Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Denial of Access

By Douglas McDaniel
Mythville MetaMedia

The date is Dec. 13, 2000, and the Internet landscape is teetering on the brink of collapse. But we don’t know it yet. We are secure, successful, on top of the publishing world. Or so we believe. Even as the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding the presidential election for us. We are winners … or so we believe.

Gathered in a large enough quantity in a hotel meeting room, we, the full-time, well-paid employees of Access Internet Magazine, create a convincing air of confidence, of go-go e-business wiles, high on the Net-savvy narcotic of the zeitgeist vibe, a self-assurance and self-pleased demeanor that would be comic if it weren’t so tragic. Looking back at it now, that is. Sure, some of us worried rough times were ahead. At least I did. I’m a worrier, though. Yet, even considering my natural pessimism, it would be hard to imagine how quickly such things can end.

So many startups, as in new magazines, whole living cycles, forests of ink and paper at your doorstep, so many all come and gone. I’ve done them all now: multi-million dollar projects, national monthlies, regional rags covering sports and art, grass roots enviro’ ops out in the desert, entertainment weeklies, all gone. Killed by everything from the Gulf War to a Major League Baseball strike. And now, the dot-com bust. All due to a lack of ad lineage, paid for by e-commerce enterprises in a similar bind, due to the danger of having too much investment capital to burn. Due to publishers always believe they are capturing, the so-called crest of the wave. Until, that is, the wave, the demo, crashes on the shore.

The next wave is on the way. But it’s too late. Ink on paper just can’t adapt in these seas.

We are at the annual sales meeting for Access Media Inc., just before the lavish Christmas Party on the far end of town. Publisher Mike Veitch stands in front of the magazine’s blown up cover featuring then president Bill Clinton: who could likely barely work his e-mail. At least the cover shot of the stumped and befuddled president seemed to depict just that. As if he is looking into one of the impenetrable miracles of our time. Like he fit the demo of newbie readers to “America’s Guide to the Internet.”
Access staffers, mostly those on the advertising side, had come from all over the country after a remarkable year of growth and, apparently, breakthroughs in publishing. You might just wonder, with so much growth in circulation so fast, from 4 million to 10 million weekly within a little over a year, if we had a bigger audience than the president. Whole suburbs of newsreaders, gadget fanatics or, more likely, grandmas wanting to know how to receive photos by e-mail of their grandchildren, practical professionals wanting to know the latest investment site, moms looking for cooking sites and so on…a demo that was nothing less than a cookie-cutter composite of the whole country.
Access was riding the crest of the Internet wave, but it was trying to hit an impossible moving target. The first weekly publication of its time, it attempted to cover the crossover of the mainstream into the entire mélange of the fab electricities in the air. They were breaking up, captain. They would not keep still. It was like chasing a lightning bolt with a dinosaur.

Veitch was self-congratulating the rotunda roomful of attentive ears, maybe 150 people, for publishing Access on a weekly basis as the third largest weekly in the United States, a circulation of nearly 10 million, all distributed as an insert through newspapers across the country. The hotel was notable, from the outside, for huge radio tower landmarks, much older than the Web, that served as testament to the long history of Route 128’s silicon valley of telecommunications wizards, mass marketers, open sourcerers, dot-com rebels and computer-related trade ’zines out the ying yang. Huge glass towers they were all housed in, moving in for the kill.
So powerful and amazing is Access, Veitch tells the group, one Access expose once pointed out that some invasive America Online malfunction was fixed by the safe-surfing company because it had been first criticized by one of the Access columnists.

“The simple and direct way we have helped people in their lives,” Veitch says, “is what journalism is about.”

Maybe a week later, in the red brick office park that was somewhat secluded on the Charles River in Needham, Veitch would be boasting how Access was conceived of, as a business plan, on a single sheet of paper, a metaphor for the integration of all media. By this time, Access Media is the typical cube farm of too many employees cramped into a honeycombed beehive. Basically, what you could get with $17 to $27 million venture capital investment, spent over a year and a half or so. “Access is the first fully integrated mass medium of the post-Internet era,” he said.

Considering the extent of its weekly circulation, maybe 20 million people in affluent suburbs across the nation who may have been actually looking at it at the same time, and the high-priced talent (USA Today online staffers, mainly) who were brought on to head up a new Web-page undertaking, one might have hoped that it could have accomplished more than the mere tweaking of your home computer’s keypad control. Considering all of the computerized wizardry of the place, it could have accomplished pretty much anything it wanted. For myself, I felt as if we were a kind of revolutionary force bringing the liberating Web to the masses. That is the kind of thing people like to hear, that is, until the limits of print----in this form, at this time----became apparent.

But forces much, much larger than a mere circulation of 10 million were at work, almost invisibly, that day. The big die off first sniffed out by Fuckedcompany.com was becoming apparent. First, Access Internet Magazine scaled back its online operations, laying off 21 employees shortly after the beginning of the year, mostly those who worked for accessmagazine.com, about 25 percent of Access Media’s payroll.

Veitch would be pastured into a role as an adviser to the company and board member. John Jay, president of Access Internet Magazine, and Larry Sanders, president of accessmagazine.com, left the company.

