Setting an Internet Standard  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   October 1999

Setting an Internet Standard   

By Suzan Revah
Suzan Revah is a former AJR associate editor.     


When The Industry Standard was launched in April 1998, the last thing the world needed was another magazine about the Internet. The field was saturated with new titles, but the target audience was growing skeptical that any publication could cover the scope of the Internet and its societal impact in a meaningful, accessible way.

A year and a half later, most of those new titles have folded, and The Industry Standard is fast living up to its ambitious name.

No longer just a print magazine, the Standard has become a brand and a voice recognized among the Internet cognoscenti, developing conferences, newsletters, executive recruiting services and a highly trafficked Web site (www.thestandard.com).

And its profile is on the rise. A recent editorial expansion added journalists hailing from respected old-media powerhouses and lured away from new-media leaders. James Fallows, a former editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report and noted media gadfly, signed up to contribute a regular column. Thomas Goetz, formerly a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, became the Standard's New York news editor, and Amy Bernstein, most recently editorial director at Brill's Content, assumed the post of executive news editor. Also joining the masthead are reporters from the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Daily News and PC World magazine.

Dubbed "the newsmagazine of the Internet economy," the weekly Standard, circulation 125,000, along with its Web site, which counts 400,000 unique visitors per month, have carved a niche catering primarily to "Internet business strategists," a group whose ranks seemingly swell with each passing day. Inspired by business press bastions like The Economist, Forbes and Fortune and closely watched by competitors like The Red Herring, Business 2.0 and Fast Company, the Standard promises to deliver "intelligence" on the Internet's intersection with society, culture, politics and the economy. It bills itself as a must-read for anyone whose life has been transformed by the digital age.

Its timing couldn't have been better. Just as the Standard began coming into its own, technology was becoming more mainstream, stock options were becoming more commonplace and the Internet was churning full force on its continuing convergence course with everything.

"The Standard is doing such an interesting job covering such an interesting topic," says Fallows, whose column will focus on the relationship between the Internet industry and the rest of the world. "It gives me a way to keep learning about a field that's changing the country and the world right now, and a way to speak to an audience in the middle of it."

Adds Goetz: "The Wall Street Journal is a great institution, a place every journalist aspires to work. But what I realized was that the Standard offered a chance to be part of something that was dynamic and growing, rather than something that was already mature."

But timing isn't everything. The Industry Standard's success so far also comes from the content mix it offers--including news briefs, industry benchmarks, criticism, analysis, commentary and business-model reviews.

"Our editorial philosophy all along has been to be sophisticated in our approach, but at the same time to be accessible to people who are not insiders," says Jonathan Weber, who left the Los Angeles Times at the end of 1997 to become a founder of the magazine and its editor in chief.

"There's a lot of competition out there for us, but our ability to blend the various elements of them makes us unique," says James Ledbetter, who became the Standard's New York bureau chief after serving as the Village Voice's media watchdog for more than eight years. "We're not just breaking news, we're getting conceptual scoops. We're framing the issues of the Internet economy in a way that becomes the conventional wisdom."

"I like that the Industry Standard has emphasized hiring good writers who can construct a story," says James Poniewozik, a former media critic for Salon magazine and now a TV critic at Time. "It's the first magazine I've seen to address the new-media business in a way that is both information-rich and yet aware of the larger business and media contexts of its subject. It covers new-media business in a layman-friendly but not dumbed-down way."

From the perspective of John Battelle, co-founder, CEO and president of The Industry Standard and a founding editor of Wired magazine, it is the combination of a focused editorial mission, strong reporting and good business sense that has earned The Industry Standard accolades, not least of which was a nomination for the National Magazine Award in its inaugural year.

"The story of technology was completely and relentlessly overhyped and underscrutinized by the media and within the business realm," Battelle says. "Our formula isn't rocket science. If you buy into the idea that the Internet brought about the most fundamental shift in business practices in decades, shouldn't you apply high-integrity financial journalism to that story? We didn't see anyone doing that in 1997."

Adds Ledbetter: "As the tech industry matured and began to integrate itself into the American economy, a whole new set of journalistic issues arose. I'm not sure the press adapted to them as completely as they should have."

As for making money, Weber says it isn't happening yet. He adds that it's "hard to say much on this question, but I will say that we are far, far ahead of plan, and much closer to profitability than even successful magazine launches would normally be at this stage."

Profitability isn't the only challenge going forward. Among the biggest are that The Industry Standard's subject is a rapidly moving target and that its primary audience has extremely limited reading time.

"The Internet economy space is driven by fast learning curves, and synthesizing [information] while maintaining a high signal-to-noise ratio is a primary goal for us," Battelle says.

But the Standard has managed to skillfully leverage the relationship between its print operation and its online component, something many news organizations still are struggling to do. The result is an informative balance between quick-hit online news alerts and trend-spotting think pieces on pulp.

"The magazine wouldn't survive without the site," says Weber. "It would be weird and untenable to have a magazine like this that didn't have a strong online component."

He continues: "What we're building is an integrated news operation in which both print and online are key. We have a staff that serves both, and we are very consciously developing an editorial philosophy that is free of class systems, whereby the print staff has all the prestige and the online staff is seen as a farm team."

Some of the stories that have generated buzz include an examination of how presidential campaigns have turned into e-businesses; an investigation of a company called greenmountain.com, which pulled its IPO after being exposed as neither a green company nor an Internet company; and a special report on the most influential people in the Internet economy.

The Industry Standard's evolution is not unlike that of the companies and personalities it covers: It is thriving by embracing change.

"The success of the magazine is a validation of the premise that the Internet changes everything, and that sooner or later everything will either have to adapt to it or react to it," says Ledbetter. "And if you look at how many members of the old guard of journalism are leaving the media that established them and moving toward the Internet, it becomes clear that this isn't a fluke."

Adds Fallows: "If you look back at times in history where there has been dramatic change, like after World War II or the 1960s, no journalist operating in those times could really know what was going on, but the effort to catch up often led to the most interesting journalism."

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