There are search engines for Web content and for Usenet content but none for email newsletters and digests.
A few years ago, Topica announced (with great fanfare) that it would take on the job and become the "Yahoo of email newsletters." The idea was that this would bring in traffic to its site and make it a central hub for the medium.
But I found out over the weekend that that plan has been (very quietly) shelved. There are two theories as to why.
"Yes, I wish that we were able to devote more resources toward nonhosted lists," wrote Jacob McCoy, the company's manager of list-publisher services. "But we have not found a way to monetize them at this point, and we are doing our best to make Topica a profitable company at this point."
Patrice Varni, vice president for membership marketing, offered a slightly different spin.
"Though we had valued this feature in the past, we began to get numerous complaints from users who subscribed to a nonhosted list that was inactive and never sent them a newsletter. Since we had no way of knowing whether a nonhosted newsletter was active, we were unable to ensure a good subscriber experience, which led to disappointed customers and increasing support costs for us."
Topica's most important business move of the last few years was to merge with IDC's TipWorld, becoming a publisher of lists (tied to a print publisher), rather than just a delivery system (tied to the Internet). It is no longer in Topica's business interest, in other words, to have people subscribe to lists Topica doesn't own. (And it's not in Topica's interest to publicize that fact, either.) That's business.
But editors and readers of e-zines and digest lists are left in the cold. About 40 percent of printed publications now have email newsletters and a ready-made way to spur circulation for them. Competitors who created the space and stayed true to the medium are stuck.
From a technology perspective, last week's issue of internet.com's WebReference may have the answer. It's the Rich Site Summary (RSS), a lightweight XML format for sharing headlines and other Web content.
Under RSS, each story in your e-zine or digest has a tag called "item." Each item has tags for a title, link (its address on the Web), and a description. Moreover.com is essentially a system for sucking up these RSS tags and syndicating them through a central system. RSS, in other words, is becoming a central technology for syndicating content.
Why not syndicate newsletters in the same way?
This, of course, is where the business opportunity comes in. E-zine and digest editors need to be trained in the use of RSS. Both aggregation and business models need to be developed. But that's not a problem, it's a business opportunity -- one a company like Adventive (which publishes a number of digest lists) or Dan Bricklin's Trellis (which is now incorporating Blogger technology into its self-publishing suite) might be interested in.
I see an e-zine syndicator, search engine, and home page, professionally done and tied into the mainstream of publishing. I think we can get it done in just a few months, with just a few programmers. Feel free to debunk this idea if you like, or, if you decide to pursue it, let me know.
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Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.