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Writing for Webzines
Internet Prose 101

Writing for Webzines

Testing to Revise

Restructuring Legacy Documents for Multiple Re-Use

Writing Effective Procedures

Adopting an Object Orientation to Improve Documentation

Designing Online Help

So You Wannabe a Technical Writer?


For technical writers who want to branch out to electronic journalism.  The webzines offer some factual advice in a style we are accustomed to--neutral, condensed, objective.  But what they really pay for are personal, intimate, even irrational pieces that put your style in the reader's face, and show off at least as much as they inform.  So if you want an alternative to drag prose, get on your most flamboyant outfit, and take this half-day workshop.

Topics include:

  • A survey of the top six economic models for webzines.
  • How to query an editor with email, draft a proposal, and negotiate terms. 
  • How to adapt your style so you, too, can be flamboyant, or at least, entertaining.  (One day).


The Web offers a second universe for writers. Web publications have opened up just as the paper markets have shrunk for journalists, humorists, essayists, fictioneers, and yes, freelancing technical communicators. Webzines appear at a time when pay rates for magazine articles and books have begun to mirror the economy’s split into poor and rich, with fewer lucrative contracts in the middle. But now the opportunity exists for a writer to make a middle-class living on the Web.

If you are interested in expanding beyond the world of regular magazines, listen in, as we tell you what Webzine editors are looking for. We are speaking from years of experience writing for paper magazines such as Esquire, Harper’s, Reader’s Digest, TV Guide, and a year or so as co-editors for a webzine called Thunderbeam, aimed at parents who want to pick the best software for their kids. We say: any professional writer should be able to make real money writing for the Web. And beginners can at least get their work published in a Webzine, for enough money to cover their Internet connections.

The Web is Growing Fast

47 million Americans—half the computer users in America—now use the Internet, the World Wide Web, or both. Business Week says, "That’s double the number of folks on the Web a year ago." (April 24, 1997). 12% of the adult population also use online services such as America Online and Microsoft Network, which rely on the network of networks known as the Internet, and act as gateways to the Web. To exchange electronic mail, people rely on the underlying network, the Internet; for pictures, sound, video, chat, and information, people turn overwhelmingly to the multimedia side of the Internet, called the World Wide Web.

These onliners are comparatively well off. 42% have household incomes over $50,000, with only 18% having less than $25,000 (and the majority of those folks are students, using their university networks to jump into the Web). Women make up 41% of the audience; 45% of the cybervisitors are over 40, with 40 year-olds making up a little more than a quarter of the total Web population.

The top three reasons people give for using the Web are to locate information (82% of respondents), to further their education (75%), and to get news (68%). That’s great news for writers, because someone has to prepare all that information pouring out over the infobahn.

The Web is a Market for Writers

For writers, exploring the Web is like discovering a parallel universe. The familiar landmarks such as print magazines, newspapers, bookstores, and book publishers are replicating themselves on Web sites, and, increasingly, these Web editions are buying additional material written specifically for Web delivery. Microsoft and America Online are heavily funding new online magazines and text-rich sites. Other start-ups, backed by excited venture capitalists, are creating brand-new web-only magazines, many of which are already earning large advertising dollars. These profitable operations are trailed by thousands of cash-poor but attitude-rich e-zines. Altogether, this proliferation of markets, some mirroring their print cousins, some entirely new, means that for writers the Web has reached critical mass. Here’s a quick tour of the Web as a writer’s market.

Print magazines (or their corporate conglomerates) now mirror their contents online, adding extra Web-only commissioned materials.

