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Information Today, Inc. Acquires ONLINE Magazine
Posted On October 25, 2001
Information Today, Inc. (ITI) has acquired ONLINE magazine, the flagship of Online, Inc.'s fleet of periodicals and conferences. ITI produces the annual InfoToday, Internet Librarian, and Computers in Libraries conferences, among others, and publishes books and periodicals (as well as electronic NewsBreaks, such as this one) for the online industry. ONLINE's January/February 2002 issue will be the first one published by ITI, though the change is effective immediately for subscription and other business purposes. Marydee Ojala, editor of ONLINE, will remain with the magazine, reporting to ITI vice president of content Dick Kaser, and will also assist in conference program planning.

The sale marks the culmination of Online, Inc.'s strategic initiative to reach beyond its original audience, the information professional community, to the broader business-to-business (B2B) market. Beginning several years ago, Online, Inc. launched an assortment of specialized seminars and workshops devoted to targeted interest areas such as DVD technology and applications, intranets, Web-based virtual communities, and buying and selling electronic content. Earlier this year, the company replaced its annual Online World conference and exhibition with a much smaller WebSearch University that's aimed primarily at information professionals, and an eContent exposition that's geared to the business sector. Meanwhile, its EContent magazine underwent editorial refocusing and was relaunched as a B2B periodical.

ONLINE began publication in 1977 under the direction of Jeff Pemberton who, with his wife and business partner Jenny, was the moving force behind Online, Inc. and a visible, even ubiquitous, presence at the company's conferences for many years. According to Nancy Garman, publisher and former editor of ONLINE, the Pembertons are ready to take a much less hands-on role in the company, and this sale will enable them to do that. Responsibility for the organization's active management has already been passed to their sons Adam and Andrew, as well as to Garman.

In announcing the sale, Jeff Pemberton expressed confidence that the magazine is in good hands. Tom Hogan, president of ITI, said: "ONLINE has been our worthy competition for over 2 decades.… Jeff Pemberton and the many other publishing professionals at Online, Inc. should be commended for their pioneering efforts over the years and for their dedication to the online community. Having ONLINE under the same roof as Information Today, Searcher, and our other publications is a dream come true for us."

For the duration of its joint existence, an ongoing editorial and marketing challenge for Online, Inc. was describing, justifying, and maintaining the distinction between ONLINE, its sister publication Database, and more recently, EContent. Even longtime subscribers could not consistently recall in which journal a particular article had appeared. The standard explanation was that ONLINE focused on systems and services, while EContent covered databases and subject-specific electronic resources. But the distinction was often fuzzy, and became more so with the increasing importance of the Web as a research tool. To some extent, though, the fact that both were bimonthly periodicals (EContent recently ramped up to monthly publication) blunted the horns of the dilemma. Readers with unconstrained serials budgets could justify subscribing to both on the basis that they added up to the equivalent of a single monthly magazine.

ITI, where the periodical mix is quite different, may be facing a more complex editorial puzzle. Now, ONLINE is up against Searcher, edited by the inimitable Barbara Quint and informed throughout by her unique voice and perspective. What does the future hold for both publications?

Hogan admits that he doesn't have all the answers—at least not yet. "ONLINE magazine," he says, "is undoubtedly the publication of record for the online field, and we do not plan any dramatic changes to it, certainly not in the short term. The real challenge is going to be to keep the editorial content as distinct as possible from Searcher magazine, which is also doing well and should not be overshadowed by any means."

Hogan continues: "It would be an oversimplification to say that Searcher is a practical, hands-on, news-you-can-use sort of publication while ONLINE is more of a big-picture, survey-overview-and-trends sort of publication. Even though there is some truth in that characterization, there is no real black-and-white distinction. Quite frankly, I'm counting on Dick Kaser, working with Barbara and Marydee, to come up with the best possible plan to define an editorial niche for the two publications. If they can't figure it out, then probably nobody can!"

At this point, Searcher, published 10 times a year (including a once-a-year double issue), is better positioned than ONLINE, a bimonthly, to tackle current events and issues. ONLINE, with its longer production cycle, has—through necessity—generally taken the longer view. But production cycles aren't set in stone, and ITI already has a dedicated news organ in Information Today, a tabloid-style monthly published on the same schedule as Searcher and aimed at both research professionals with decision-making responsibilities and producer-side movers and shakers.

The big question is whether the online information industry, especially in these belt-tightening times, can support two publications with significantly overlapping editorial coverage and equally legitimate claims to authority. ONLINE may be the industry's "publication of record," but Quint is the searcher's—not just Searcher's—voice. Now that the two are no longer competitors, but sister—or at least stepsister—periodicals, they'll have to figure out some way to get along.

ITI has been in acquisition mode in recent months, adding to its publication lineup most recently a line of Bowker reference products, including Literary Market Place and the American Library Directory. The ONLINE name and brand identity will further solidify ITI's already firm position as leading information provider to the information professional community. Whatever ITI ultimately decides to do with its newest asset will directly affect the quality and timeliness of the information available to members of that community in their constant effort to stay on top of online tools, resources, and trends.

Reva Basch is an editor, writer, and consultant to the online industry. She is executive editor of the Super Searchers book series published by Information Today, Inc.

Email Reva Basch
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