Web Magazine for Information Professionals

View from the Hill: Rob Ainsley

Rob Ainsley, editor of a clutch of Internet-based classical music journals, expounds on the dynamics of ejournals on the Internet.

Future Publishing, based in Bath, publishes 36 magazine titles covering sport, computing, music and leisure. In 1987, the year Rob Ainsley joined it as a staff writer, it published only three. Ainsley became features editor of Classic CD magazine when it began in 1990, and then took over as editor the following year. Early this year, he decided it was time for a change. Future had had its own promotional Web site for over a year, and Ainsley felt that it was time for the music titles to develop an Internet angle. He said goodbye to the post of magazine editor, becoming instead On-line Internet Editor of Classic CD, Future Music and Total Guitar.

With considerable experience of publishing a print magazine behind him, Ainsley is still adjusting to the new electronic medium. He finds it liberating, and yet not without its own considerable challenges. “The magazine is a very confining thing because you have to work with the same shape of page all the time. But it’s a nice physical object - a nice thing to take on a train or read in the bath. The biggest difference is in the organisation of material. For example, the Web has no space limitations. So - if there is an enormous list of new CDs out this month, it doesn’t matter because readers can use the search facility to pick out only what they want. But long articles are more difficult. People will only read about one screen at a time.”

Search software is a major benefit which on-line publishing has brought to magazines. Future hopes to mount back issues of all its on-line titles eventually. “It will be very useful for the magazine staff as well as the readers, because we won’t have to go flicking through all the magazines on the office shelves to find that passing reference to José Carreras’ role as Manrico in whatever opera it was.”

Graphics are still an area in which print wins out, however. “You can have nice big high quality pictures in a magazine where you really go for impact - the pure impact of spread. You know the sort of thing - ‘Pavarotti: is his career at an end?’ That might be the only text on the spread. But try that on the Web and it takes half an hour for the graphics to load.”

Yet solutions are arriving all the time. Ainsley looks forward to exploiting the interactivity built in to Netscape 2 and Java applets. This should permit customised views of a magazine. For a classical music fan who has indicated a major interest in 20th Century music and Russian symphonists, say, the contents page would present all references to Shostakovitch and Prokofiev at the top of the list. That way, too, you can include everything. “As an editor of a print magazine, it used to break my heart every month when reviews that I’d commissioned and paid money for couldn’t go in because there was no space. You don’t get that problem on the Web.”

Rob, his desk and a fluffy pig
Rob, his desk and a fluffy pig

Future is still building up its Internet titles. They have to make money, explains Ainsley, so subscription raising is a major area of activity, as is advertising. What about the multi-media possibilities? “Yes, obviously we can put in sound clips. But copyright clearance is difficult because we have to be squeaky clean. And a lot of record companies won’t let us have the copyright because they’re considering publishing on the Net themselves. Just to make matters worse, the copyright period after a composer’s death went from 50 years back to 70 years recently, which is a pain because it means that Elgar, Holst and Delius are all back in copyright, as are Janacek, and Satie for three months.”

Total Guitar fares best. It contains blues tutorials for beginners, with fingering charts for readers to consult while they listen to the sound sample. The music is commissioned by the magazine, so copyright clearance is not required.

Ainsley is worried about the economics of on-line magazine publishing. For him the key is to find a charging mechanism which allows people to retrieve a small amount of information for a small charge. Some people might just want one review, say, and be prepared to pay the equivalent of a quick phone-call to get it. A ‘pay-per-use’ system such as this would be viable only in addition to a subscription-based service for regular readers. The market for classical music magazines in print is stagnating, while Net accesses to the Web version of Classic CD are increasing all the time. Frustratingly, however, it is nowhere near paying its way as yet, earning only what comes in from the sale of the odd advertisements and a trickle of subscriptions.

One advantage Web publishers have is the ability to derive detailed statistical data on readership. “It’s a gift for the marketing people” comments Ainsley. “So far, our statistics have shown us that we get five times more hits for the Beginner’s Section of Classic CD than for any other section. Also rather depressingly, anything with sex or filth in the title gets masses and masses of hits. Shostakovitch gets rather fewer.”

Ainsley does not see the Net as a threat to print magazines. Instead, the two media will specialise in what each does best. “Speaking from the Classic CD point of view, the parallel form of print and Web will still be around in 50 years time. People will still be taking the magazine to read on the train, but the Internet is very good at fulfilling niche requirements - selling niche products and providing niche information. The future is parallel.”

Rob is the author of “Bluff your way on the Internet” which has just been published; a few extracts are available for perusal. Here we present two extracts from Bluff Your Way on the Internet by Rob Ainsley, which is in the shops now. The first of these is on Sex on the Internet (which will finally give those people who use the Ariadne search facility to search for “sex” a hit); the second of these describe the foolproof way to be a budding minotaur.

Sex on the Internet:

Far and away the most accessed sites on the Internet are those related to sex. This is a classic illustration of the saying:
“Those that can, do.”
“Those that can’t, teach.”
“Those that can’t teach, put up articles about it on the Internet.”

There are newsgroups, picture galleries and how-to articles for every orientation, desire, fantasy and fetish possible. And several for those that aren’t, which goes to show how sophisticated those photo-retouching programs are these days. The content of all sites is the same. To get hold of it you have to wait a very long time, and when it does arrive it’s disappointing and extremely short. Rather, come to think of it, like…

Sex stories are best avoided, because whatever bizarre and outlandish things you claim to have seen in a newsgroup or pornographic site you have made up, someone else really will have seen something even more bizarre and outlandish. Besides which you might be thought to fall into the fourth category of the saying:
“Those that can’t even put up articles about it on the Internet, browse other people’s.”

Internet Sex’s Great Paradox Sex-related newsgroups, in stark contrast to all other areas of the Internet, apparently have plenty of uninhibited women willing to engage in intimate e-mail correspondence with eager men. However, on the Internet, it is impossible to tell genders, and pranksters abound. The more forthcoming the ‘woman’, the more likely it is to be a man.

Web pages - How to criticise them:

You can safely disparage any web page for any, or all, of the following reasons:

  1. There are far too many graphics, which add nothing and take too long to load - a postcard-sized picture can often take up to a minute, the same time as a long chapter of a book.
  2. There are not nearly enough graphics. Mere text by itself, no matter how quickly it loads in comparison, is boring; the whole reason for the Web is graphic ability.
  3. The pages are too long. Anything more than a screenful is hard to read and requires scrolling. Information should be broken down into more, shorter, less weighty pages.
  4. The pages are too short. If you have to keep clicking on hot links all the time, it is too easy to lose the thread. Information should be put together into fewer, longer, weightier pages.
  5. The sound files are uncompressed. A minute of sound might take three minutes to load. All sound files should be compressed, using simple, readily available programs, to make them much smaller in size and hence far quicker to load.
  6. The sound files are compressed. A minute of compressed sound might only take thirty seconds to load, but the reduction in quality because of compression will ruin the effect. All sound files should be uncompressed to make them actually worth listening to…