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A New Player

'Dragon Fire' launches its new online magazine in a perilous market. Can it succeed?

By Darryl Greer 7 Jul 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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When CBC's Radio 3 online magazine recently signed off after two and half years, 105 issues, and several awards, independent Canadian music fans and on-line magazine readers had to find a new place online to get their fix of what's new. In the volatile market of the internet, purely online magazines like R3 magazine have yet to break the mould and establish longevity.

However, a new kid on the block called Dragon Fire which launched this week, is attempting to do just that.

With over 100 reporters and freelancers based in 30 countries, many of whom work for big names such as CNN, The New York Times, CBC, Time, National Geographic, Rolling Stone and BBC among others, Dragon Fire editor Amy Webb says readers can expect international reporting not focused on war. "We're trying to be a place where people can come and interact with each other and become part of a more sophisticated global community," she says.

'Saturated medium'

But can it survive in the seemingly saturated medium of the internet when one-man-show blog sites funnel readers away from established news sources and when so many others have faded into obscurity?

Webb sure hopes so. She's worked for the Indianapolis Star and Newsweek, and says people have been approaching digital media the wrong way for a long time. By combining text, audio, and video - making it print, radio, and TV all in one - Webb says Dragon Fire seeks to exploit new technology to its full potential.

"Every story will interact, so if you are sight impaired, but you still want to get information, you can download the audio," she says. One story appearing in the first issue, for example, focuses on Africa and readers can listen to ambient sounds of Africa while reading the story.

Tech exile

Dragon Fire is the brainchild of Philadelphia's Drexel University, and will publish biweekly with daily section updates until January 2006 when it will publish weekly. Editorial and technical collaboration will be essential to the sites interactivity, Webb says - collaboration that doesn't exist elsewhere in her experience. "The tech people were always exiled at the other places. They were only called upon when someone had a problem with a word document," she says.

It also boasts stories in several languages available in text and audio. Much like Radio 3 magazine, there will be no scrolling because readers, or "users" as Webb dubs them, will flip pages like a print magazine.

In addition, it will feature fiction and poetry with the option of hearing it read in the author's own voice, and columns written by experts rather than journalists. To avoid those pesky "liberal" or "conservative" labels that plague so many news outlets, there will be no editorials, except one in the first issue "talking about how we're not writing any editorials," Webb says.

No competition

Furthermore, while it's great that many North American newspapers provide free content online, Webb says online news sources are still going about digital media the wrong way. "A lot of these newspapers have their stuff online but there's no reason that they shouldn't be interactive," she says.

Although many newspapers have tried to make coverage more interactive through online reader forums and reporter blogs, Webb says they haven't succeeded.

So how does Dragon Fire plan to survive and compete when other e-zines such as Salon.com have run into financial trouble? "I don't have to meet a certain profit margin because we're non-profit," she says, adding that she doesn't see other online mags as real competition "because we're really just doing something very different."

But how can any new online publication succeed when so many have run into difficulty?

Free innovation?

Salon.com introduced paid subscriptions, Slate.com like so many others has banner ads, but Dragon Fire will be free of advertising, and all content is free of charge.

It's not just the money or even reader numbers that indicate success, according to Rob McLaughlin, executive producer with CBC Radio 3 magazine. He says Radio 3 was greatly successful despite it "lacking visibility." Shifting priorities at the public broadcaster led to shelving the magazine, he says, but Radio 3 is still around, albeit in a different incarnation. He says there's still a demand for innovative online content, but achieving innovation takes actions, not words.

"Just by saying that you're putting the new back in new media doesn't mean that you'll actually succeed," he says. "There have been a lot of experiments happening online that have failed."

Cheap potential

However, with more and more advertising dollars flowing into the internet, McLaughlin says its potential is now greater than ever.

But despite more money pouring into the internet, columnist, newspaper publisher, and magazine store owner Kevin Potvin says a fragmented, unpredictable online readership hinders a site's ability to ever garner enough advertising dollars to build a substantial business.

"All due respect to the Tyee," Potvin says, part of the problem for online journals is they lack credibility compared to their print counterparts. Print publications, he says, are a tangible product that a reader knows has money and commitment behind it; whereas, online publications can consist of one or two people working for free, for example a blog site. Another reason, Potvin says, is that print publications have space constraints that online journals don't, forcing print journals to be more careful and selective with content.

Film future?

Potvin says a strong online presence is important to a newspaper like a lithograph is to an artist's original work - in other words, the online component of print publications won't be out-done easily.

As a magazine storeowner, he has bleak predictions for the publishing industry because of parallels between the embattled film and music industries, and he's still contemplating ways to adapt - online being the main one. His newspaper, The Republic of East Vancouver, makes enough money for the blank newsprint, and his magazine store is "a canary in the coal mine."

"Do I stick with paper and lose money, or do I go online like everybody else and fight it out there, which seems like a really tough thing?" he says. "Online journals by themselves aren't going to work, and print journals by themselves can work, but only very skimpily like what I'm doing."

'The new world'

As for Dragon Fire, despite being non-profit and state of the art, he doesn't see it flying, just like he doesn't see any new large organization succeeding in what he calls "the new world," invoking Thomas Friedman's new book The World Is Flat.

"I can't see them doing something that everyone else has failed at," he says. "Somebody's giving you money and anybody who's giving you money can take it away."

Dreary predictions aside, Dragon Fire's Webb remains optimistic. "I seriously believe because what we're doing is so different that we're going to attract people," she says. "As long as people are logging on and reading our stuff, I think we have the potential to change things."

Darryl Greer is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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