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I've written before (in the context of current affairs Webzines) about the Web site of the Economist. What has brought me back is the news that the full content of the weekly printed edition is now available on the Web - but only for those who pay for it.

This is going against the present trend. The declared plans of some big- name Web publishers - notably Microsoft, with its Slate culture-zine - to charge for access have been abandoned or at least put on hold. But then the Economist has never been a slave to fashion, and has always had a high opinion of itself. (The fact that its content is not attributed to individual writers serves to underline the impression that the magazine views itself as a sort of ultimate arbiter.)

The Economist calls itself `the international weekly journal of news, ideas, opinion and analysis'. The real focus of the magazine is perhaps more clearly expressed in the two weekly synopses of world events presented on the Web site, `Politics this week' and `Business this week'. These are an excellent way to keep in touch without spending more than five minutes a week on the job. You get succinct copy, plain design, the occasional photo or chart, and no distractions. The site is worth bookmarking for these items alone.

These sections, happily, are still accessible without payment. So is the cover story - this week, a leader and a couple of features about euthanasia - and half a dozen other features. Most compelling - pushing aside pieces on the current vogue for governmental apologies and the Hong Kong handover - was a plea for an end to cyber-metaphors.

`Most metaphor abuse online comes from reinventing the bad bits of the physical world simply for the sake of familiarity. Do users really need to wiggle and click their mouse to open an animated door and walk over to a virtual bank teller to check their account balance online? Why do online malls have front doors? For that matter, why do they exist at all?'

Good questions, and it won't come as a surprise to hear that the Economist site is entirely free of such stuff. The buttons you click are text headings in a sans serif face separated by rules. It is as close as you could get on-screen to the rather severe paper publication it derives from. No harm in that, up to a point; but the Economist's text is entirely free of hyperlinks, which are after all the thing that makes the Web go round.

Personally, I'll remain an occasional non-paying visitor to the Economist site and an occasional buyer of the rag itself. For access to the `entire current issue of the Economist including Surveys and the Review of Books and Multimedia' you pay (at present) $48 a year. You currently get a free subscription to the Web edition until the end of 1997 if you take out a subscription to the paper editionn

Chris Gill

The Economist -