Sanders came from USA Today online wars to start up the Access Web site’s expansion during the gold rush heyday. They were predatory times. So he tried a sticky hit style, the “roach motel” approach, attempting to “drive them” like cattle. That was common nomenclature in Access executive culture: This whole idea that people, somehow lacking any choice in the matter, could be “driven” into its Web of multimedia ventures. For bizarre reasons, the site never drove huge numbers, and for a long time ended up with fewer hits than most alternative zines, especially considering the self-marketing possibilities of sending out 10 million flyers----that is, the magazine itself, with the Web site’s URLs at the top of each page and the banner. For whatever reason, readers felt little need to get the same thing at the Web site, too.

By the end of 2000, the company had been working on plans for a national online advertising network and new e-mail products, but scaled back as the Internet tide changed. A new investment from General Atlantic reportedly served as a blood transfusion of less than $1 million. Access had previously raised money in August 2000, when investors contributed $17 million. We were always told $27 million, but we know how quickly $10 million bucks can go up in smoke. Other venture investors in Access Media include Sequoia Capital, One Liberty Ventures, and Labrador Ventures. Individual investors included former Time Warner co-CEO N.J. Nicholas Jr. and E-Trade founder Bill Porter.

The cost of newsprint (about a half-million dollars per edition) and the decline of the Web as an item worthy of mass media interest, especially in terms of potential advertising dollars, were to blame.

It could have been, and very often was, a media project that exemplified the realm of possibility for its time. Access could be just about that, access to the new world of megamedia, to the palace of wisdom (at least as far as the Internet could provide), but at times it seemed just as willing to sift through so much web-based errata in the public interest, it became a tiny little hole indeed, even, at times, a limitation for depicting what was really out there on the Web. These days, let’s face it, if you are less outrageous than the FOX Network when dealing with Web topics, well, you get the picture …

Even as Florida presidential election embroglio roiled on, and angry e-mail bounced around in incredible viral swirls of angst, we, the editors of Access Internet Magazine, were debating whether or not to veto listing the URL of a short, but relatively dated, South Park film depicting a rumble between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, an animated fight between animated good and animated evil. The magazine had been advised by its endless surveys and focus groups to shoot right down the middle. And after so many surveys, believe me, it becomes corporate dogma to believe what demographic research tells us, even if it’s based on mere surface level things that fail to see the real complexities at work. During the staff meeting, it was decided the short film was just too riske’ for the supposed audience of Webizens they were trying to reach.
In fact, the Web is far, far weirder. Which may have been the problem: How do you show that to a mainstream audience, watering it down, so to speak, in print-time, without really becoming too tame and dated.

The real-time medium the magazine was about, the Internet, is certainly not that way.

But this time content was an irrelevant peon, as opposed to king. The magazine delivered, even in a less-is-more slimdown, more information than most people could handle. And that’s just it: Information overload is no longer the rage. A necessity, perhaps: But not the cultural phenomenon it used to be.
I have fond memories, though, of working with an incredibly gifted and experienced staff under the most unusual circumstances. Surrounded by other human search engines, in our own geometric cubes, scanning the World Wide Web all-a-de-day long, being an editorial staffer at Access was like being the subject of some unprecedented experiment in human behavior. Visitors to the office, especially journalists from other news rooms, thought the quiet to be creepy. Newsrooms, in general, are usually boisterous places. Considering how tightly we were packed in after growing from 24 or so to nearly 100 employees in less than a year, it was if nothing else an intimate situation. But it could be quiet as a library. We were more likely to interact from the computer, often by Yahoo’s instant messenger service, often without speaking to anyone, in person, all day. I don’t think that impression was unique for myself. We were literally paid to be hooked to machines and surf the Web. It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of people in our lives. We weren’t disconnected humanity. In fact, I have never come in contact with so many people in my life. It seemed to work, until, for myself, I started to get close to 100 e-mail messages per day, many of them from struggling dot-coms in need of publicity for their shopping sites, especially before the Christmas push. Or from other editors, wondering why I hadn’t gotten back to them with missives about my doubt and fears about what was really happening in the Noosphere.

But, as it turned out, nobody really got the shot in the arm they were looking for. Access included. But maybe in some small way, the Noosphere moved just a little further along.

In a little more than six months after the beginning of the new year, Access has suspended publication. The following was posted on its Web site, at least as of July 10, 2001 at www.accessmagazine.com:

“Access Magazine has suspended publication, due to the continuing uncertainty in the economy.”

Apparently the business of producing a for-print mag announcing the dawn of a new media era is just a little too much like being a Trojan horse. In another example, the first newspaper to launch a free-standing technology section for general readers, The Toronto Star, also shut down that section. For seven years, the section covered the Internet, computers, software, wireless gadgets, anything related to high-tech. I guess once readers figure it out, they just don’t need ink on paper anymore.

On a nice, Indian summer November day, I happened to go by the old Access offices in Needham, right off the Charles River. I walked up to the second floor and happened to run into one of the old execs. He was on the way out. He had little time to chat. Everybody's unemployment was running out, he said. Everybody had to get a job. Some had, most had not.

For myself, I didn't feel like dancing, or, saying I told you so. Sadness, really, a bittersweet one, at that. Their servers are down. The office is a cluttered jumble of half-opened boxes and empty dreams. I got what I could save. A pile of old issues. Someday, hopefully soon, I will database it all.