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Exclusive Interview with Michael Hirschorn, Editor in Chief of Inside.com
As editor and chief of Spin magazine, Michael Hirschorn was one of the most powerful music journalists in the country. Then, last year he got fired. At any other time in history, the event might have been traumatic. But in these days of Internet bliss, it was an opportunity.
by Michael Grebb, Special Correspondent
Hirschorn had been kicking around an idea for an online site that would cover the convergence of all media-movies, music, TV, and print-and give executives in those fields serious information they could use. And-gasp!-it would actually charge subscription fees. He contacted Kurt Anderson, a colleague from his days at New York magazine. "I called him and told him this idea," recalls Hirschorn, "and as it turned out he had had a similar idea the previous year and had actually already discussed it with the Flatiron guys."
Flatiron Partners is the venture capital firm that eventually provided the seed funding for what became Inside.com. Now, the Web-based news and information service has about $28 million in capital from Flatiron, Lehman Brothers, and a host of other investors. And with its subscription launch earlier this month (the "sneak preview" began on May 10), the site is getting plenty of buzz. Still, the online content sector has had its share of lumps lately: Beaten stocks, layoffs… you name it. Hirschorn says Inside.com is different, but he isn't about to get cocky. "This is just where the work starts," he says, chuckling.
MG: What's the basic concept behind Inside.com?
MH: The site is predicated on the sense that each of the worlds we're covering-film, music, television, magazines, newspapers, and book publishing-are converging. This notion that there's just a film business or just a music business is an increasingly antiquated idea. It's clear that when you look at the future, and when everything becomes digitized, the parameters of the entertainment and media world change radically. What we're hoping to do is get a beat on that and own that story.
MG: Online content plays seem to have fallen out of favor. How do you convince the world that you're different from others that have faltered recently?
MH: The beating up of content plays is negative hysteria following on positive hysteria and, in fact, is all about market conditions. There was huge washout on the NASDAQ, and a lot of companies couldn't raise more money. Companies of all stripes went out of business because they didn't have money. It doesn't necessarily invalidate any particular model. The difference between us and others is that we are targeted to a core group of industry professionals, and we're not competing in a space where other people are providing the same information for free. We are also selling our product both in bulk to corporations and to individuals who can expense this.
MG: Then do you consider Inside.com an online trade magazine?
MH: We're a little resistant to that. I think the word "trade" at least historically has some negative connotations. The company we've drawn some inspiration from is the Industry Standard, which has turned the trade model a bit on its head by saying that "we're going to be a top-notch business service that happens to focus on the Internet economy" rather than just saying, "we're an IT trade magazine." We're taking some of those notions and applying them to the people who are really charged with rethinking the entertainment and media businesses in this new universe. That's everybody from film agents who are increasingly getting more involved in the Web space, to lawyers and marketing executives, to newspaper and magazine editors who really need to map out a convergence strategy. One of the misnomers about what we do is that we're B-to-C. What we're doing is much closer to the Industry Standard, Fortune, or the Wall Street Journal than it is to any of the other content plays out there.
MG: You depend on advertising as well as subscription fees, and you have your eyes on a conference business. Does the free, ad-based online content model not work anymore?
MH: I think it would be tricky right now to generate enough traffic to make the ad model work. Subscription has to be a part of it. What is most likely is that there will be multi-platform content providers that use wireless, the Internet, and print together.
MG: How about you? How will Inside.com evolve over the next few years?
MH: We'll try to build a long-term viable media business. This is a media business that just happens to use the Web as its springboard. Given that, our ambitions are reasonably modest. We don't have any expectations of this thing being built into some huge, ten-figure behemoth. We're very sober-sided about this operation.
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