By: Steve Outing
If you read this column regularly, you know that Zip2 gets mentioned often, as one of the dominant technology vendors serving the online newspaper industry. Zip2 acquired Pantheon, a leading news Web site publishing software systems vendor serving more than 200 newspapers, in 1997. In recent months, however, Zip2 has said that its focus is on getting news sites to use its suite of city guide services, rather than on providing software tools for independent use by Web publishers.
That has left an opening for new vendors to emerge to serve the market of news sites that still prefer to operate their sites on their own, managing content on their own servers rather than relying on a vendor. Zip2 is turning out to be the genesis for such companies, with ex-Zip2 and -Pantheon employees starting new ventures that target markets Zip2 is less interested in serving. (In a recent column, I told you about a new company started by former Pantheon developer Rick Nolte, who is operating a third-party support service for users of Pantheon software; he also is building from the ground up a new publishing system that will be a “next generation” news publishing system.)
The latest Zip2/Pantheon-generated company is Union-Street.com, a privately held concern based in Seattle (where Pantheon originated) and founded by Ed Petersen and Michael Grunder. Petersen was the principal designer of Zip2’s community publishing system, and Grunder was the lead programmer on Pantheon’s Builder and Interpreter program.
Union-Street’s focus initially will be on “remote publishing” tools for small- to medium-size newspaper sites (plus radio/TV sites, niche content sites, and sites of small to medium size organizations). Petersen sees opportunity in providing to smaller Web publishers capabilities that aren’t typically available to sites that lack the budget to create custom software tools on their own.
Community publishing tools
The remote publishing area is an interesting component of Web site development these days. The term basically describes giving the users of Web sites the ability to very easily create their own content areas and discussion forums, so such tools are part of “community publishing” systems (such as those from Zip2 and Koz), and of course they are the central component of giant community Web sites like GeoCities. The concept isn’t new, but the ability for small publishers to purchase software to support these sort of features is new.
Petersen and Grunder, who hope to officially launch their product line in January, plan to market several remote publishing modules: A Web Site Creator, which allows individuals and organizations to create and manage their own Web pages via a Web browser; an Event Manager that allows them to create and manage their own calendar and submit events to a master calendar; a membership management system; forums software that allows individuals to create their own forums and sub-forums, plus allows them to run impromptu surveys on the forums; and a real-time chat module. The modules are sold separately or as a package, and are integrated in order to support targeted advertising and database management across the line.
Applications for such software include the routine community publishing staples, along with some new ideas. Petersen expects Union-Street’s clients to use the software for such things as allowing community groups to create and maintain their own Web pages on the publisher’s site. He says that short of creating this capability in-house or using a “Cadillac” community publishing system like Koz’s, there hasn’t been pre-packaged software components available until now to execute such Web site features.
Petersen says that publishers should think more about enabling individuals to self-publish on their sites, in the same way that GeoCities does. A radio station, for example, could have success by urging listeners to create their own pages on the station Web site listing their favorite music artists, or paying homage to a favorite band. The station promotes a contest with prizes for the best listener Web pages. (Radio stations have it good when it comes to the Web, since listeners can hear the radio and surf the Web at the same time. Not so with newspapers and television.)
Newspaper and TV sites could try something similar. An entertainment section of a newspaper might urge readers to write a review of the newest movie and post it on the paper’s Web site, with prizes going to the most creative entries, for instance. This type of promotion serves a secondary purpose of populating the news site’s movie section with consumer reviews to supplement those of professional critics. A sports section can invite football fans to create their own Web pages, perhaps posting digital photos taken of stadium buddies during the game. Or a kids’ area can open up Web page-creation tools to children. The key element is in giving Web users a personal connection to the Web site, which encourages loyal use.
Everyone’s getting in the act
Union-Street doesn’t plan to work solely with news companies. Its software modules also might be used by, for example, a ski resort to make its Web site more interactive. Petersen envisions a ski site where skiers can not only purchase lift tickets in advance, but create their own pages to post digital photos of their day on the slopes. Of course, a news Web site that features a skiing section might try the same approach.
Discussion forums are a component of the interactive Web site that could use some new life. One way to make them better, Petersen suggests, is to give participants more control and features, such as allowing anyone to create a new forum instead of having to be constrained by a site’s established forums. Union-Street’s forum module includes a survey feature, which allows a forum participant to post a multiple-choice question in survey format and have the system calculate the resulting responses. This could make the online forum experience more valuable to users, and is particularly useful when employed in conjunction with a community group’s area of a publisher’s site. Think of the community arts organization that regularly polls its members using the online system to eliminate expensive postal-mail surveys, for example.
Beyond the initial modules to be released by Union-Street, Petersen says his company plans to develop additional vertical applications, such as a fantasy football module. Initial pricing for the company’s products will be a $2,000 set-up fee plus a monthly charge for each module ($500 for the first module, $200 for additional ones up to a package price of $1,000 a month for five modules).
Contact: Ed Petersen, email@example.com
Users of Pantheon Web publishing system software have an additional resource, now that Zip2 has lessened its support of the software, which remains popular at newspaper Web sites. Jeff Tindall, Internet specialist at the Cincinnati Equirer and Post, operates an e-mail discussion list for Pantheon users. To subscribe to the list, visit this URL:
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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org