The words "red herring" mean something that distracts attention from the real issue. In technology start-ups, red herring is the nickname for the prospectus of a private company readying an initial public offering. The latter meaning was attached to Red Herring magazine, which covered private companies and venture capital in Silicon Valley from 1993 until early 2003. It outlasted such failed magazines as the Industry Standard and Upside.
Now comes a nouveau Red Herring, launched today as an online-only publication that will include news articles, e-mail newsletters and forums -- but without bylines. Research reports will also be available for sale on the site.
Despite having the same name and look, this new Herring will cover more than Silicon Valley, startups and the venture capital world, taking a global view of technology and business. But is the time right for a technology magazine to be resurrected online, and can it survive in an economic landscape still littered with layoffs?
Alex Serge Vieux, the CEO and publisher of the new Red Herring, believes the brand still has legs and that a slimmed-down, modest approach can work. Vieux is the mastermind behind the ETRE Conference and runs DASAR, a company that helps technology start-ups as a kind of venture networker. He regularly shuttles between offices in Mountain View, Calif., where the new Herring is based, and Paris.
"The advertising market is not the most propitious one," Vieux told me via a phone interview. "If we had to go to print media, we'd make an economic sacrifice to do this, and would have to get the cash for it. That would take much more money than what we're doing. When you have a dominant print property, you end up making the other properties stepchildren of the dominant one. By starting with the online, we can make a more balanced portfolio of products."
Of course, Vieux's enthusiasm for publishing Red Herring online may be influenced by the fact that the publication is bound contractually not to run a print version of the Herring; Time Warner bought the magazine's subscriber list with the stipulation there wouldn't be a print Herring for 18 months -- from last April. The earliest that the new Herring could be in print -- which Vieux said was a "high likelihood" -- is September, 2004.
The new publication's income will come from charter sponsors; charter sponsors include British Telecom, Computer Associates and Symantec. Other revenue will come from e-mail newsletters and white papers on technology trends.
But the editorial team, led by former Business 2.0 editor James Daly, will have the challenge of being leaner than the old Herring -- while covering more territory. He has 10 full-time editorial staff, a number that he expects will double eventually; the stories are 50/50 in-house vs. freelance.
"People don't realize that when we started Business 2.0 -- about the same time as the Standard started -- times weren't that robust," Daly said. "An economic downturn is a great time to start a publication. People are more rational, grounded. Investors are more realistic." He said the new Herring would continue in some ways as its old self, an ideas-based publication with a focus on venture capital news. He said there wouldn't be Weblogs on the site initially, though he's open to adding them in the future.
Vieux estimates that his editorial costs are about 10 percent of the old Herring's, but he wouldn't say how much that was. with about half the staff. His focus is on a low burn rate, and he apologized (sarcastically) for not having Herring T-shirts to send me. The idea is to keep dot.com-era promo baubles to a minimum.
The new Herring interviewed many technology journalists, some of whom told me they were turned off by low pay rates and no bylines.
"What do you care about when you read a magazine?" Vieux asked. "You care about the content, right? Whether it's written by X, Y or Z is less important than the quality of the research, the exact reporting, the precise understanding of the situation and the subtle analysis of it. All of those traits are very important when you write the story. Who writes them is secondary to that. ...We will be sober and modest and analytical."
Jonathan Weber, the former editor of the Industry Standard and a current editor at Off The Record Research, said there is a gap in the technology magazine market.
"Someone can do something now," he told me. "But the question is: What are you going to do? Red Herring is associated with Silicon Valley and venture capital. They want the new Herring to look at the broader global IT universe. But what piece? Who is it for? Why are people going to read this publication? You need a short answer to that question or it's going to be a tough road."
The Economist of technology?
While Daly said that there was less resistance to the no-byline rule than he expected, it won't be easy to replicate the Economist model of great analysis with no bylines. With Vieux focused on low-cost editorial, and a slim staff covering the globe, few people will mistake the revamped Red Herring with the revered Economist. Plus, online publications and Weblogs often depend on the personality and accountability of their writers, something that's lost without bylines.
But Jason McCabe Calacanis, who started the Silicon Alley Reporter and just launched the business Weblog service Weblogsinc, likes the new Herring's timing and online-only business model. "The timing is fortuitous, possibly a little too early, but they're in the window," Calacanis told me. "But it could work as a slow burn, building up members. Start heating the coals now, and when the market comes back it will light up like a tinderbox."
Calacanis thinks the lack of bylines could work for a small group with great leadership. "You really have to have camaraderie and bonding," he said. "I love the idea that everyone owns every word. But if there are egos involved and varied talent, people won't buy in."
The co-founder of Red Herring, Tony Perkins, now runs an online-only service called AlwaysOn. He said he sees potential for the new Herring, as his own site is already profitable. "I am succeeding online, so it is possible for them as well," he told me via e-mail. "There is room in the market for at least one successful technology business magazine. But again, it all gets down to start-up funding and execution."
The new Herring has funding from Vieux and other Valley luminaries, such as Tim Koogle, formerly the CEO at Yahoo. But its execution remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Hopefully, its resurrection will not be a red herring for the return of sophisticated technology business coverage online.
[Author's note: I used to co-write the Media Grok newsletter for the Industry Standard, and Jonathan Weber was my editor there.]