Desire for Profit
Web zines never die, they just get very sleepy. Rather than nod off, the creators of Urban Desires--one of the Alley's oldest, launched in October 1994--are planning an evolution, rechristening the venture a "content farm" and selling off its archives for a profit. While no deals have been arranged yet, its founders plan to market the zine's extensive back issues and editorial skills to advertisers, corporate Web sites, and magazines. More than just the flatline of another attempt at important impertinence (like Turner Broadcasting's Spiv), the passing of the sophisticated UD (desires.com) may signal the development of a brand-new asset for online publishing: a business model.
"Urban Desires's mission is complete," explains Kyle Shannon, chief creative officer of interactive shop AGENCY.COM and one of three private UD funders, along with AGENCY CEO and UD publisher Chan Suh, and UD editor in chief Gabrielle Shannon (Kyle's wife). "We've explored generating original content in a serial magazine fashion," Shannon adds, "and now that there's a bunch of content, how can we make money on it?"
But even with AGENCY founders as silent partners, it is hard to imagine quirky UD features like "Confessions of a Sexy Sloth" or "A Little Woodland Onanism" making it on the British Airways site (one of Agency's prime clients). Gabrielle also admits that this year's work will have trouble finding a home outside UD because it's "less linear... and more participatory. I don't know how well that would play in magazines."
Online zines have had marginal success reverse-engineering their work into print. The only success story is Salon (salonmag.com), which has a syndication deal with United Features Syndicate. "But Salon has brand-name writers" like Camille Paglia, notes Mikki Halpin, editor in chief of the indie zine Stim (stim.com). "I'm not sure how much of an established brand Urban Desires has."
After publishing some of the Net's sexiest, most urbane lit, UD lost ground with the launch last June of "literary smut" site Nerve (nerve.com)--a whopping success--and the arrival of juggernaut city guides like Sidewalk, CitySearch, and AOL's Digital City.
Now that UD is in limbo, the company is free to experiment. Kyle suggests they may even try to transform it into an editorial rep agency for freelancers, but that's an unlikely move. As Halpin says, "Why can't I pitch freelance stuff without them?" For Kyle and Gabrielle, anything is better than blindly running on without rest. "When we started UD, there was a whole culture of things missing from the Web, and we wanted to fill that," recalls Kyle. "We want to keep doing that--find the place that is missing and explore it."
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