Displacement of zero times two

Which would you rather do: Pay the rent or buy an outfit? (Montrealers know the answer already.)

Now which would you rather do: Pay the rent or subscribe to an online fashion trade rag?

We didn’t think so either.

We have become not undisillusioned with the idea of charging good money for “content” that’s important to a specific industry. It is altogether possible that the degree of detail seen in an industry trade magazine is all the world needs to know. A certain homeostasis has developed over the decades in what is admittedly an incestuous industry whose entire advertising roster derives from the same entities “objectively” covered in the news hole.

(We read several trade rags and think the very worst offender on the axis of gladhanding and backpatting is Playback, which cannot bring itself to criticize anyone in the Canadian broadcasting industry. But we digress.)

It is possible that no trade magazine can get away with doing more than providing shovelware on its Web site. That would include Women’s Wear Daily, which had originally planned to charge $895 a year:

A portion of WWD’s audience already pays for access to its archives, charging $2,000 a year to search a text database of articles dating back to 1994. [Some well-dressed executrix] estimates thousands of subscribers to the archives, and says the new site will incorporate that archive while handing current subscribers two years of access to the new site. As for how many print subscribers will add the Web site to their tabs, [the well-dressed executrix] can’t say. That would be dancing in the dark for me. I’ll be happy to answer that in September.

Why wait until then?

August 23, 2001 – Women’s Wear Daily’s new Web site lay in tatters yesterday as top brass unexpectedly pulled the plug on the much-hyped launch slated for next month. Yesterday afternoon... Fairchild Publications announced that it would put the rag trade mag’s new design for WWD.com on hold indefinitely as a result of the current unfavorable business climate. The new, subscription-based WWD.com was due to be launched September 10.... “Had we done this a year ago, it would have been a slam dunk.”

Actually, it would have been a slam drain on the bank account until the money ran out.

Now, Fairchild’s plan is to table that strategy and disband its Web-site operation.

We know fashions turn over quickly and we are expected to toss out last season’s jumper the moment it even hints of being tired, but this seems like throwing out baby with bathwater.

What had they been saying back in the day?

Few observers have seen the site, which is in a testing phase and cannot be accessed outside Fairchild headquarters. Yet one industry executive admitted to a can’t-wait attitude – if not exactly for business reasons. “They’ll put on one hell of a launch party,” he said, in a year that’s seen few.

Meanwhile, the Akron Beacon Journal finally brought itself into the 21st century, an era when it is acceptable and expected to shitcan harebrained technology rollouts. And in this case it was the cœlecanth technology of CD. Yes, a print newspaper actually planned to distribute itself on compact disc. Who the hell needs the inexpensive, instantaneous, immaterial medium known as the Internet?

For 25¢, buyers picked up not a folded newsprint product but a small cardboard sleeve containing a CD.

Much of the newspaper is available on the Web through the Ohio.com site. However, Monday’s launch of the CD version represented another way of producing, distributing and reading the newspaper.

The CD version, once loaded into a home computer, gives users the newspaper page by page the way it was printed, complete with advertisements. Instead of turning pages, users click to read the continuation of a story.

In other words, the CD version replicates all the annoying linear features of a printed newspaper in electronic format. Why, it’s even worse than the early days of Slate!

“For people with vision problems, this is a terrific way to read the newspaper,” [a functionary] said. A click of a computer mouse increases the size of the type as much as the user wants.

While a Web site has a fighting chance of working decently well with a screen reader, proprietary CD content does not. (The file format on these CDs is not PDF but something else entirely, and even PDF isn’t very accessible despite concerted effort at retrofitting.) And it is of course typical for the ignorant to assume that blowing up font sizes is all a low-vision person needs. What about those teeny tiny words in the menubar? In reality, screen-magnification software blows up everything on the screen, and the proprietary CD variant offers no advantages there at all.

“I need the BJ on CD,” one man said in an E-mail. “I don’t have time to read my paper before I leave in the morning. When I get home, it is gone, or in sections all over the house, or sections turned in so that the front page is unrecognizable.”

(Does this sound like a fake Sony movie testimonial to you?)

We were taught to recognize front pages by the presence of the newspaper’s name in large letters, the date, the price, and very large headlines, with the accompanying absence of a page number. While this particular reader is waiting for the Web to be invented, perhaps some remedial newspaper therapy would be in order for him.

[A deluded corporate apologist] said the CD version also may be more appealing to college students and younger people who have grown up in the electronic age and find the paper product cumbersome. The CD version offers features beyond the regular newspaper. There are links to photos not published in the paper because of space considerations; people with Internet connection can access the URLs contained in advertisements and they also can access Web sites related to editorial content.

“College students and younger people” will not be old enough to remember the CD-ROM era, but they’ll certainly know a “lame” idea when they see one, and a hardcopy newspaper distributed on a physical disc is one of them. And don’t you love the idea of using a proprietary hardware CD to link to advertisements (everyone’s favourite Web destination) and – get this! – the paper’s own Web site?

Other advantages aren’t so obvious. No trees are cut down to produce the CD. The CD itself is not recyclable, [the deluded apologist] said. The CD doesn’t have crinkled pages or out-of-registration photos, problems that sometimes plague the printed version.

No trees are cut down, except the trees (and ferns and brontosauri) that fell down dead during lightning storms five million years ago. And certainly we at NUblog have had it up to here with out-of-registration photos. JPEG thumbnails are surely an enormous improvement.

What were we saying about the file format?

The format for the CD is unique to the Beacon Journal. It was developed by... a [Beacon Journal ] systems integration engineer. He had been asked by [some kind of vice-president] to devise a way for the Beacon Journal’s library to archive pages of the newspaper. A patent is pending for the software program....

We just love homegrown solutions to already-solved problems.

And, to everyone’s surprise, the whole shebang didn’t work.

To our readers:

Sales of the compact-disc edition of the Akron Beacon Journal have been suspended while we re-examine various aspects of the product.

The compact discs have been available at about 30 stores in Northeast Ohio since June.

We hope to resume sales of the Beacon Journal on CD in the near future.

Next up on the Stillborn Ideas list: Women’s Wear Daily on CD-ROM.

Posted on 2001-08-29