    • Glamour, Mademoiselle, Details, and GQ funnel pieces into Swoon, and the editors add their own assignments, such as an investigation into the reasons for a slight decline in teen sex, and philosophic laments such as "Whither lust?" Web-only columnists discuss make-out music, horoscopes, and the etiquette of handling a boorish guest who bogarts a joint instead of passing it along. CondéNet (who makes up these names?) uses seven editors, ten contributing writers, and numerous freelancers.
    • Time-Warner pulled together its print magazines and used them as the basis for the Pathfinder site, a wannabe competitor of America Online that offers email, content, and access to the Web. Started in 1995, Pathfinder supplements the outtakes from Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, Money, People, Time, Travel, Southern Living, and Sports Illustrated with columns commissioned just for the site, chats with authors, hot links to "partner" sites, and fresh material arranged in channels on topics such as Personalities, Money and Business, Sports, Entertainment, Net Culture, and Living.
    • Hearst’s entry in the conglom-o-magazine site competition is HomeArts, which starts with clips from Bob Vila’s American Home, Cosmopolitan, Country Living, Country Living Gardener, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, Marie Claire, Popular Mechanics, Redbook, and Town and Country. The editors then add specials such as their virtual wine shop, daily tips, member chats, organized around channels such as KissNet, Family Time, and Planet Lunch. HomeArts grossed $1.6 million in ads this year, and will double the market for freelancers next year, because the editors want to put up half a dozen "extra" pieces a day.
    • Rodale’s Prevention, the nation’s largest health magazine, teamed with Wire Networks to put up a site called Healthy Ideas, taking some articles from print, and adding others.
    • Some fragile print magazines like Omni, Progressive Architecture, bOING bOING, and Millenium Science Fiction just shut down their print operations and set up online, saving all those print and distribution costs.
    • High-tech CIO Magazine spun off a print sister, WebMaster, and naturally generated a site with the same name, adding short articles, portraits of netrepreneurs, case studies of intranets, and columns not available in print, thanks to 15 editors, 5 staff writers, and freelancers.
    • HotWired, the spinoff of the excruciatingly up-to-date Wired, acts like as the newswire of the Web, offers plenty of useful info about Web tools, links to many of the best sites on the Web, geek advice. Lots of openings for writers, but only if they have spent a year or so totally immersed in issues like spiders, agents, and push indexing. HotWired has also partnered with other zines to provide the latest news on a 24/7/365 basis.

Accompanying these new markets for writers are sites that simply re-purpose material already bought and paid for. Led by the San Jose Mercury, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, newspapers are beginning to see their Web sites as significant sources of revenues, and, in some cases, their salvation. Book publishers are, slowly, slowly, creating Web sites, and allowing customers to buy online.

Similarly, a few new online super-bookstores are challenging each other, with deeper discounts than they ever offered at retail outlets. Three-year-old recently went public for an Initial Public Offering of $62 million, after revenues of $64 million last quarter. Barnes & Noble just launched its Web operation and sued Amazon for claiming that it is the "Earth’s biggest bookstore."

So all the old markets are reappearing, in some form, on the Web. The literary world is reemerging from the Net mists, and its double is growing, quite rapidly, on the Web. The sites that don’t buy new material (newspapers, book publishers, bookstores) lend credibility to those that do, including all these old-line magazines that now need new materials from writers, just for their Web sites.

In addition, hosts like America Online and Microsoft Network are funding the creation of hundreds of new sites that combine traditional feature articles with columns, chat areas, bulletin boards, databases, and downloadable files. In order to provide content that will attract millions of visitors a day, these two giants, along with smaller fry like CompuServe, contract out a lot of writing.

