A Little Less City Guide Competition

By: Steve Outing The online city guide scene just got a little less crowded, thanks to the recent split of MediaOne Group from US West, the Denver-based telecommunications company. MediaOne city guide sites, formerly known under the brand name DiveIn, are being shut down in Phoenix, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington. The future of Denver's DiveIn city guide site is still up in the air.

The elimination of those cities does not reflect a retrenchment by MediaOne in the online city guide area, however, according to MediaOne officials. Rather, the broadband communications company is focusing efforts only in those cities where MediaOne is or will offer broadband Internet access -- Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Jacksonville, Florida; Los Angeles; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

MediaOne split off from parent US West in June, becoming a standalone company as a result of the split of US West Inc. into two separate companies. The DiveIn division went with MediaOne; it previously was part of US West Interactive Services Group. MediaOne is comprised of US West's cable interests, which serve about 7 million U.S. customers.

Despite being headquartered in Denver, MediaOne does not serve the Denver area. Cable giant TCI has pretty much of a lock on the Denver area cable market, though it has not yet introduced broadband cable-modem Internet access but plans to soon. According to MediaOne marketing director Kelly Ruebel, her company has no immediate plans to serve the Denver market, but she wouldn't rule it out in the future. MediaOne executives are currently discussing the fate of the Denver DiveIn site.

Unlike pure city guide companies like CitySearch or Digital City, MediaOne is building its city sites largely in order to bundle the local-content service with broadband Internet access service, where the MediaOne city site becomes the default home page or launching point for cable modem customers. When DiveIn was still part of US West, the city sites were created in markets where US West had cable properties as well as where it operated telephone service. DiveIn sites already were set up under US West in the cities mentioned above where service will continue, with the exception of Boston, where a new city guide service is being created.

The DiveIn brand name also is being retired, to be replaced by the "Close to Home" title.

The remainder of MediaOne's corporate staff earlier this year relocated to the Colorado headquarters, many coming from Boston to join their colleagues already stationed in Denver. Ruebel says that the staff size has remained fairly stable despite the cutbacks of the three DiveIn sites, and indeed the MediaOne staff is growing with additional broadband content developers coming on board. The Denver-based staff will produce broadband national online content to support the remote local operations.

Ruebel says that the sites, which will be open to all on the Web and are not intended to be exclusive for MediaOne broadband customers, will slowly phase in more broadband content as more customers begin using the cable modem service. On the Boston site, for example, site visitors can currently view 2-minute news summary video clips that are updated throughout the day. The Boston staff also is producing original broadband programming on local high school sports in an area called Hometown Sports.

Contact: Kelly Ruebel, ruebel@mediaone.com

Redesign mania

News Web site redesigns are so common as to hardly be news, but it is noteworthy that the New York Times on the Web this week introduced its first significant redesign since its launch. It dispenses with its slow-loading home page graphic image-map of top stories, and replaces it with a more conventional page featuring promotions of a couple top stories and headline links to others. It follows a trend -- bemoaned by Web design and usability experts -- of news sites creating longer, scrolling home pages containing many elements (though the NY Times home page isn't as lengthy as many other news sites').

The Times Web site also this week dropped its US$35 monthly subscription fee for non-U.S. users, a long-overdue move. It's encouraging that the Times site is confident enough in its free-on-the-Web model -- long in place for U.S. Internet users -- to go the route of expanding its online user base to parts of the world where it does not distribute its print edition, with the expectation that its advertising-supported model will work globally.

Another Web redesign was launched last week by the Jerusalem Post. Deputy-director of electronic publishing Derek Fattal alerted me to the redesign, noting that the two independently concocted looks are remarkably similar. Ironically, the Times is advertising the new international free-access policy on the Post's home page.

The NAA view on online classifieds

My recent column about Yahoo! Classifieds and the threat it poses to newspapers prompted a response from classifieds executives at the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). I'm going to let Kevin McCourt, NAA's director of real estate advertising and online classifieds, have a chance at explaining his organization's view on the free online classifieds threat, and the industry's response to classifieds cyberspace challenges. Below, I'm including his response to my column about Yahoo!

"Newspaper classified advertising is NOT a monopoly, it is a competitive, hard selling local business. Online aside, newspapers have for years successfully competed with free newspapers, niche publications, trader/pennysaver magazines ... many of whom have offered free advertising for years. Free classified advertising is not a new idea. It is important to note that through the years, paid newspaper classified advertising continues to grow despite the free options. One has to conclude that buyers and sellers find greater value in utilizing paid classified in newspapers. Newspaper classified ads are viewed as more valuable than other classified information sources; paying for an ad established a motivated seller or seeker of services, and advertisers for years have recognized the increased quality of audience demonstrated by audited, paid circulation readership.

