A U.S. Telco Dives In to Content Game

By: Steve Outing

Denver-based regional telephone company US West is about to jump into the competitive online city guide fray. Its service called Dive In will be launched in 10 U.S. cities in the coming days. (Formal launch had been rumored to be today, but company officials were secretive about timing when interviewed last week.)

What might be considered remarkable about Dive In is that the giant telco is edging into the content creation game, having hired a staff to write reviews of Web sites for each of its target cities, and also publishing exclusively produced content from a team of local "online personalities."

Dive In online city guide services will be introduced in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Jacksonville (Florida), Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, Portland (Oregon) and Seattle. You can find the individual Dive In sites through a common Web addressing scheme. Atlanta's Dive In is at http://www.diveinatlanta.com; Denver's is http://www.diveindenver.com; etc. A central Web site is at http://www.divein.com.

Over the border

The first thing you might notice is that some Dive In sites serve cities outside of US West's service area. But those cities outside the telco's borders -- such as Atlanta and Chicago -- represent areas where the company has extensive cable holdings. Ultimately, according to company representatives, the Dive In regional community guides will be utilized to help drive consumers to US West's Internet access business -- be it offered via cable modem or digital phone line (ADSL) services.

Dive In is a production of the US West Interactive Services Group, based in the Denver area. According to marketing director Kelly Ruebel, Dive In has a central staff in Denver and remote staffs in each city. She declined to say how many employees the Dive In effort has, but the central Web site for the service lists 26 employees for the central operation (plus another 14 Interactive Services Group managers that have some role in the project). Ruebel also was unable to say how much money the company is investing in the venture, but she emphasizes that the Interactive Services Group is "being prudent about how we spend our money," since the business model of US West's or any other online community guide has not been proven. "We want to be smart business people."

The core city Dive In service will be a free guide to the community, including links to all World Wide Web sites related to the city. A team of US West Web surfers has been busy at work cataloging and writing capsule reviews of every local site, which will be kept updated by the staff, says Ruebel.

The other original content created for the city sites will be by a collection of "personalities." In Denver, for example, well known broadcast sports personality Tom Greene will write daily exclusive articles for Dive In. Some of the original content producers are freelancers and some are on staff, Ruebel says.

(I have to admit my bias here. I wonder whether a telco can really do a good job of executing editorial content. Whether they can pull it off professionally or not, it's certainly a significant harbinger of the changing media landscape when a telecom company enters the editorial arena. Then again, the same could be said of Microsoft, but the software giant's strategy of hiring experienced journalists for its Sidewalk online city guides can just as easily be mimicked by the likes of US West.)

Ruebel emphasizes that Dive In does not intend to be a major local news source. Its "newsroom" areas include links to local news organizations' Web sites, and she expects the Dive In sites to channel significant traffic to local media. Newspapers are part of the local Dive In sites "by default," she says, but Dive In also is looking for ways to ally or partner with local media. Ruebel resisted discussing specifics about how US West and local news organizations might cooperate, but says that co-marketing deals are possible, as are deals where the two parties agreed to develop new content that might be exclusive to the local Dive In site.

Featured media partners

Because the company is being reticent about releasing too much Dive In information pre-launch, it's difficult to scope out partnership opportunities. But US West's approach to local media sounds similar to how Yahoo! treats media Web sites in cities where it has created online city guides. A news partner in a special deal with US West might get enhanced placement on the local Dive In home page, just as Yahoo! featured media partners gain additional exposure (and traffic) to their Web sites by featured Yahoo! placement.

Dive In has also lined up a variety of other partners, including associations, tourist resorts, museums, arts organizations, business groups, etc. Schools are a major part of the local sites, and the Dive In staff collects school events schedules and has cataloged the public and private school Web sites that are now ubiquitous in U.S. communities.

Ruebel says that a big part of the Dive In concept includes creating ways for members of community organizations to post their own information -- calendar listings, meeting minutes, announcements, school lunch menus, kids' sports team results, etc. The sites also feature home page customization features, so that members of a particular community group might add their group's area to their custom Dive In home page.

US West Interactive Services also has partnered with several national online content providers to be part of the Dive In service. It has made minority investments in The Weather Channel, SportsLine USA, Golf.com, Preview Travel and Student.Net. The latter deal, announced last week, was designed in part to assist Student.Net in creating local Web sites for colleges in US West's Dive In cities.

For now, Dive In will stay out of the consumer classifieds business, preferring to focus on business advertising. At launch, the revenue model is primarily based on advertising revenues. (The sites are entirely free access at this time.) But Ruebel warns that the model could look considerably different in six months' time. Future revenue streams for Dive In are likely to include a share of Internet access revenues (when Dive In content is bundled with US West access services, and some of it is limited to US West customers); transactions fees from online shopping on the sites; and classified advertising online.

Contact: Kelly Ruebel, ruebel@uswest.com


The editorial director for new media at the San Francisco Bay Guardian is Jon Maples, not Jim as I wrote in my last column.


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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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