NEW YORK — If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what about a moving, sound-enhanced picture that can be manipulated on a computer screen?

Magazine editors and publishers are rushing to bring their messages to interactive media, while proclaiming they have no intention of abandoning the printed word.

But the jury is still out on whether they’ll ever make any money. Prodigy, for example, one of the country’s largest on-line services, which carries several publications, has lost millions since launching in 1990. While a spokesman said Prodigy “is getting closer” to profitability, it isn’t expected to break into the black anytime soon.

Prodigy’s problems aren’t scaring away publishers, however, as more magazines continue to jump into the bitstream.

With publications like People, Elle, Time, Entertainment Weekly, New York magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Spin and Rolling Stone going or already on line, the superhighway seems headed for major media gridlock.

“I don’t think anyone in publishing today is going into this with the view of making money immediately,” the Prodigy spokesman said. “They view it as a learning experience and an investment. They expect profits down the road.”

Experts said the success of the new services depended on their ability to offer information compelling enough to make people want to flip on their computers.

For Spin magazine, that could be the diaries of popular bands, as chronicled by touring musicians. It is part of Spin’s America Online service, which the publication describes as a backstage pass for its readers.

There will also be “Spin Nightly,” a forum hosted by a Spin editor that will cover a range of topics, from movies to politics and social issues.”

Prodigy said such chat boxes and bulletin boards were one of the most lucrative elements of an on-line service. Prodigy charges $2.95 per hour for bulletin-board use.

People is introducing a CD-ROM called “People: 20 Years of Pop Culture.” The computer-read disc, which combines text with moving images and bits of sound, should appeal to People’s voracious, voyeuristic readership.

Special features of the CD-ROM are Morphs, where celebrities transform themselves on screen as they pass through two decades of People coverage.

“Watch how Michael Jackson and Liz Taylor have changed their looks over the years, or follow our changing ideal of beauty through a cavalcade of Blonde Bombshells or Hunks,” says the literature on the CD-ROM.

Star Maps charts the interlocking and sometimes surprising web of relationships among celebs, while Di-O-Rama tracks the roller-coaster ride of Princess Diana. It includes the audio of the infamous “Squidgy” tapes.

“A lot of publications have simply dumped material, so it appears almost in an encyclopedic fashion,” said Maria Wilhelm, editor of new media projects for People. “We really tried to make use of the possibilities of interactivity.”

People will also be on Compuserve before the end of the year, she said, with “a sort of daily version of People.”

The advent of all these new media has continued to blur the line between journalism and commerce. Wenner Media is offering an interactive music-previewing and shopping service to Rolling Stone subscribers called Rolling Stone MusicNet.

By dialing a telephone number, RS readers will be able to sample new releases and thousands of additional catalog albums, and make purchases.

Hachette Filipacci has already put 11 titles on America Online.

When Elle joins the service at the end of the month, editors will hold chat sessions about style for 500 to 2,500 participants, said David Pecker, Hachette’s president and chief executive officer.

The company is also considering a more commercial endeavor — asking retailers, beauty and fashion firms to participate in its programs. For example, if Elle did a beauty story on Karl Lagerfeld’s Sun Moon Stars, someone interested in purchasing it could press an icon to get more information, Pecker said.

“We’d break it down to a local retailer,” he added. “We’re also interested in offering a special promotional offer that could be printed at somebody’s home printer as a way of driving traffic to the store.”

In April, Hearst Corp. opened a state-of-the-art New Media Center at its headquarters here, which includes workplaces for creating CD-ROMs and an interactive networks studio. Hearst is one of five partners in UBI, an interactive television service in Quebec.

Cella Irvine, vice president of Hearst’s New Media Center, said the company is it to train editors with the ultimate goal of inspiring them to develop their own projects. The editors of Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire must be busy: Popular Mechanics is currently the only magazine working on a CD-ROM.

“There is no directive to the editors per se,” Irvine said, “but the level of interest is incredibly high.”

Meanwhile, if Hearst rival Condé Nast is waging its own media revolution, it’s a very quiet one.

“I’m in the middle of working on a number of things,” said Rochelle Udell, vice president of creative marketing and new media for Condé Nast, declining to be specific.


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