By SREENATH SREENIVASAN The world of specialized business newsletters has always been a little different from other forms of media.
Few publications are as easy to start: armed with a few articles, a desktop publishing program and a mailing list, almost anyone can become a publisher.
And few industries involve as wide a range of participants, from small mom-and-pop publications to large multimillion-dollar companies with dozens of titles. The newsletters business is now a $5-billion-a-year industry that employs more than 65,000 people among its 10,000 titles, according to David Nelson, who teaches a newsletter publishing course at Northwestern University.
At its core, a successful newsletter attracts subscribers willing to pay premium prices by offering information they cannot get elsewhere.
"Newsletters are the ultimate value people place on content in the information age," said Richard A. Segal, managing director of Hensley Segal Rentschler, a Cincinnati-based marketing communications firm that follows the newsletter industry. "People are willing to pay up to $1,500 a year for eight pages of typeset text."
As such, the Internet -- and its promise of free information -- presents a challenge for newsletter publishers, who must pursue a goal that has been elusive for many other online publishers: getting people to pay for what they read.
Still, many newsletters have been enthusiastic about embracing the World Wide Web. The Newsletter Publishers Association estimates that 40 percent of all newsletter companies have Web sites. Moreover, for some newsletters with time-sensitive information, the immediacy of electronic publishing on the Web is appealing.
At a time when other publications are juggling Internet strategies, the different approaches that newsletters are taking may offer clues about what works in new media.
Consider one of the oldest and most respected titles, Kiplinger Washington Letter, a business newsletter that began publishing in 1923 and now has an annual circulation exceeding 275,000. By many measures, Kiplinger is an old-school, successful publisher that has mastered the industry. It also has one of the most aggressive online strategies.
"We have redefined ourselves not as a print publisher, but an information and advice business, providing content to readers the way they want to get it," said Knight Kiplinger, president of Kiplinger Washington Editors Inc., the parent company that publishes various sources of business and financial information, including Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.
For two years now, Kiplinger has had a Web site, called Kiplinger Online, which offers a mix of free and for-pay information. Two months ago, it offered subscribers the option of receiving its weekly four-page Washington newsletter via the Web, rather than in the mail, for the same $73 annual price. The biggest benefit for readers: gaining access to the newsletter within an hour of the editorial close each Friday, instead of waiting until the following Monday or Tuesday.
"About 3,000 people have switched, and even though that represents just over 1 percent of our readership, we are gratified by the response," Kiplinger said.
Cutter Information Corp., which publishes 17 environmental and technology titles, including Corporate Internet Strategies and Oil Spill Intelligence Report, allows its paying clients to gain access to all of its newsletters electronically, either as text electronic-mail messages or as attachments with enhanced graphics through its site. It also offers companies site licenses to allow multiple employees to have access to the same information via the Web.
"Our online distribution allows us to serve our readers and get them information quickly and efficiently, especially our international audience," said Anne Farbman, a group publisher at Cutter, which is based in Arlington, Mass.
Cutter's and Kiplinger's practice of offering some free content and also charging for current information on their sites is typical of what the major newsletter publishers are doing. While some large newspaper and sports sites have had success with charging access fees, the overwhelming majority of sites on the Web have not.
For a newsletter, however, restricting access to its content is
important. "On the Internet, people have an expectation that
everything is free," Kiplinger said. "It would be insane for us
to give away our content."
|While photocopying of print material is also a problem, editors complain that readers do not treat digitized content with as much respect, because it is relatively easy to duplicate material already in electronic form.|
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing newsletter publishers is preventing unauthorized use of their online content. "Security is a constant source of worry for us," Ms. Farbman of Cutter said. "Maintaining copyright is as important as it is in the print world and even harder to enforce. We spend time educating our users about the legal issues surrounding forwarding or duplicating the information."
While photocopying of print material is also a problem, editors complain that readers do not treat digitized content with as much respect, because it is relatively easy to duplicate material already in electronic form.
For the many print newsletters that provide daily information, the Internet can play a crucial role in their strategy. "It has allowed us to bring value-added features for our subscribers," said Edward Hauck, a group publisher at Phillips Publishing International Inc., one of the largest of the newsletter publishers, with fiscal 1996 revenue of $227 million.
For instance, Phillips, based in Potomac, Md., uses a single Web site to compile and update its 30 newsletters about telecommunications, including Communications Today . It sends out a midday e-mail alert about the three or four biggest news events in the telecommunications industry, and also offers stock quotations about relevant companies on its site.
These tools and the increasing frequency of electronic publication do not come cheap, and some publishers have decided to stay with simpler sites instead. One example is Release 1.0, a computer industry newsletter, which does not offer a full online version on its Web site.
"If you are selling computers or other hard goods, using the Internet is an obvious option," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0. "If you're selling intellectual property, it's much more messy."
Another approach is being tried by the Institute of Management and Administration, a New York-based publisher of 31 newsletters like Managing Accounts Payable and Web Management Strategies.
"Instead of using a pay-per-view approach with existing subscribers, we are reaching out to potential new subscribers," said David Foster, president of the company, and current president of Newsletter Publishers Association, based in Arlington, Va.
The institute puts on its site editorial content from its archives, thus building a management research data base of specialty information in an effort to attract people to its site. It then sells advertising on the archival pages.
"Trying to just sell to our 43,000 subscribers is not what we want to do; we want to take our shot at the wider universe of the Web community," Foster said.