s heyday of Spy in particular has never been equalled.) The precedents in the print world are unreassuring. Spy tanked. (Its later half-arsed resurrection doesn’t count.) David Schneiderman of Village Voice Media has bought up pretty much every large alternative newsweekly in the U.S., and, along with co-duopolist New Times, we’re now looking at Thomson- or Gannett-style concentrated empires in alternaweekly publishing. (“Rosebud!”)

Does the Automatic Media news mean that indie online media, rather like alternative newsweeklies, can survive only by amalgamating? (Slate, with daddy-o’s unlimited cashflow, doesn’t count.) Again, possibly. Genuinely independent sites form so-called networks as a way to show allegiance (on the more artistique end – e.g., Project Cool, de l’époque; I2K) or to inflate rate schedules for banner advertisements (on the more mercantile end – e.g., ChickClick).

This merger is higher-profile, since Condé Nast is one of the investors. Si Newhouse’s Advance Magazine empire has been slow to embrace the Web, as the pundits would put it, but unlike them, we don’t think “slow” implies “not getting it.” Sarah Chubb at CondeNet (interview) has mightily resisted the pathfinderian lure of shovelware and has tried to link dynamic databases to topic-limited magazine content in deliberately small doses. Though shovelware sometimes works (archives are a value-adding feature), we consider CondeNet’s approach nonstupid. Their investment is likely to be equally nonstupid.

Lycos is name-checked as an Automatic Media partner, but apparently their investment amounts to “contributing” Suck, which had been bought by Wired Digital years ago (passim) and completely neglected. (Joey Anuff: “It takes so much energy to lobby for your properties when you’re a two-person shop in a company with probably thousands of different employees.”)

Lycos executives are shockingly adept at swinging deals where they pay peanuts or earn millions, having persuaded BCE to funnel up to $125 million down their gullets to attach the failed Lycos “brand” and whatever passes for its content to the failed Sympatico “brand” and whatever passes for its content.

The Automatic Media FAQ lists total capitalization at about $4 million. You can do a lot with that much money. (Yes, “that much,” not “that little.”)

Our guess is that the real impetus behind the merger, apart from that “synergy” claptrap, rests on user-contributed content. We’re not big on user-contributed content as most E-commerce sites conceive of and present it, but we like the Slashdot concept, which Automatic Media is explicitly licensing:

Automatic Media says it is developing a new high-tech message-board system that will let users more easily filter out the irrelevant or uninteresting messages that often plague discussion communities. Automatic Media is developing the system with the help of[....] Even some of Automatic Media’s investors say they would be a bit skeptical about investing in a traditional Web “content” company. “That’s not what we’re investing in,” says Jeff Jarvis, president of “They are onto the next generation of content.”

Snarky leftist content combined with snarky geeks goofing off work to post hate messages combined further with allegedly intelligent filtering mechanisms might work. Yet we’re not convinced they’ll end up making so much more money this way that it’ll prove to have been worth the effort. Having endured the rigamarole of personalizing content sites ourselves, and having struggled valiantly with the Slashdot message-board system, we are also not convinced that even the target market of snarky, geeky leftists will find it worth the trouble to go through the jiggery-pokery to filter out bozos.

Many questions in the air, few answers. But as snarky, geeky leftists, we wish the new kids luck.

Posted on 2000-07-11