"In support of that claim: We recently conducted, through our communications agency, Fleishman Hillard (Washington, D.C.), consumer focus groups to determine perceptions of newspaper classifieds supporting our branding initiative. These findings are consistent with our prior readership and online studies. A portion of the results from these sessions, conducted in a large midwest and a small west coast newpaper market, are recapped in the analyst's summary:

"'Newspaper classified ads are preferred over other sources of classifieds. 'Newspaper classifieds are usually written by the average person. Participants find it easier to relate to these people as they are someone like me and therefore participants feel the ads are more honest and down to earth. 'Since people have to pay for the ads they place in the newspaper whether they sell the item or not, participants perceive sellers to be ready to deal and not just testing the waters to see if anyone is interested. 'Participants also view the items in specialty publications as being overpriced or at the top end of the price bracket. According to participants, newspaper classifieds tend to provide more realistic pricing. 'The specialty publications also have pages and pages of ads for the same item (e.g., make and model of car) so there is a lot of competition and price shopping. 'The newspaper classifieds are viewed as being more timely and up-to-date. Participants feel that there is better turnover of merchandise and ads in the newspaper than in the specialty publications. 'Finally, newspaper classifieds are from the local area while the specialty publications include ads from entire states or regions. These participants are primarily interested in reading and following up on ads from individuals in their local communities." "Targeting Prospective Homebuyers and Sellers," National Association of Realtors (1998), reports that newspaper advertising continues to be the number one media source buyers used in their home search, with a consistent -- compared to the same report, 1995 -- 51% of respondents indicating use. Internet usage increased substantially, but clearly as an addition to newspaper advertising and at the expense of several other media. ...

"Newspapers classifieds are different from 'Wallpaper' classifieds. Newspapers don't take classified ads, they SELL them. This means trained staff to help compose a selling message that will work. Remember, the goal of newspaper classified advertising is to make a contact between the buyer and seller, not 'create content' meant to drive traffic to a site and sell banners. We also work very closely with our members, customer trade associations, and various regulatory agencies to be sure newspaper classified representatives are familiar with the various risks associated with Equal Housing, Equal Opportunity, and financing legislation and regulation. ...

"Contrary to Susan Carl's perception reported in your column, I suggest that 'a likely barrier to partnering with Yahoo!,' or most other services, is not newspaper technology, but a business decision. Newspapers are noted early adopters of publishing and communications technology -- satellite delivery of newsfeeds, desktop publishing, database marketing and targeted advertising -- and online services! Newspapers and their Web sites lead the path in classified database technology -- CareerPath.com today offers over 234,000 jobs, most extracted from newspaper ads. Regional, corporate and national networks boast over a thousand titles -- again databasing ads extracted and parsed from newspaper advertising information. But I do agree there is work to be done -- and it is underway.

"The NAA Classified Standards Task Force was organized by the NAA Technology Department to facilitate the electronic exchange of classified ads. The group has defined its mission to 'establish standards that permit newspapers to share and aggregate advertising data which may be published in media-independent formats.' The standard will pave the way for aggregation of classified ads among newspapers on the Internet, as well as enhance the development of classified processing systems. (Information about the standard is at http://www.naa.org/technology/index.htm.)

"You have seen the number of newspapers already publishing classifieds online, and NAA and the Classified Federation will continue to improve the quantity and quality of our members extending their print marketplace online. There has been dramatic progress already this year focused on enabling newspapers to extend their classified marketplace online, and to accelerate the recognition of the newspaper classified marketplace by buyers and sellers.

"A major national 'branding' initiative will 'separate, elevate and authenticate' newspaper classified advertising online, and continued efforts to enable online success are under way. Online seekers of goods and services will be able to identify newspaper classified advertising online, and have the same confidence and sense of an orderly, motivated marketplace online as they are accustomed to in their local classified section.

"Announced this week, a series of one-day, how to programs conducted by senior NAA executives and local advertising managers (three programs scheduled for the fall of 1998) in several convenient locations across the U.S. These efforts, especially targeting our smaller market daily and weekly members not already online, will be key to continuing the industry's success through 1998 and beyond.

"There is not a newpaper classified monopoly, and a 'push' isn't needed to prompt change. Newspapers have been changing the classified marketplace for centuries -- adding products, services, niche publications and advertising resources to meet changes and challenges in the marketplace. What will not change is the central mission of creating an orderly marketplace with the primary business objective of providing a valuable service to paid advertisers and their prospects: bringing them together in an orderly marketplace. Buying and selling is not about a passive business, or a technology, or a draw to sell 'page views.' Buying and selling is about relationships, communications, creative ad writing and action -- all were, and continue to be, defined by newspaper classified initiatives."

Contact: Kevin McCourt, mccourt@naa.org


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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:steve@planetarynews.com

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


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