Still Vanity Fare

Zap-ping Wordand Charged

When fish-oil baron-cum-Internet impresario Avram Glazer (of the Zapata Corp.) rescued stalwart Alley Web zines Word and Charged last spring--stemming a tide of portentous "content is dead" news reports in the process--the story wasn't just that the sites had been saved from obsolescence. The real scoop involved how Glazer sought to boost the economic feasibility of the two properties, which had proved unprofitable for their previous owners, Icon CMT. By making Word and Charged the flagship entities of his incipient Web "network," zap.com, Glazer could centralize critical yet expensive functions such as advertising sales, marketing, and promotion. (Seems content might not be dead, but it's not exactly thriving, either.)

Well, both Word and Charged have relaunched in the past two weeks, but the vaunted network is nowhere to be found.

Factors ranging from the inexorable volatility of the stock market (plans to spin zap.com off from stolid, debt-free Zapata in an IPO are currently on hold) to Glazer and Co.'s pokey pace in an industry that favors warp-drive speeds have left Word and Charged in a situation surprisingly similar to the one they were in before their much ballyhooed not-quite-demise: two niche-oriented Web sites fending for themselves in an ever more crowded online world.

The new Word, for example, debuted on October 5 without a single paying advertiser. Editor in chief Marisa Bowe, a respected Alley veteran who at this point is also serving as publisher, marketing director, and quasi-CFO, recently took matters into her own hands. Along with Charged's editor, Alice Bradley, Bowe recruited an ad sales representative, one who is not presently receiving a salary ("commission only," Bowe says). Media kits for the sites are either just now being finished or on their way out the door, so it'll be awhile before that robust stable of paying advertisers is full.

Props should go out to both editors, who Bradley says are "doing what we've always done": bootstrapping it every step of the way. Bowe concurs: "Word is definitely more indie than Titanic." Given the gloomy future implied by Icon's hurried shutdown of the sites, these editors are justifiably ebullient simply to be publishing new content and working with their longtime staffers, most of whom turned down (or quit) new jobs to be part of what's known as "the Resurrection."

All of which is well and good. But neither site has truly formalized budgets, traffic targets, or revenue goals in place--a far cry from the deal-closing minions and savvy corporate strategy forecasted by all the zap-related, new-kind-of-portal hoopla.

"This is where wishful thinking and denial come into play," says Bowe, conceding that the development of the Zapata Internet company has proceeded "more slowly than expected." While Bradley gives credit to Glazer for satisfying her budgetary requests, she admits that the situation is "not optimal and a little disorganized."

For his part, Zapata CEO and president Avram Glazer has all the time in the world. So there's no advertising on his two best-known web properties? "It doesn't concern me," Glazer says. Any progress toward a fully articulated Web network? "It's moving along," he says. And Glazer's bromides happen to be backed up by a lot of money; Zapata reportedly has cash reserves in the neighborhood of $115 million.

Glazer admits that he's content to have Word and Charged out there publishing even if they're not making money and haven't a semblance of a business plan. The status quo just gives him and Zapata a higher profile in the wired world while he gets his act together behind the scenes. Or as Bowe puts it, "The amount Avie's spending on us now is just a drop in the bucket."

Sounds a lot like what Icon was doing--making trophies of the sites without really integrating them into a larger framework that can encourage economies of scale to kick in. Bowe hopes that's not the case. "Being the crown jewel is absolutely not exciting to me," she says.

For awhile at least, the two sites should be able to keep spending Glazer's money without fear of the well drying up. Whatever happens, the folks behind these long-standing Web zines have by necessity achieved an almost Zen-like poise in regard to the precarious nature of Internet entrepreneurship. "I think of us as this little ship on the ocean," Bowe says of Word. "Sometimes the wind blows really hard and other times it's sunny. But throughout, it's been the same little boat, going in the same direction."


Phreakshow

They say there's no money to be made on the Web and Silicon Alley's broke, but you couldn't tell by standing outside last week's Internet World conference at the Javits Center (October 5-9). The black Mercedes and shiny limousines (there was even a stretch Ferrari Testarossa, though, sadly, no Navigator) lining Eleventh Avenue proved that cyberbiz is dripping with excess.

That same excess was evident on the crowded show floor, where companies converted massive amounts of paper, metal, plastic, and even people into really big meaningless displays. America Online's center-of-the-floor logo replica--a 10-foot-tall climbable cardboard pyramid with a big O in the middle--looked more like a tribute to the Freemasons than an AOL promotion. Motorola actually reconstructed what looked like the nearby Empire Diner, fleshing out their display of digital telephony and VoxML with out-of-work waiters acting out an annoying drama explaining the products (the latter is a new programming language allowing people to surf the Web with just a telephone, no computer needed). In the geek-world equivalent of using t&a to sell a car, Icon CMT, an Internet consulting company, installed two large, free video game consoles for visitors to play. Why? "So that you can just sit there and think wonderful thoughts about our product," said an Icon presenter. Though Microsoft had perhaps the blandest display in both form and content, it was the biggest.

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