By: Steve Outing
There can be little doubt about the Washington Post’s commitment to new media. With the launch yesterday of the latest addition to the newspaper’s Web site features — a city guide service called Style Live utilizing the technology of city guide company CitySearch — the Post may now have the largest online staff of any newspaper company.
The Style Live section and affiliated “WP Yellow Pages” and “Community Resources Guide” — all based on CitySearch technology licensed by the Post — brings 40 new employees to the Post’s new media division. Add that to the 60 editorial employees for WashingtonPost.com and another 50 in the areas of marketing, human resources, accounting, etc. All of a sudden, you have a 150-member new media staff — larger than the entire staffs of many print newspapers.
Style Live is the Post’s much-anticipated competitive entry to the online city guide market, which is pitted against Digital City and Microsoft’s Sidewalk, both operating in Washington, D.C. Post executives apparently felt that this was an important battle to win, so they allied with CitySearch and staffed up for a war.
The Post’s CitySearch deal was a strict licensing arrangement, with the Post staffing and running the operation, and returning an unannounced share of revenues to CitySearch in addition to licensing fees. CitySearch personnel served as consultants as the Style Live service was built, but have no ongoing involvement in what is strictly a newspaper site. As part of the deal, CitySearch will not set up its own competing city guide site — as it has done in other cities — in the D.C. market.
The CitySearch model is built largely around the sale of enhanced business listings to local businesses. The Post has hired about two dozen “Internet business advisors” (IBAs) — a.k.a., salespeople for the city guide site — who have been hitting the street looking for sales since last Labor Day. (In other CitySearch markets, these salespeople are employed by CitySearch.) The IBAs also have a support staff of about 16 people who produce and maintain the directory portion of the site.
To date, about 800 of the business listings have been sold, according to WashingtonPost.com spokesperson Erin O’Shea. The basic listing, which gives a business a “mini Web site” of four HTML pages, costs $79 per month at the Post’s introductory rate. (Full rate later will increase to $99.) Additional pages are $10, and there are additional charges for adding bells and whistles like photos, menus, etc.
(I’ll save you the time and do the math. 800 x $79 = $63,200 per month in revenue — not nearly enough to support 40 employees. Of course, banner advertising revenues also support the city guide service. Still, some critics suggest that city guide operations like this one will bleed red ink for a long time.)
Paid business listings are encountered by site users when they do searches of the WP Yellow Pages, intersperced within free listings of D.C. businesses (which are limited to only business name, phone and address, and are supplied through a paid database). More importantly, enhanced listings turn up when consumers look for something like, say, an Italian restaurant. An eatery that’s paid for a listing can show off pictures of its dining room, menu, etc.
O’Shea explains that the IBAs are in many cases going after business that is new to the newspaper. Small businesses that may want to advertise in the Post’s online city guide section may not have ever appeared in the Post’s print pages. Also, print side ad salespeople when appropriate take a WashingtonPost.com ad rep and an IBA along on a sales call to discuss an integrated print/online marketing plan for a customer. IBAs are assigned a geographical territory within the D.C. metro area.
As the online city guide business matures, questions arise as to whether consumers will realize when content — say, a description of a restaurant — is paid advertising versus editorial copy authored by a journalist. The Post, long a stalwart when it comes to keeping editorial and advertising separate, has come up with a labeling scheme for its online city guide. Paid ad content (such as the enhanced business listings) has a “YP” logo attached; editorial content authored by the newspaper or Post Web site staff has a “WP” logo.
The way this plays out is that if, for example, you are interested in a theater performance, you can search for information about the performance using Style Live’s search features. Returned information may include a Post staff review of the performance, as well as a paid-by-the-theater-company description of it. The Web user will be cued to the source of the material by the YP and WP logos.
While that’s an admirable policy, my guess is that it will be too subtle for some Web users to comprehend. Still, it’s a far sight better than the situation at some other city guide sites, where the line between editorial and advertising is more fuzzy.
I have to admire the Post for taking the Internet so seriously, and for protecting its flanks as competitors like America Online and Microsoft set up competing cyberspace outposts in the newspaper’s back yard. Digital City, Sidewalk, et al must be taken seriously, especially in major markets like Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, the Post is taking a risky path. Although it has been moderately successful in signing up some 800 businesses for its $79 per month city guide/Yellow Pages listings, no one knows what will happen when it comes time for those businesses to renew their accounts. And the Post has a lot of mouths to feed in its ever-growing new media division.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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