Geek Tragedy

You remember the Internet–not the helpful tool most of us use every day for a host of tasks, but Internet the Idea, the belief system which held that the Internet was a transformational force that was going to completely remake the society in ways so far-reaching that most humans could not yet begin to comprehend them. This belief was so powerful that people invested fortunes in the hope and expectation that soon, maybe even within a couple of quarters, vast numbers of people would be downloading their dog food and consulting anonymous online physicians about their medical problems, and other such miraculous transmogrifications. The Industry Standard was a weekly magazine that for about two years chronicled this industry. It was a good publication, but it was one of a bunch that did what it did; its claims of unique excellence, fashioned over so brief an existence, aren’t immediately apparent to an outside observer. However, during the height of Internet fever, its weekly status gave it a club-newsletter cachet, and over one extraordinary 12-month period, The Industry Standard raked in advertising revenue at phenomenal levels–$2 million a week. Of course, the boom didn’t last. The dot.coms that advertised in it went broke and stopped advertising; the tech giants like Intel that sold hardware to the dot.coms stopped advertising; and the dot.communists who worked at these disappearing businesses, and who had billed the cost of their subscriptions back to their companies, were laid off and chose not to subscribe with their own money. Soon the phenomenally profitable publication, which had grown and expanded and set up subsidiary ventures and foreign bureaus and generally acquired all the other apparatus of an Information Age empire, was hemorrhaging money. Whereupon the fusty old media company that owned a big chunk of the publication–IDG, the corporation that publishes the “for Dummies” books (Wine for Dummies, etc.) among a host of profitable, dirt-dull niche publications–turned out the lights.

This story–a hot publication’s rise and fall, the charismatic founder who was all grasshopper and no ant, the conflict between the New Media dreamers and the Old Media bean counters–sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, Ledbetter was less than ideally positioned to capture the tale. The Industry Standard was headquartered in San Francisco; Ledbetter was the New York bureau chief, stationed a continent away. At least he was a continent away until things got really hairy at the company, and the conflict started heating up, at which point he became the editor of the tiny European edition, and moved to London, a continent and an ocean away. It’s like telling us about the fall of the Roman Empire from the frontiers of Gaul. Ledbetter gives us snapshots of life at HQ from time to time–the profligacy, the chaos, the company’s disorganized growth–but we never get a real feel for the personalities, for their fevered delusions, for their terror as the train wreck approaches. Ledbetter doesn’t tell these stories because he doesn’t have these stories. He has his story, and a pretty boring tale it is. He really does treat us to accounts of his problems finding decent office space in Manhattan, his run-ins with copy editors, and his troubles with publicists and how he got back at them. Occasionally there’s a tale of “How I Got That Story,” but it’s not that gripping. Back in San Francisco, his bosses were busy building and crashing a Hindenburg; Ledbetter tells the story of operating their outposts. Had he reported the story, and done interviews and dug around, his closeness to the story might have given him insights into the tale. But he didn’t.

Of course, had he reported the story, his closeness might have been a problem. Ledbetter is a True Believer. He thinks The Industry Standard was a great little publication that could and should have been saved, and would have been saved if the bean counters at IDG hadn’t hewn to their own agendas. At one point, he makes a harsh admission: Of the 170,000 readers the publication had in May 2000, only 44 percent actually paid for the magazine. The rest got theirs through “controlled circulation,” a laughable euphemism for “for free.” By 2001, those who were paying were declining to renew “in droves,” as even Ledbetter puts it. In other words, The Industry Standard, as an idea, as the Bible of the New Media World Order, as the future Dow Jones, was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But at rock bottom, the thing that it really was–a magazine–simply wasn’t popular enough to live. In that way, it was like so many of the businesses it covered.

Under all the money that washed over them, these things that were supposed to be agents of transformation were just businesses, tethered to the immutable laws of supply and demand. And at rock bottom, this book, which is supposed to be a yarn about a publication’s rise and fall, is really about one man’s disappointment that this thing he loved so much turned out so poorly. So what?

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.