Post Licenses CitySearch Technology Rather Than Fight It

By: Steve Outing

In the fast-paced Internet publishing world, sometimes “enemies” turn out to be allies.

That’s the case with CitySearch, the fledgling California-based online city guide company. While CitySearch executives portray themselves as wanting to work with newspapers, and say that they do not compete directly, many publishers think otherwise. What CitySearch and the other online city guide companies are doing is likely over the long term to have a serious impact on newspaper franchises in those cities where CitySearch sets up independent online city guides.

But this week, The Washington Post announced a deal with CitySearch to create an online community guide for the Washington, D.C., area. The Post is also investing in CitySearch. This is a significant development, because The Post becomes the first major metro daily newspaper in the U.S. to work with CitySearch. (Outside of the U.S., CitySearch is working with the Toronto Star in Canada, and the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.)

The deal is different from most other newspaper alliances with online city guide companies, because The Post is licensing CitySearch’s technology in order to create a CitySearch online city guide that will be an integral part of WashingtonPost.com. It will not be a stand-alone site like other CitySearch sites. Other newspaper deals with CitySearch, such as that in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina, are better described as content partnerships, where the publisher supplies content and shares advertising revenues on an independent CitySearch local site.

Newspaper to staff city guide

Marc Teren, publisher and president of Digital Ink, The Post’s new media division, says that this is the first U.S. media-led agreement with CitySearch. The site will be staffed by The Post, with existing editorial and technical staff taking on the duties of maintaining the community guide and supplying the editorial content and event listings. CitySearch personnel are working with Post staffers during the ramp-up for the service, which is expected to launch in the fall of this year.

Heading up the community guide site for The Post will be Chris Ma, who is a vice president of Digital Ink and the executive producer for WashingtonPost.com’s arts and entertainment sections and is responsible for the site’s classified advertising strategy. Teren says that newly appointed Web site editor Leslie Walker also will be heavily involved in the project, particularly the community-based aspects of the site, while Ma as director of the city guide site will primarily guide the arts and entertainment components.

Teren expects to hire about 20 additional salespeople to sell ads and enhanced directory listings on the site. In the basic CitySearch model, all businesses in a metro area are given free listings — a spartan Web page listing business name, type and address — but have the opportunity to pay for enhanced listings that might include restaurant menus, online transactions, and other interactive features. CitySearch also works with local governments, community groups, educational institutions and business groups to build a strong content base of community news and information.

The Post-CitySearch deal primarily involves the newspaper company paying a licensing fee for the CitySearch technology. Teren declined to elaborate further on the arrangement. In most other media alliances with CitySearch, some sharing of ad revenues is part of the contract. But The Post’s deal is different in that it will control the sales force rather than CitySearch.

An important point is that The Post’s version of CitySearch will have the newspaper’s look and feel, rather than CitySearch’s, says Teren. Some elements will be consistent with the design of other CitySearch sites, “but mostly it’s ours,” he says. The Post’s CitySearch site (which is yet unnamed) also will be included in CitySearch’s network of sites worldwide.

Post spokesperson Erin O’Shea also points out that The Post will play close attention to differentiating editorial content from advertising on its CitySearch site. That’s not always clear on some online city guide sites; the line of demarcation between editorial and advertising is often more blurry online than in print. But WashingtonPost.com historically has been a leader in carrying over that core value of print newspapering to the online world.

Minus one competitor

The Post’s deal with CitySearch knocks a potential competitor off the list, since CitySearch will not be setting up an independent D.C. area online guide site. The Post-CitySearch guide will go up against Digital City-Washington, D.C.; Yahoo! Washington, D.C.; and later this year a Washington, D.C., Sidewalk entertainment guide from Microsoft.

This deal appears to have some elements in common with the recently adopted approach of Digital City (the America Online-Tribune Co. online city guide venture) as it partners with local media. Digital City earlier this year announced an “affiliate” program, in which media partners like newspapers can take the lead role for a Digital City in the partner’s community. Such is the case in Seattle, where the Seattle Times is the lead organization for Digital City Seattle. In other Digital City locations, Digital City Inc. runs the local site and may do deals with local media as content providers.

The Post’s CitySearch technology licensing deal also is akin to working with Zip2, which provides the technology for newspapers to create their own online city guides. Unlike CitySearch and Digital City, Zip2 does not operate its own local online city guides.

While the online city guide companies undoubtably pose a significant threat to media in the cities they are entering, most of the city guide companies also are trying hard to come across as “friends.” I don’t believe that publishers can afford to dismiss the competitive threat, but The Post’s deal does point to possible approaches that newspapers can take to avail themselves of good technology and at the same time eliminate a potentially serious competitor.

BigBook alliance to end

One final note. The Washington Post’s deal with CitySearch in effect kills a relationship that the newspaper’s Web site has had with BigBook, an online “yellow pages” company. That alliance, in which The Post was selling enhanced directory listings to D.C. area businesses for BigBook — and the companies shared revenues — will end with the launch of The Post’s CitySearch site, Teren confirms.

More on domain names

My last column, about many newspapers not owning the domain names with their full brand names, brought several comments. John Freed, deputy editor of The New York Times Electronic Media Co., wrote:

“http://www.thenewyorktimes.com does work (while) http://www.internationalbusinessmachines.com does not. Seems to me every company makes a guess at some point as to what people will be looking for. IBM uses its initials — yet you do not chastise it for failing to register its full name — which is probably too long for a domain name anyhow.”

(The Times currently owns the domains nytimes.com, nyt.com and thenewyorktimes.com, but not newyorktimes.com.)

Marc Perton, senior producer of iVillage’s About Work, commented:

“Enjoyed the column on domain names. It’s amazing that, a full three years after the ‘mcdonalds.com’ incident, many media organizations still haven’t caught on to the importance of protecting their brands on the Net.

“One point I wanted to make about international publications, though: It’s just as easy for them to go straight for a ‘.com’ domain and dispense with the country-specific domain entirely. … Yes, for some publications, having the country code in the domain is as important as having the name, but for those that want to be thought of as international, nothing but a pure, unadulterated ‘.com’ will do.”

Jackie King, content editor of desmoines.com in Iowa, wrote:

“Let me look at the issue from the other side of the question. I edit desmoines.com. The site is an electronic newspaper published by Visionary Systems, a software and Web site developer, and is in no way related to the Des Moines Register (http://www.dmregister.com). We also own iowa.com which is directed to desmoines.com.

“I am constantly surprised at the e-mail I get from people who believe we must be a branch of the Register. In comparing statistics recently, we found we were being accessed by almost as many individuals in two days as the Register was recording hits in two weeks. (No typo, we record individuals, the Register reports hits so one page with five graphics will count as five hits).

“The case can be carried even farther. Many other users assume because of our domain name that we are a branch of the Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation or the Iowa Department of Economic Development’s Tourism Division.

“In short, a domain name does count!”

Memorial Day break

There will be no Stop The Presses! column on Monday, May 26, due to the Memorial Day holiday in the U.S. The next column will appear on Wednesday, May 28.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at [email protected]

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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