Fish Story

Red Herring Editor Tony Perkins is a self-described maverick, a stylish fast-talker with a knack for making friends and influencing people in the high-tech world. Not bad traits for a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, but are they what it takes to publish a "m

Perkins was determined to launch the magazine without outsider funding, which is odd considering the fealty the magazine pays to venture capitalists; he persuaded advertisers to pay in advance for each issue, an arrangement that most advertising reps only dream about.

"It was incredible," Alden exclaims. "With no start-up money and without ever going into debt, we were able to build a company that now has 40 employees. From a business standpoint, we're the envy of a lot of entrepreneurs. I look at our advertisers as our venture capitalists. I'm extremely grateful to our advertisers."

The gratitude is revealed in the Herring's editorial thrust. The magazine maps out the theme of each issue up to a year in advance, like a fashion mag. It's a great way to sell ads, but it hobbles the publication that fancies itself as a "racing form for the entrepreneur." Who's to say 12 months in advance that May is the month of a broad topic like "semiconductors" rather than "Internet services"?

"People are aware of the Red Herring, but to say it's hopping and everybody's reading it is kind of a reach," says Lee Gomes, a business reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. "There's such a glut of information out there that it's hard for one publication to distinguish itself."

But for Examiner computer columnist Gina Smith, the Herring manages to stand out in a crowd. "I'm a big fan of the Red Herring," Smith says. "As a reporter, I need all that information. I go through it and look for story ideas."

With a "grateful" eye on its advertisers, the Red Herring swims away from stories with conflict like a guppy in a shark tank. And that's just the way Perkins wants it.

"We're not out to dig up dirt on anybody," he says. "We view ourselves as arms dealers for the entrepreneur. Our goal is to fuel the entrepreneurial community with information in a format they can act on and profit from. I believe we can all win with the free-market system."

Perkins practices what he preaches in the leadoff Angler column he pens every month. In one column, he urges readers to pick up a copy of George -- John F. Kennedy Jr.'s magazine of pop politics -- because "it is the first publication dedicating itself to a new beat." In another, Perkins confesses to keeping a photo of Joe Montana handy for inspiration. Another calls on President Bill Clinton to appoint William Draper, the father of Perkins' friend Tim Draper, as secretary of commerce. A slew of other Angler columns do little more than provide the context for Perkins' mild-mannered interviews with industry notables printed in the issue.

"Why do you love Netscape?" Perkins asked Steve Jobs in January, doing his best Barbara Walters impression. "What's your vision?" he queried George Gilder in February. "What other reforms catch your fancy?" he requested of Steve Forbes in March, the same issue in which he endorsed the presidential candidate in his Angler column.

Such fawning permeates the rest of the magazine, as features and columns do little more than frame the words of industry sources, seldom questioning the merits of their arguments. A Heard in the Valley column by Senior Editor Jonathan Burke in the February issue was typical of this approach. Burke parroted the views of Oscar Castro of Montgomery Securities on global telecommunications for nearly two pages with nary an insight or an observation of his own. The monthly VC Whispers column by Senior Editor Alex Gove frequently follows a similar pattern. Gove has an impressive array of sources -- he obviously knows whom to call -- but he never questions what he hears. And much of the insider dope he gleans from high-powered VCs is of the no-duh variety. In a January column on Internet software tools, one anonymous VC revealed: "We have a view of the Internet as being important, but we would like some comfort on exactly how people are going to make money." Not exactly Deep Throat material.

Sometimes the Red Herring cuts out the middleman and treats industry figures like Intel's Avram Miller and Hambrecht & Quist's Rakesh Sood to their own bylines.

"I just don't think Tony gets it," says former Upside Managing Editor Nancy Rudder, who now works for Rich Karlgaard at Forbes ASAP. "He gets free editorials from people he's supposed to be covering and he thinks that's fine. Someone like John Doerr gets to write stories about his new investments instead of having a reporter pick on him. And for some reason, there's enough people around here who think it's interesting to read that BS. All these financiers really get caught up in it."

But Doerr, King of the Venture Capitalists, finds the Red Herring a definite improvement over Upside, which he calls a "rag."

"My impression is that Red Herring is a must read, and not just for VCs," Doerr e-mailed in response to a set of questions. "It has wide appeal, from entrepreneurs to CEOs to corporate strategists to lawyers to bankers."

Inadvertently hitting on the young media company's formula, Doerr writes: "The Red Herring is not a monthly rag. It's a community. It's a service." Or more to the point, it's a traveling trade show. Perkins crows that Flipside Communications is making money, but it's the conference business -- not the Herring -- that's bringing in most of the revenue. Herring Events now organizes five conferences in the United States and one in Europe each year. At Venture Market West, for example, the CEOs of handpicked private technology companies mingle with members of the finance and investment community. Every participant pays at least $675 for the privilege of attending, and a few companies shell out up to $30,000 to sponsor an event. No wonder the Herring often reads like a souvenir program for the lucrative conferences thrown by Herring Events.

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