Digerati - Chapter 1

Digerati - Chapter 1

Stewart Alsop [10.1.96]

Chapter 1


Stewart Alsop

THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): Stewart Alsop has played a number of different roles in this business. Despite his considerable expertise, he works very hard to keep the perspective of the reasonable businessperson asking what exactly does this mean for me. It is very much in the intellectual tradition of his family to speak and write articulately about things in a way that makes sense to ordinary people.

Stewart Alsop is a partner in New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm, and a contributing editor to InfoWorld, of which he is the former editor-in-chief. He is executive producer of Agenda, an annual conference for executives of the computer industry.

Stewart Alsop is excited. "It's changed my life. I don't watch television anymore. I watch only the Internet now. It's an interesting thing to look at. First of all, I have an ISDN line at home, so I can get faster access to the Internet. That's crucial. The Net is fundamental, very compelling."

Stewart has been in the publishing business for twenty years‹as editorial director of InfoWorld, a key trade weekly; as the publisher of a newsletter, PC Letter; and as the director of Agenda, an annual conference for power players in the PC industry. Stewart is "The Pragmatist." He likes doing business. He likes making money. He likes creating things that people are willing to pay for.

I have known Stewart since 1983. Over the years, we have spent time together at numerous conferences, professional events, and social occasions. He is always affable. I enjoy his easy company and appreciate the unique way he looks at the industry. He brings the perspective of one who has grown up in the environment of serious, no-nonsense journalism. His father was Stewart Alsop; his uncle, Joseph Alsop. He can edit and write. He reads and thinks.

Although Stewart was raised in the epicenter of the Eastern establishment, he grew up as a typical American boy, watching a lot of TV, avoiding his schoolwork, and otherwise making trouble. As an adult, he kept watching TV, two or three hours a day, and always felt productive. Now he surfs the World Wide Web two or three hours a night. He still feels productive, even though he recognizes that surfing the Web is beginning to yield the same level of content as watching television.

Stewart makes the point that the Web is a precursor. It hasn't changed our lives yet, but it promises to alter our lives substantially. "If you start drilling down on what the Internet represents, or what the World Wide Web represents," he says, "you can see the kinds of changes in behavior that accompanied the arrival of roads and cars, trains, or airplanes. The Internet is something that can create entirely new ways of putting together communities and transacting our lives on a daily basis. It's hard to say how the Internet will ultimately change our lives, because we can't see the end point of it."

No one has figured out how to make money off the World Wide Web. According to Stewart, there are three reasons: (1) there are no tools; (2) there are no customers; (3) the technology doesn't really work. But to say you can't make any money off the Web is like saying you couldn't make money off PC software in 1978. Stewart believes that if the Web is going to change our lives substantially, there are going to be plenty of ways to make money, and some will be the ways we already make money.

"InfoWorld is a publisher," Stewart notes, "and we're going to figure out how to sell advertising over the Net. We'll probably make just as much money or more than we do by printing. We'll figure that out, and so will other people in their particular business, whether it's movies or books. The trick is to figure out new ways to make money on the Internet by selling to your customers."

Stewart wears many hats with aplomb and style, and has achieved a degree of influence in the industry far out of proportion to InfoWorld's limited circulation of 310,000. Why? Because he left InfoWorld, for eight years to publish an important newsletter, and because his Agenda conferences draw many of the major industry figures. Or maybe it's just because he's been around for so long; people keep score and realize how many times he has been right.

THE PRAGMATIST (Stewart Alsop): Editors are the original intelligent agents. We try to figure out what our customers do, and we succeed to the degree that we're able to give them what they want, compel them, give them an identity, and make them feel that they're part of a community. I'm used to newsstands where there might be a hundred publications. There are literally thousands of things on the Web‹lots of competition‹and you have to think about which things are going to stand out in a readers' mind and make a neural connection. It's not just a matter of things changing every day. Change has to be relevant to the readership. You have to decide whom you're trying to talk to and what community you're operating in.

The Web has made people throw their sanity out the window. Even rational people in the publishing business sit around talking about warm bodies: "We've got 6 million people using the Web" or "We've got 10 million people using the Web." Finally I say, "Wait a minute. Are we going to throw away everything we know about publishing because this technology exists and just count warm bodies again?" Our job as editors or providers is to attract a particular audience, develop a sense of community. So it doesn't matter how many warm bodies there are on the World Wide Web. If you're going to talk about developing a sense of community on the Web, then you have to figure out what community you're talking to. You have to engage in that transaction. It's still a business.

