The time has come to close the book on NetBITS. For those who joined us recently, NetBITS was a TidBITS-like newsletter that we published between September of 1997 and February of 1998. Our goal with NetBITS was to break out Internet information that we would have published in TidBITS but that was only peripherally related to the Macintosh. We felt that NetBITS wouldn’t be too much more work since we had created so many procedures and so much automation over the years that we could reuse for NetBITS. Plus, a good friend of ours, Glenn Fleishman, was to act as editor in chief, since the rest of us were still busy with TidBITS every week along with our many other individual projects.
From the pure publishing standpoint, NetBITS was a big success. We published some great content (which has now been assimilated into the TidBITS article database so you don’t have to guess in which publication an article might have run) and by the end, our readership was over 20,000 people. But we were never able to attract enough advertisers to NetBITS to earn enough to account for the amount of time NetBITS required.
Then, in late January of 1998, the bomb dropped. Glenn was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer. All of his time and energy immediately had to go toward fighting the disease. The rest of us assembled a final issue and officially placed NetBITS on hiatus, hoping we would find someone to fill in for Glenn and to drum up advertisers for NetBITS. We also spent quite some time talking to other publishing companies about selling NetBITS, but we never found a match.
As the months passed, the likelihood of reviving NetBITS receded. I considered the logistics of making NetBITS a subscription-based newsletter, but I simply couldn’t convince myself that more than 10 percent of the readership would pay, say 50 cents per issue or $24 per year to subscribe. Assuming 2,000 readers at $24 per year, NetBITS would earn a total of $48,000, which sounds like a lot until you divide it by a four or five person staff, then take out a third each for taxes. None of us could justify the work for what would end up as about $500 per month. Plus, if we were charging a subscription fee, I wanted to pay authors for submissions, which complicated the numbers even further. Maybe someone else could have pulled it off, but it was beyond my comfort level.
The good news is that after months of chemotherapy, Glenn’s cancer went into complete remission. An experience like that changes you, and we understood completely when Glenn went on to work on other projects rather than spearheading a NetBITS revival. You can see what he’s been up to, including some writing for a little paper called the New York Times, at his Web site below.
We’ve learned some lessons from our experience with NetBITS, just as we did with our previous spin-off attempt, DealBITS.
Concentrate on what you do well, and play to your strengths. We may be good at publishing electronically, but with both DealBITS and NetBITS we failed to play to our strengths in the full TidBITS readership and our connections in the Macintosh community.
The phrase "If you build it, they will come" might apply to ghostly baseball players and readers, but it doesn’t work when trying to attract advertisers. Ad sales is hard work and requires a skilled professional, and NetBITS should have had that from the beginning.
Everything is more work than it seems. Since we’ve published TidBITS for so long, we’d forgotten how much work we really put into each issue, between writing and editing and distributing. NetBITS leveraged our technology well enough that our overall workload wasn’t twice as high, but we hadn’t anticipated how much work it would really entail.
You can do only so much for free. At the end of the day, you have to be able to pay your bills and put food on the table. All of us work on a variety of projects that will never pay because they’re the right thing to do. But we have to maintain a balance between the paying and the non-paying or risk being forced to concentrate solely on tasks which generate income.
Although we’ve absorbed the Internet content that would otherwise have run in NetBITS back into TidBITS (my recent article about online grocery shopping, for instance, or Tara Calishain’s two-part article on searching for images online), we’re not totally killing NetBITS. Who knows, something might change in the future such that we want to revive it. But for now, we’ll take the advice Kenny Rogers offers in The Gambler – "You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em." We’re going to try to attract the NetBITS readers who aren’t also TidBITS readers to the TidBITS mailing list, but for now, NetBITS doesn’t have the cards, so we’ve folded its hand.