Previously in Web Citations:
A Channel Called "You"
Joanna Smith Rakoff looks at the latest in TV-Web convergence.
David A. Taylor reports on the Mountain Forum, a boon to hill people around the globe.
Is politics on the Web a bust? Nicholas Confessore investigates the new wave of for-profit "politics portals."
Alec Appelbaum on why the Web should do better than one-click charity.
Get a Life
Katie Bacon on Cyberguy, DotComGuy, and other intrepid trailblazers on the e-commerce frontier.
Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.
Shake Your Musicmaker
Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.
Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.
More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.
Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
On the Inside Looking In|
June 7, 2000
Media mogul (and Jane Fonda ex) Ted Turner, who was recently rumored to be dating a twenty-eight-year-old graduate student, has been seen out and about with a fifty-something French artist who, supposedly, painted a picture of him as Napoleon.1
The producers of the NBC hit series The West Wing, nervous that George W. might win the presidency, are looking for "high level Republican consultants to help them cope with the changed tenor of the times."2
Author Cathleen Schine is ditching her publisher (Houghton Mifflin) in the hopes of getting more money elsewhere.3
Recently, a scheduled softball game between the staff of The New Yorker and the staff of Martha Stewart Living did not take place. Apparently, Martha Stewart did not send a team, and New Yorker staffers had to scrimmage amongst themselves.
These are the kinds of tidbits we media insiders trade at cocktail parties.4 Now, courtesy of Inside.com, a new Web site created by Kurt Andersen (co-founder of Spy5 and former editor of New York magazine) and Michael Hirschorn (former editor of Spin), this kind of information is available to anyone who is interested enough to pay $19.95 a month for a subscription. Inside's mission is to be a comprehensive trade publication for those who work in book publishing, film, television, music, and journalism. The site's extensive content ranges from data such as Nielsen ratings and Barnes & Noble sales rankings, to articles about new television shows, updates on the career moves of publishing moguls and studio heads, summaries of the morning news and late-night talk shows, the latest in film and book deals, and gossip from each industry under the rubric "Inside Dope." Inside also has a deal with Smartmoney.com, which provides up-to-the minute stats on industry-related stocks.
Much of what Inside offers is similar to features in its old-media competitors Variety, Publishers Weekly, The New York Observer, and Billboard. But the combination of the site's wide-ranging content, unlimited space, and constant updates makes finding what you're looking for an unwieldy task. Although you can customize the homepage according to your interests, there are so many links and so much data that a few clicks of the mouse leave you lost in a sea of information that is made difficult to negotiate by a text-heavy, many-screen-deep design. Do you want daily primetime schedules? Or a chart ranking films about crossdressers according to box-office grosses? Or an article about the new head of Fox television? Whereas in the old-media trade magazines you can turn the page if something doesn't interest you, Inside is so crammed with text that it's easy to lose track of where you started and find yourself marooned in week-old gossip.
Thus far, much of the buzz about Inside -- which, of course, has come primarily from those on the "inside" -- has focused on the question of whether or not people will pay for the privilege of access. Inside just might succeed where other online publishing ventures have failed (Slate, for example, tried to charge a subscription fee but was forced to revert to free access), because it caters to perhaps the most paranoid group of people on the planet. If Inside.com were an actual, physical location, where actual, real-life people had to show up to get their information, there is no doubt that the media insiders and insider wannabes would all be there, for the same reason they show up to everything else: the fear that they might miss something if they don't.6 The folks at Inside apparently hope that by letting the whole world in on exactly what book deals, for example, are in progress, then no one in the book industry will feel they can afford to stay away.7
From Atlantic Unbound:
In Media Res: "Out of Context," by Wen Stephenson (June 11, 1997)
What happens when the media become our reality?
From The Atlantic:
"Why Americans Hate the Media," by James Fallows (February 1996)
Why has the media establishment become so unpopular? Perhaps the public has good reason to think that the media's self-aggrandizement gets in the way of solving the country's real problems.
But the fact that, unlike insider cocktail parties, Inside.com is open to the general public may, in the end, be the cause of its failure. After all, how valuable is inside information if just anyone -- some wannabe in, say, Kansas City -- can have access to it? Just as the Condé Nast cafeteria8 would hardly hold the same mystique if it were open to the public and located in Grand Central Station, insider gossip from the entertainment business is at its juiciest when it's in the possession of the few. For this reason, the decision to charge for access may actually keep Inside.com hot by elevating the importance of the information available. (I know a very successful writer9 who thinks that author readings should cost at least $15 instead of being free, because he thinks if people have to pay for something, they value it more.) Indeed, perhaps Inside should charge more than $19.95 a month -- enough to discourage those who are not in the entertainment-media industry from crashing the party.
Andersen has emphasized that Inside is primarily a resource for those in the industry, and there is much on the site that is sure to be useful to those making deals and reviewing books, films, and television shows. There is also much on the site that no one really needs to know (see the beginning of this article), and it is safe to say that this "Inside Dope" is what draws many people to the site. It is as the bearer of this sort of cultural overload that Inside really is worth thinking about. Andersen and Hirschorn had no trouble raising $28 million in venture capital, so sure were their investors that culture sells. As Andersen said recently in The New York Times, "popular interest in culture and entertainment and diversion has, indeed, like sports, replaced engagement in national political affairs." This is certainly not a new observation, but those of us with mixed feelings about this trend need to start questioning it, even as we log on with glee for the latest "Dope." For Inside to really serve the industry, it should set some of its army of reporters onto deeper analysis of the culture it covers. But alas, sites that do this -- like the recently shut down NewsWatch.org, a site with the mission of critiquing news coverage and exposing distortions in the media -- don't attract enough business to stay afloat.
But I have an idea that just might work. In the same New York Times interview in which Andersen discussed the popular interest in culture, Hirschorn argued that "the creation of content has become more interesting than the content itself." Why not kill two birds with one stone by creating a TV show based on the behind-the-scenes scene at Inside.com? By watching these people do their jobs, we may get a step closer to figuring out what it all means.
1. Apparently she also painted one of him as Caesar.
2. Reportedly, the Democrats are also nervous, but for different reasons.
3. In case you haven't heard of her, she wrote The Love Letter, which became a film starring Ellen DeGeneres.
4. I know because I went to one once. In New York. In 1999. George Stephanopoulos was there, and everyone got a box of designer chocolates to take home.
5. A guy I had a crush on in college (he later dated my roommate -- you know how that goes) has a brother who was an editor at Spy. I can probably get you his number.
6. If this sounds a bit like high school, that's because it is.
7. For a writer, such easy access to this information is paralyzing. I read on Inside.com just the other day that a woman I met at a writer's conference just got a six-figure two-book deal. I haven't written a word of fiction all week.
8. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, this is the hottest lunch spot in New York these days. Everyone is trying to get a friend to take them to lunch there. One day I was at the salad bar, and a woman talking on a blue Nokia cell phone was calling someone back up in her office to report on what was available in the way of roasted vegetables. You should have been there.
9. I can't tell you who because I haven't asked permission to use his name. But for $19.95 I might be persuaded to drop a few hints.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Jane Rosenzweig, a former staff editor at The Atlantic, writes about television for The American Prospect. She knows several people who play on the New Yorker softball team.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.