72 Brian Hecht introduces the Electronic Newsstand! INTERVIEW

Originally published April 7, 1997

He’s 26 years old. But a quick read of his bio makes it seem as though Brian Hecht worked three jobs simultaneously to get where he is today.

“Either that or it looks like I can’t hold a job,” he jokes.

Hecht wears two heavy, staple-studded crowns these days, as president and CEO of The Electronic Newsstand as well as online editor of The New Republic magazine.

“One of the cool things about working in new media is that someone like me gets a chance to try their hand at things that I would never get a chance to do in traditional media,” he says. “Two years ago, I was getting coffee for Barbara Walters at ABC News.”

And how does she like her coffee, anyway?

“I think I’m contractually prohibited from sharing that,” Hecht says.

Hecht — whose resume also includes participation in the launches of ABC’s “Turning Point” news magazine and the Generation X print magazine, Swing — is a wonderful example of a phenomenon Mr. Media recently discussed with an electronic journalism class at the University of Florida. Most of the students asked questions about the future of traditional newspapers jobs such as reporting and editing, concerned that shrinking staffs at dailies meant limited post-graduation opportunities.

Mr. Media scoffed, suggesting that by limiting their view of the world to print media, such students couldn’t see the neon forest for the electrified trees. Online publishing means more jobs and wider, different opportunities using the same skills. Tomorrow’s journalism graduates will only be contained by their imaginations and entrepreneurial spirit, not the number of openings at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or Tampa Tribune.

Brian Hecht is a perfect example of that.

“I don’t want to make it sound like too much of a rags-to-riches cliche,” he says, “but when I was working at NBC News and ABC News, there was a limit to how much of a contribution I could make as an ambitious young person. This whole new world of new media opened up and merely a month later I found myself running a media product, a whole editorial concept in its formation, for a medium, the World Wide Web, that I had never even seen before!”

In his first online job, organizing editorial content for the nascent twentysomething site, Tripod, Hecht was at work a month before he even saw the Web for the first time.

“I was just going on people’s word that it was this really cool thing and you could ‘link,’ ” he recalls. “Even though I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.”

In college — he attended Harvard a mere five years ago — Hecht imagined he’d be a journalist now. Instead, he’s sitting atop The Electronic Newsstand, steering the company that produces The New Yorker‘s Web site, among others.

“Being an entrepreneur? That never even dawned on me when I was considering a career in journalism,” Hecht insists. “In fact, the mechanisms of business seemed vaguely distasteful to me.”

As someone openly discussing the possibility of taking his company public a year from now, Hecht apparently got over his revulsion.

And while he didn’t create the Newsstand, he’s the one who came in a year ago and gave it commercial life for the future, moving it away from a narrow presentation for a handful of magazines to an online “Publisher’s Clearinghouse,” a place where Web surfers will not only find discounts on magazine subscriptions but can also sample a magazine’s wares before putting an e-penny down.

It should be noted, in fairness, that Hecht prefers comparing his site to Amazon.com, the virtual bookstore which seriously impacted sales at “real” stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders and recently registered for an initial public stock offering.

“While we only have a percentage of their traffic and revenue,” Hecht says, “it’s not that small a percentage. We are where they were maybe a year ago. I should be so lucky as to be filing our SEC papers a year from now.”

In the Newsstand’s original, 1993 business design, eight charter publishers paid the company to show their wares and offer subscriptions in a pre-World Wide Web online market. Most publishers were skeptical of online ventures at the time.

Since then, more than 300 magazines signed on for Electronic Newsstands kiosks, which frequently exist in additional to their own home pages.

Hecht reconceived the site as a consumer product, accountable to its users, not just its magazine clients. He expanded into original content, adding: “Off the Rack,” media commentary and interviews; the “Monster Magazine List,” an overwhelming list of more than 2,000 links to online magazines; and “Magazine Monitor,” a daily summary of magazine features.

Now the Newsstand is dealing with a problem of many mature, full-figured sites: too much content. In recent months, Hecht admits, there has been confusion among visitors who don’t know how to adequately experience the site.

“That sentiment is really the tragedy of the success of the site,” he says. “We’ve accumulated so much great stuff that we have yet to find the ultimate efficient way to navigate through it. That’s a criticism that I almost wear as a badge of pride. It’s our pleasure to solve that problem.”

In its latest redesign, The Electronic Newsstand transitioned into three “channels”: Enews for resources; “Off the Rack” for original content; and the Magshop for subscription sales.

That said, the Newsstand must be laughing all the way to the bank, right?


“We’re not making a profit,” Hecht admits. “But we are unequivocally doing better on the revenue side than the overwhelming number of sites that are our size. Right now, this is about staying power. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s not about profit yet. It’s about positioning for profit.”

And once he has profits, will Hecht ever realize his dream of being a journalist?

“That’s still attractive to me,” he says. “One day, I’d like to go back and do that.”

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