Are City Guides a Wise Career Choice for Journalists?

By: Steve Outing

For students graduating with journalism degrees, the Internet has created a wider range of career choices. And for practicing journalism professionals, new opportunities outside of traditional news industry jobs are available.

One field that is opening up a growing number of jobs for those with journalism training and credentials is the online city guide business. Upstarts like Microsoft Sidewalk, CitySearch, Digital City and USWest DiveIn; online city guide ventures founded by traditional media companies like Cox; and city guide efforts started up by news organizations themselves (sometimes in partnership with companies like CitySearch and Digital City, or using technology from companies like Zip2), all are creating a new career path for journalists.

But what's it like to work in this environment? Can journalists -- who seem to be among the most prevalent content hires at the city guides -- be content working in this new field?

Job satisfaction?

I surveyed a number of people with journalism backgrounds working in the online city guide business -- at pure city guide companies and at news media companies that have deployed city guides of their own -- and found mixed sentiment. Particularly at the lower editorial rungs of the business, there's some disenchantment, while the higher-level positions offer a greater creative outlet and somewhat better job satisfaction.

(Predictably, the people I interviewed who expressed dissatisfaction with their city guide jobs were not willing to be identified. Even those I found who had left city guide jobs asked not to be named, in most cases because they continue to do freelance work for their former employers. Most of the guide companies rely heavily on freelancers to keep their voluminous content databases filled and up to date.)

Online city guides especially present good career opportunities for people early in their careers, and most of the guide sites employ staffs where the average age is in the 20s. In years past, many of these people would be working in traditional media jobs. But not everyone is happy in the new environment.

Off to greener pastures

One ex-staffer of a city guide being produced by a large media company explained the reasons for moving on to other work: "I think it was right around the time that I realized I was writing the equivalent of 500 Michelin Guide entries that I decided I wanted to move on to something more interesting... My view on city guides is that (news organizations) have no business assigning real reporters and editors to produce them. They're an entirely different product, and if you go into one thinking that you're going to do 'stories' and 'profiles,' you'll be disappointed to find out you're writing hollow advertorial copy that will garnish a Web site that a business pays money for."

A former Sidewalk staffer explained that it was the need to keep feeding the listings machine that was most frustrating. At the lower "producer" levels of the staff, an employee must foremost keep entertainment and event listings up to date for the area of the site for which they are responsible. Opinion writing -- the more creative part of the job -- tends to come last, if you still have time after the listings work is done, this ex-Sidewalker says.

A big part of the reason that the event listings component of these jobs takes so much time is that most city guide sites have not yet fully automated the process of getting events into the system. Sidewalk staffers and managers tell me that much of the local sites' communication with event organizers is via phone and fax. It's up to the site staff to massage this raw information into a form suitable for the site database. That doesn't leave much time for the more creative and personally satisfying aspects of the job, where producers can wax eloquent and offer advice to event-seeking consumers in a way that infuses the writer's personality into the content.

A Sidewalk local site staffer says that part of the problem is that the sites configure theirs staffs such that "producers" do much of the grunt listings work rather than lower-paid clerks. This tends to lead to job dissatisfaction among those employees with substantial journalism experience.

One producer still working in the field said she often feels like a "Yellow Pages worker," spending much of her day calling up event facilities and checking on hours. When the staff goes into a meeting, "we're talking about numbers, how many entries we put in the database today," and not about editorial issues.

Indeed, one former city guide staffer told me that the title of "producer," which is commonly used throughout this new industry, is "telling" of what the job is like. "They don't call us editors" or writers, because being a city guide producer often has little resemblance to what traditional editors and writers do -- that is, exercise their judgment.

