Rebuffed by Denver Dailies, Digital City Gets Content From Alternative Weekly

By: Steve Outing

Online city guide company and America Online spin-off Digital City Inc. (DCI) is making progress lining up media partners for Digital City Denver (DC-Denver), one of dozens of U.S. cities the company plans to enter in the coming year. The evolution of Denver’s Digital City offers an indication of the direction DCI is taking, and of the competitive threat it poses to local media. DC-Denver is set for a late October launch on America Online’s proprietary service, with a World Wide Web launch at a later, as yet unannounced date.

In a surprising development, Phoenix-based New Times Inc. has signed a deal to include content from its Westword alternative newsweekly in DC-Denver. According to New Times director of electronic publishing Braxton Jarratt, Westword will provide some weekly columns (including editor Patricia Calhoun’s), film capsule reviews, music reviews, entertainment “pick hits” of the week, and an abridged version of the paper’s entertainment listings.

Denver’s competitive daily newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, have turned down DC-Denver’s partnership overtures. Both papers operate their own Web sites.

New Times, however, is looking at the DC-Denver deal as an experiment, and may open talks with other Digital City units in cities where New Times has newspapers if the Denver relationship is successful. (It publishes the Dallas Observer, Houston Press, Miami New Times, New Times Los Angeles, Phoenix New Times and San Francisco Weekly.) Westword is giving up only some of its content, and the paper’s exposure on DC-Denver is envisioned as driving new traffic to Westword’s Web site.

Jarratt says that New Times agreed to work with DCI in Denver after turning them down the first time around earlier this year. When DCI first approached the company, Jarratt says they were inflexible and wanted more content than New Times was willing to give up. DC-Denver came back this fall more willing to bargain, probably after being turned down by other local media, Jarratt surmises. It also helped that DC-Denver recently hired former Westword music editor Gil Asakawa as content editor, which helped move the Westword deal along.

Jarratt says he’s comfortable with the DC-Denver relationship because it will promote Westword’s Web site without giving up so much content that Digital City visitors wouldn’t need to use Westword on the Web. “This is brand building and brand sustaining,” he says. Jarratt won’t talk about financial arrangements, but says he’s happy with the deal. (We do know that DCI partner deals involve primarily shared advertising revenue and AOL usage fees.)

Suburban news coverage — daily

Providing a local news component to DC-Denver will be two weekly newspapers, the Jefferson Sentinel and Arvada-Jefferson Sentinel, which serve the western suburbs of Denver. Publisher Bob Cox says he’s planning a daily news summary covering the western suburbs for DC-Denver, reported and written by his papers’ 10-member editorial staff. Content will include news, sports and columns; the papers’ staff also will participate in chat sessions and discussion forums covering community issues.

Cox said he’s pleased to be working with an online service company, since two years ago he couldn’t get them to give his papers the time of day, but now they are coming to realize the value in local content. He started a local BBS service a couple years ago, but now is making the transition to a Web service for the Sentinels — which will be launched simultaneously with DC-Denver later this month. As with Westword, part of the attraction of a DC-Denver deal for Cox is that Digital City users will see links to the Sentinel Web site.

The Sentinel deal allows both parties to sell advertising for the Sentinel area on DC-Denver. Cox says he’s not sure how quickly ad revenues will appear, but he has other motives for doing the deal as well. “It’s no secret that community papers don’t attract many young readers,” Cox says, so he views online activity as an important element in his company reaching out to a wider age range. “This is a marvelous opportunity to put a new source of information in front of younger people” in a medium that they are comfortable using, Cox says.

He also views this as an excellent opportunity to publish news as it happens, which has not been possible in the print world of a weekly newspaper. Denver’s dailies don’t cover local news sufficiently, Cox says, so this daily online product will give them some new competition.

More media partners

Additional DC-Denver media partners at this date include 5280, a monthly city magazine; In The Now, a singles-oriented monthly newspaper; the Denver Film Festival; and KWGN Television. The latter, which is owned by the Tribune Co., which owns a 20% stake in DCI, will provide some news content.

DC-Denver also is signing up individual writers to produce regular columns on a variety of topics, according to DC-Denver’s Asakawa. As an example, a Denver area magician will write a weekly column.

While DC-Denver is still several weeks away from launch, its strategy appears to have been formed partly by the media deals it was able to negotiate — and those that potential partners turned down. Early negotiations with Denver media focused on DC-Denver getting most of a partner’s content, according to those involved in the talks. When that failed, DC-Denver appears to have adopted a strategy of taking pieces of a partner’s content. This is a better deal and allows DC-Denver to support publishers’ independent Web efforts instead of taking away eyeballs.

Each Digital City is different, and the city units have a good degree of autonomy. While other DC units may be quite different from Denver’s, publishers can get a good idea of what might be coming to their communities by examining the Denver experience.

Contacts: Gil Asakawa, gillers@aol.com
Braxton Jarratt, braxton@newtimes.com
Bob Cox, ddigger@jeffconews.com

Tampa Tribune is latest to go with PointCast

The Tampa Tribune is now available on the PointCast Network, the latest of several regional newspapers to sign up as content providers to the popular screen-saver online news service. The Tribune also operates a Web site.

Steve

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