The Silicon Alley Reporter (much as I hate to plug it) carries a story today saying that Ziff Davis is planning to create a $400 newsletter tracking Microsoft. It'll be written by Mary Jo Foley, one of the best Microsoft reporters around and an editor at Ziff's new Baseline magazine. Editorially, I'm sure it'll be a whiz-bang success.
The thing is, Ziff is good at selling inexpensive magazines (the newsstand model) and it's good finding the right people to give them away to (the controlled circulation model). For a while, it was in the business of selling expensive trade show admissions. But what it's never shown itself to be good at is selling big-ticket newsletters.
I speak from some experience here. I worked on a project at Ziff that consisted of a series of one-price-fits-all newsletters/websites/seminars. Our price out of the gate was $1000. Ziff tried to sell our product, at first, solely through e-mail with a respond-to website that cost thousands to develop. It didn't really work. Then they tried a card mailing -- about the cheapest and fastest way possible to get into the mail. That didn't work either.
After a few months, they killed the project. It's not that the product wasn't good; it's that no one ever found out. When's the last time you spent $1000 on the basis of a couple of e-mails and a website?
I've actually been doing this for a while. I published my first newsletter online in 1985. That same year, Esther Dyson launched one backed by Bill Ziff. They charged $1000. I charged by the article; I don're remember how much, but it was lots less. Neither of us lasted, but I bet I made more money than they did.
The newsletter business is different than the magazine business, which doesn't mean that Ziff won't make a buck or two. It just means that it'll be harder and more expensive than they probably think. And as good as Mary Jo is, it's going to be hard to demonstrate in these tough times that she can provide better and faster information than what can be had floating around for free -- including what her own company is producing.