The view from Redmond

Mike Gordon, executive editor at Sidewalk's corporate office in Redmond, Washington, says that some of the complaints heard from Sidewalk local site employees and ex-employees probably have to do with the start-up phase of the ventures. During the start-up of a local Sidewalk, everyone is scrambling to build up a base of listings and reviews for the community. "There's a lot of nuts and bolts stuff" you have to do, he says, and that may not be as glamorous as the later work when the core content database for the service is firmly in place. Later work is more dynamic -- and requires greater exercise of judgment on the part of site employees -- than the "evergreen" content that must be created before the site can launch.

Gordon also notes that turnover at Sidewalk sites has not been overly large. A few departures made industry news at the New York and San Francisco sites, but he says the staff turnover is fairly typical for a start-up, indicating no great problem with employee job dissatisfaction.

At the higher-level positions at city guides, holders of those jobs paint a rosier view of what this type of employment offers. At some city guide sites, a few stars have jobs that permit them to do the type of creative reporting and writing that traditional news journalists are familiar with. And working in an entrepreneurial environment can be challenging and exciting.

Bennett Voyles, editor in chief of New York Now, an independent New York online city guide (and Sidewalk competitor), says that while the environment can be occasionally frustrating, "mostly, it's an interesting place to be." What he likes most about the business "is that all the formal issues haven't been decided 150 years ago." It's interesting and fun to be in a business where you make up the rules as you go along.

Eric Etheridge, executive producer at New York Sidewalk and a longtime print editor before taking this job, says that while his operation represents a new local information medium, it also "feels" a lot like working at a weekly city magazine or newspaper. "We take elements from newspapers, from magazines, from live broadcast media," he says, then figure out how to do things differently for the new medium.

While acknowledging that keeping up with a city-full of events listings is a daunting task, Etheridge says that good writing, creativity and the personal voice of individual writers is important to the site and is fostered. He wants to have writing on the New York Sidewalk site that's as good as or better than what his competitors publish -- and those can include traditional media organizations serving New York audiences with entertainment information.

City guide editors point out that journalists coming in to this new environment do have to make some adjustments. Foremost is the shift to writing about future happenings instead of past ones (news). It's the business of "preview, not review," says Etheridge. That can be a real challenge for a journalist used to the news business.

Journalism or marketing?

One of the biggest concerns that journalists have in moving into the online city guide business is ethics. How much editorial freedom do city guide writers have? Can they write reviews of events or businesses that are critical?

One former city guide staffer says this was a real problem at the venture (run by a media company) where he worked. "The bottom line precludes any possiblity for editorial voice, and you can't even tell people the kind of real consumer information that you would want to know if you were going out for a night on the town. Things like sticky tablecloths, roach-infested hallways and bad service just aren't mentioned."

A producer at a CitySearch local site says that there's a fundamental clash between journalists working for the site and the "marketing" approach that CitySearch takes when it initially sets up a site. When a content producer writes something that is uncomplimentary -- say, an unfavorable review of a restaurant -- the critical prose typically comes back with questions, usually is sent to a staff lawyer, and seldom gets published online, this staffer says. An example of something that is verboten might be calling a popular singles bar a "meat market."

Yet despite such occasional tales from the trenches, most city site managers say that they draw a defined line between editorial and advertising. New York Now's Voyles says that sites that avoid critical writing because they don't want to offend advertisers look hollow, and consumers will not return to a city guide site that offers only shallow, upbeat reviews. "The advertorial model is just a marketing fantasy," he says.

Executives at Sidewalk insist that the "church-state" division between editorial content and advertising is as strong as at newspapers. They profess to be taking the "pure" road of editorial integrity to gain public trust and loyalty, realizing that business success may be slower, but the strategy is important for the long-term health of the enterprise.

Go in with your eyes open

Journalists considering going in to the online city guide business need to step cautiously. This really is a medium where the rules are just now being written, and in some respects the creative outlet can be greater than at tradition-bound established media companies. But as the experience of a few of the industry's pioneering employees show, sometimes being the pioneer isn't always fun. This is not a business that suits every journalist looking for a new career challenge.

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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

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


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