How to Survive the Dot-Com Meltdown

How to Survive the Dot-Com Meltdown

April 17, 2001
Notes By Rachel Markowitz

Every day another Web company shuts its doors, and editors are among those feeling the pinch. Appearing at the April 17 BAEF meeting to tell his own story of dot-com demise was William Rodarmor, a veteran Bay Area writer and editor who served as senior editor for a small business content provider that had folded just three weeks earlier.

The other guest, Rodarmor's friend and former colleague Robert Luhn, provided the flip side to the dot-com disaster story—the dot-com success story. An executive editor at the highly successful CNET.com, Luhn discussed the pros and cons of making the transition from print to Web, what to watch out for when working for a Web publication, and what questions to ask before you take the job.

Rodarmor began his "cautionary tale" by offering some Ann Landers-style words of advice in regard to working for dot-coms:

  • Look before you leap.
  • Don't put all of your eggs in one basket.
  • Be prepared.
  • Don't throw good money after bad.

He then admitted that he had failed to heed almost every single one of the maxims.

"Boredom and greed" led Rodarmor from a "stodgy but safe" magazine job to an exciting, high-paying Web job, he said. He had worked for ten years as managing editor for California Monthly, UC Berkeley's alumni magazine, and was feeling stale. When the Web company dangled the chance to be the top editor and a fat salary in front of his eyes, Rodarmor signed on.

Rodarmor's company provided business content—Webspeak for articles—to a single client, which he noted was the first bad sign, because the company was putting all of its eggs in one basket. The newly hired senior editor then encountered other problems. He found himself with a pool of underpaid freelance writers of varying skills, an archive of low-quality stories, and a client who was often unhappy with the results.

Yet Rodarmor never regretted his choice. "The fact is, it was exciting," he said.

The high-pressure, high-volume environment kept him on his toes. He got to work with a diverse staff of writers from all over the country, and he developed a weekly newsletter to educate them on the finer points of journalistic prose. He weeded out the less-than-desirable reporters, fought to raise the pay rate for better writers, and paid kill fees when he could. "Good writers are an editor's stock in trade," he said. "You have to treasure them and treat them right."

But when the stock market took a dive and the client ran into trouble, Rodarmor's content company became one of the falling dominoes. So after 14 exciting months on the Web, Rodarmor is looking for another full-time job, probably in the print world.

Ironically, losing the Web job "propelled me back into the world of writing and editing," Rodarmor said. "I'm enjoying freelancing again, even though it means not knowing if I'll pay the rent this month. It adds an edge to life."

Robert Luhn provided a more promising outlook for editors on the Web. Luhn is executive editor of the hardware and software/Internet "channels" of CNET.com, which he said is the most widely read publication in the world, with 30 million viewers a day. Luhn oversees coverage for the two channels (along with CNET Labs); he also edits features, product reviews, and how-to articles, and writes the CNET Insider column.

Luhn said CNET is doing well because it has some history—it was the first to do what it does—and it knows how to make money. In addition to the banner ads and static ads found on most commercial Web sites, CNET generates income from "leads" paid for by vendors. A lead is generated when someone is reading a piece and clicks a link (say, relating to an IBM printer) that takes them to a CNET Shopper page, which then leads to a retailer. The 2,000-employee company is also a savvy marketer: last year it spent $100 million on a national TV ad and print campaign. Luhn said CNET is in a good position to survive because it's dedicated to creating original editorial content. As the Internet evolves, original content is becoming a highly prized commodity. Here's proof: CNET provides much of the AP's computer news, Luhn said.

You could say this former senior editor for PC World (where he met Rodarmor) and editor in chief of Computer Currents has successfully moved from the print world to the Web. "Working on Web publications is an expansive experience," Luhn said. "It expands your mind, skills, wallet, and sense of ethics."

Discussing the pros of working for a Web publication, Luhn said traditional print editors making the move could expect a significant salary jump. There's also instant gratification: Web articles go to print much more quickly than magazine articles. Video, audio, and flash animation can be incorporated into Web-based articles, and, thanks to e-mail, writers can interact instantaneously with their readers. Finally, because there are only so many experienced editorial staffers to go around, solid editing and writing skills are considered an asset in Web jobs and can be a ticket to quick advancement.

On the downside, writing standards tend to be lower since there's such a high volume of copy to process. Also, Luhn said, "the ethics can be slippery." The Web editor must be clear on the relationship between "content" and "editorial"—able to discern whether the content is indeed original, objective copy or just vendor-provided fluff. Luhn also pointed to the financial instability of many Web companies. (Ironically, Luhn's laid-off Computer Currents colleagues, who initially took Web jobs only to see their online ventures crash, have returned to print jobs in book and magazine publishing and technical documentation.)

How to avoid a dot-com letdown? Luhn suggests asking a potential Web employer the following questions:

  • Is the site truly editorial or is it just a house organ or marketing vehicle? Who does the site serve? Is it beholden to anyone in a way that compromises its objectivity?
  • What is the site's "funding model"—in other words, how does the site make money? Having a venture capitalist with deep pockets backing the site is obviously a plus, but what's the bottom line? Is the site generating cash? (In the same vein, Luhn recommends taking your salary in the form of cash rather than stock options.)

  • How are editors and contributing writers being paid? If the site pays its people well, it values editorial, Luhn said.

 

 

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