Early Web publishers were known for their brash editorial stances, winning loyal audiences on the fringe.
But as they face yet another year on the sidelines of the Internet boom, some are looking for ways to pump up their commercial appeal.
Feed Magazine is one. Having published its alternative e-zine on the Web for the past five years, it now wants to join forces with similar sites in a bid to boost traffic and generate stronger ad sales.
The company has held discussions with Lycos and other Web portals to host a network of hip culture magazines, such as Suck, which have proliferated on the Net. Feed hopes to boost traffic by offering one-stop shopping for a variety of editorial products outside the mainstream. It also hopes to reduce costs by sharing ad sales and business development resources with potential partners.
"We want to find a way to scale up the company," said Stephanie Syman,
Feed's cofounder. "Feed's a relatively small company as a Web play. We are
limited in what we can do as a brand."
Although it's too early to know whether others will sign on to the magazine network, the move underscores the frustrations of alternative publications, which have had trouble attracting advertisers and revenues despite critical acclaim for their content. Once touted as the perfect medium for renegade publishers, the Web hasn't always delivered.
"I think people are feeling pressure to consolidate," said Michael O'Donnell, chief executive of Salon.com. "Even bigger sites are getting together to add more viewers, and if you're small, you start to get marginalized."
It's not the first time Feed has tried to gain strength through alliances. In 1996, the company helped found Indinet, a coalition of alternative sites focusing on culture and music. The strategy never took off, and the sites eventually went their separate ways.
This time, the company is trying to line up some heavy corporate backing. Bo Peabody, the founder of Tripod, a community site owned by Lycos, has agreed to sign on as an adviser.
"Feed approached me about investing in the company," he said. "I suggested [instead] that we look at putting together a network of some of these smaller yet very popular targeted sites."
The Web: Not an instant haven
At the root of the problem, according to Syman, is the failure of the Web to radically alter the fundamental economics of publishing.
"The difficulty is one that is very specific to publishing...where your first five years are tough and there's no way around that unless someone handed you $10 million," she said.
Even as some independents have languished, others have seen their fortunes soar after they've drawn the attention of major media companies.
SonicNet, which was acquired by Viacom's MTV Networks Online this year, is
a major piece of MTV's Web strategy. SonicNet is one of three MTV
Internet music sites, along with MTV.com and VH1.com.
Feed envisions creating the e-zine network as a separately owned and operated company. In addition to editorial content, the network would create an opportunity for offering e-commerce and community features.
Syman said Feed would like to partner with publications such as Suck and the Smoking Gun. Suck posts daily commentary on the Web and is known for its satirical edge. The Smoking Gun publishes more subversive editorial content.
The bigger problem facing these publications, however, is how to build enough readership to create a sustainable advertising base.
"I don't think creating the content is the challenging part," Salon's O'Donnell said. "It's more about creating a sizable audience."
News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.