    • America Online, with revenues of $456 million last quarter, has spent liberally to secure and retain its 8 million members, who dial in from computers to exchange email, chat with other users, read hundreds of thousands of articles, download software, buy online. Interactive Week reports that the company has spent $600,000 a day on marketing over the last three years, building a presence as the leader of the online world; they have also spent liberally to invest in sites within the site, devoted to topics AOL thinks people want to explore, from weddings to pets, small business, and travel. They have so many sites they have had to organize them in channels, like cable TV; any one channel may offer hundreds of "programs," each of which includes new material every day or week. Someone has to write all this stuff! Jesse Kornbluth, a former feature writer for Vanity Fair and New York has just been named Editorial Director of Channel Programming to set an "editorial voice and style" and develop new content, which he calls "writing" because "when you talk about writing, you’re already talking about a standard of quality." (In addition, AOL regularly cuts deals with traditional print magazines like the Smithsonian and National Geographic to put up their articles, along with extras such as chats between students using those articles, educational materials, teacher-to-teacher conferencing, and links to other sites.)
    • The Microsoft Network, a smaller and more frantic imitation of America Online, offers plenty of magazines made up just for the Web. For instance, Mungo Park, a travel magazine focusing on far-out adventures (not your highschool visit to Washington, D.C), grabs popular writers like Barry Lopez, Tom Robbins, Tom Clancy, Tama Janowitz, and Jean Auel for treks, talks, and expeditions in the tradition of their namesake, an explorer who never came back from the upper Nile. Six editors team up with six contributing editors, and a lot of freelancers, artists, audio and video producers, to make getting there virtually fun. Of course, if you want to sign up for a trip, Mungo Park turns out to link directly to Expedia, Microsoft’s online travel agency.
    • The most famous of Microsoft’s magazines, Slate, began as an independent under Michael Kinsley, but has moved into some rewardingly ambiguous relationship with Microsoft’s other Web properties (Microsoft Network, MSNBC, and Internet Explorer). That liaison has helped increase readership of a zine that still smells very East Coast, even though it’s edited at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA. With a nice sense of conflict honed in his years on the firing line of TV, Kinsley sets up debates between experts, encourages readers to attack and counterattack, and provides a lot of political sniping that comes from insiders on both sides of the aisle. His staffers review print magazines the moment they appear; his contributing editors handle movies, sports, TV commercials and shows, books, and fashion. Freelancers check in with humor, diaries, poetry, and oddball travel. With a dozen editors (including the Fraymistress), and 20 contributing editors, Slate is a major new publication, drawing many writers out of the print worlds, and establishing a tone and approach for the upscale zines, all of which like to say, "We’re not the New Yorker."

Independent entrepreneurs receive venture capital from these giants, then subcontract with many writers, designers, and programmers to create new content for delivery in these electronic magazines, or Webzines.

Some entrepreneurs just set up their own Websites, with new content as the draw for visitors, and visitors as the light attracting the advertising moths.

    • Started in 1992 with $7 million in venture capital, Wire Networks has created a Webzine called Women’s Wire, aimed at well-educated, well-heeled women online. With 500,000 visitors a month, this site drew $1 million in 1996, taking 31st place in the Web ad sweepstakes, according to Jupiter Communications. (They report a total of $300 million spent on advertising on the Web last year, growing to an estimated $5 billion in the year 2,000). With 35 full-time staffers, 22 regular contributors, and many freelancers, Women’s Wire has become stable enough to expand. CEO Marleen McDaniel says, "We’re doing as much as we can to extend our content offerings because we need to add more inventory."
    • Charged aims at the folks who participate in high-intensity sports and asks for writers to make story pitches via email, using their own "elitist hipster attitude."
    • Urban Desires aims at the young, urban, but not terribly techno-hip, with tough-talking gossip, out-of-focus pictures of fire escapes in New York, and lyrical memoirs of Brazil’s 400-year-old city, Bahia. Worldly, fun, this zine resembles its print cousins in its focus on books, music, travel, and sex; the focus is on voice, not links.
    • Salon, the snooty zine put out by the former editor of the already pretentious Image magazine, from the San Francisco Examiner, has attracted good writers, with lots of short opinionated pieces on books, music, politics, and food. Editor Talbot says he wants "writers who can bleed," and he’s found a dozen regulars, including James Carville, Anne Lamott, Jon Carroll, Camille Paglia, and David Horowitz. TableTalk draws in the readers to attack each other on issues raised in the articles. 80% of these readers are college educated and they average $67,000 a year in income; in one month, they look at 1.8 million different pages on the site, and take their time doing it: the typical visitor spends 20 minutes at the site, a long stay for any web site. A leisurely read, in Net terms, but with plenty of openings for new freelance writers with an attitude.

In addition to these mega-financed zines, we see venture capitalists funding excellent zines such as Feed, Suck, and Word, and others on topics such as adventure travel, extreme sports, and old folks.

And, lower down, in a samizdat culture made possible by the ease of mounting your own Web site, thousands of self-publishing moguls have started their own e-zines. (The most comprehensive list we’ve seen has 3,000). Like poetry magazines, these zines succeed on personal style and taste, and like Xeroxed zines of the 80’s they vary in quality from mediocre to paranoid, but, overall, they offer a fantastic chance for beginning writers to get published, chat with other writers, and find a home.

So there’s room out on the Web for beginners to get started, and for professionals to expand their range beyond print publications.

(Please note: This material is already out of date, but it can give you an idea of the market as it was early in 1998).



Copyright 1998 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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