The fundamental problem is push versus pull. Web sites are pull: you have to go to them. Newspapers are push: they arrive at your doorstep. Even though books are mostly push, there's pull in that you as a publisher have to convince your customers to go somewhere to get them. That changes the nature of what you do. Baseball games are pull: you have to get in your car and go to the stadium to watch the baseball game. A complex of motivations is acting on the customer. You've got to think about the motivations that must exist and the processes that must occur before a product actually reaches the customer.

I hate the notion of content, because it generalizes the value of creative effort by applying a generic word to it. If you're a writer, you write; if you're a movie producer, you produce movies. Being a content guy doesn't say anything about you. Content is talked about as though it's something you can pick up off the floor and throw together, and people are going to be compelled by it. Although I don't like the word content, it is the only way, across multiple disciplines, to describe what it is that digital publishers do.The generic word has to be specific to the audience. You can't presume that you're going to be able to deliver your product to a particular audience. You have to understand what motivates that audience to buy.

When we consider the mega-media companies‹the "convergence companies" that have been created through mergers and acquisitions such as Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner, and Newscorp‹we must focus on a fundamental issue: in any particular creative effort, there has to be somebody who understands how to motivate customers. Jeffrey Katzenberg was great at Disney because he knew how to get people out of their chairs and into movie theaters. If you're Sumner Redstone of Viacom, you have to have people who know how to put on TV shows, people who know how to produce movies, people who know how to publish books. Fundamentally, it's still a question of how to get people compelled by the content.

If I were talking about interactive content to the people running the media conglomerates, I would give them this advice: "Don't worry about it. It's a speck on your horizon. There is nothing that's going to be financially interesting or compelling to you, and you should ignore the whole thing, unless you want to protect your company from technological obsolescence. In that sense, you need to be personally involved and understand your company's Internet initiative. But you don't do it for your board of directors, and you don't do it to satisfy your shareholders, and you don't do it because it's financially motivating. You do it because you understand it's going to affect all of your businesses in the future. You will make money on it in the future, and in order to do so, you have to participate in it, understand it, and be involved with it."

The economic value of the Web is equal to the value of television, which is a multibillion-dollar business that people are dying to buy into. There are distribution and entertainment opportunities in the Web. They may not look like what we are used to seeing, but a whole culture of people out there finds surfing the Web a lot of fun. These people are going to pay to do that.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Stewart's role in the industry is to bring people together. Stewart was once my boss at InfoWorld. The son of a distinguished journalistic family, he came in and tried to take over InfoWorld and turn it into a boring trade publication. Three of us quit, but I managed to stay friends with him. He has good insights, he gives good quote. His conferences are well done. He's got a wry sense of humor. One of his problems is that this industry has just bubbled over with money so that he's been able to coast a little bit. I don't think Stewart's had to push himself as hard as he might have.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Alsop is a journalist in the true sense of the word. He is perceptive, skeptical, talented, and not for sale. His opinions are valued and interesting because he won't allow himself to be corrupted by all the forces that swirl around him. He is a breath of fresh air in a jaded industry.

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): Stewart Alsop is one of those people who is a year or two ahead of the marketplace, and he's got a very good nose for how people are going to think. He's probably the best weather forecaster I know.

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso): Stewart Alsop gave me my start in this business; how can I say anything about him? He's truly a pragmatist. Of most people in the PC business, Stewart's the one guy who focuses on the customer. At least he used to when he was an editor. I hope his becoming a vulture capitalist doesn't change him.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): I'm kind of disappointed that Stewart became a venture capitalist recently. Now I have to see if there is a hidden agenda in what he's writing about. I can't believe he did it because he needed the money.

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): Stewart has always had a common man's view of technology, whether it was in the early days when he was writing for consumer-oriented business publications, or now, as he writes for industry trade publications. Somehow in the sea of announcements, with every company claiming the latest, greatest feature, he's had a deft touch in divining what's real and what's not real, and who's going to really make a difference. He's proven to be remarkably pragmatic over a very long period of time.

THE MARKETER (Ted Leonsis): Stewart Alsop is an incredibly sharp thinker and the world's worst golfer. He wants to come off a lot meaner and tougher than he really is. You go have a beer with Stewart and you'll have a great time. What's interesting is the clarity in his thinking. Stewart's been right more than wrong, which is something you can't say for most of the people that have been in the business for fifteen years.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Stewart has created and runs perhaps the best of the focused meetings. He backs it up with great style, incisive writing, and an indulgent show-biz attitude to the deep-pocket high-rollers in the business. If I had to choose two conferences to attend, his would be the second.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.