Events Sites Slip During a Blizzard

By: Steve Outing

Independent online city guide services (like Digital City, Microsoft Sidewalk, CitySearch, USWest DiveIn, etc.) and competing services from the newspaper and television industry are increasingly providing a valuable information stream to local audiences on the Web. For someone looking for information about local entertainment or community events, such services are the place to look if you have a computer and a modem.

Alas, such services serving the Denver, Colorado, area weren't so useful last weekend, when an early-autumn blizzard dumped 2 feet of snow on the area. The city was pretty much shut down on Saturday, with scores of events cancelled and many roads impassable. If you needed to know if an event was still on, you were better off picking up the telephone or turning on the television. Logging on to local Web sites didn't do much good -- although one newspaper site, the Rocky Mountain News', did make an attempt with its modest staffing to provide event and facility blizzard closure information.

A cyber-aware Denver resident with plans for the weekend -- or who wants to go shopping, or see a movie, etc. -- might first go to the Web and look to some of the city guide sites. Yet for the most part, the sites failed to come through when it came to informing Denverites about the status of weekend events and whether facilities like shopping centers were open or closed. (This storm was so bad that even some shopping malls closed down.)

The role of city sites

This blizzard brought up an interesting issue. Is it in the purview of an online city guide to provide up to date information about events during extraordinary circumstances (such as bad weather)? Or is it enough to provide coverage of future events, but fall short when it comes to late-breaking developments like this (rather considering this to come under the definition of "news," and steering clear of news as content of a city guide site)?

Bob Benz, director of online content for E.W. Scripps Co., parent of the Rocky Mountain News, says he wants to see his sites around the country start to provide more of this type of up-to-the-minute information. "I think we have to start doing this," he says, despite the admittedly modest staffs being assigned to online services at Scripps newspapers.

Benz contends that when a major weather event like this occurs, and people are snowed in at their houses, "they're going to get on the Internet" and look for information. Indeed, local Web sites typically see huge spikes in traffic during heavy weather. City guide sites need to realize this and play to this audience need for timely, weather-specific information, he says.

Benz is particularly critical of competing Denver city guide sites and how they handled this blizzard. "Granted, they don't pretend to be a news site. But when the news affects entertainment, I'd expect them to tell me about it. What weekend events are cancelled/delayed, etc. ... It's tough to cover a city when you're working Monday-Friday, 9-5, I guess."

The News' site tried to provide some of this type of information, posting listings of event, facility, school and road closures. And it created a Web form that allowed site visitors to exchange information with each other on storm-related activities. executive producer Robert Niles admits that event announcements were spottier than road information, but says that was a time-management decision. The News Web staff allotted to deal with the weekend blizzard amounted to only one producer working at the newspaper, and a second working from home.

Niles thinks that as the city guide sites, including his own, mature and gain experience with events like this, they'll learn to provide this type of information to local consumers. The News site operates a city guide site using an arts and entertainment guide Web system licensed from Zip2. (Zip2's product line is basically a newspaper industry response to the threats posed by city guide ventures like Sidewalk.)

At the Post, a different story

At the News' archrival paper, the Denver Post, new media editor Todd Engdahl has a different take on this issue. His site, Denver Post Online, does not yet provide comprehensive event listings and coverage (though he hints at impending plans), and the site took a news-oriented view of the storm, providing weather updates and headlines updated throughout the weekend.

Denverites looking for events information would best pick up the phone or turn on the television, Engdahl says. "In a situation like this, television is king," because people are used to turning on the television during emergencies to see a text screen below the news anchors rotating through a list of closures and important announcements.

Engdahl doubts that Web sites will take on this role for some time, in part because it will take a while to train events organizers to notify the Web site staff when an event is cancelled, and for city Web sites to create systems to automatically handle breaking event news from dozens of event organizers. Now, organizers know to call TV and selected radio stations.

Denver Sidewalk sticks to its plan

At Denver Sidewalk, the Microsoft site looked like it usually does on Saturday; there was no indication that a blizzard was affecting the area and closing down events left and right. General manager Brad Struss says that a decision was made that it didn't make sense to try to update listings for the 200 events scheduled that weekend, even though some staff members do normally work a weekend shift. (Much of the interaction between the site and event organizers is by phone and fax, so it would have been a daunting job to learn which events were cancelled and which still on.)

Struss says that the site was useful for people who had plans to attend an event, because they could find it on the Sidewalk site, then call the listed event organizer's phone number directly to find out the event's status.

The site does endeavor to put up late-breaking event information as soon as it gets it, Struss says. If a major theater performance or sports event is cancelled late, for example, Sidewalk publishes that information on the site. "Our goal is to be as current as possible with our information," he says.

Denver Sidewalk does stick to its local arts and recreation focus, Struss says, so site visitors this weekend didn't find information about school closures, or even information about Denver road conditions. You would have to go to another local Web site to learn that the main road to Denver International Airport was closed due to snow. (Denver Sidewalk does offer statewide road conditions as part of its ski information package.)

Ultimately, Struss would like to be able to offer breaking information in instances like this blizzard. But that's a major challenge that will require a closer relationship with event organizers. It may happen, but probably not real soon.

Digital City Denver relies on partners

At Digital City Denver, the idea is primarily to rely on the site's partners for this kind of breaking information, according to general manager Judy Tobey. She says that DC-Denver staffers worked from home over the weekend to put up screens promoting and linking to up-to-date coverage from the site's main news partners, Channel 2 television and the Jefferson Sentinel newspapers, which cover the western suburban Denver area. The TV station provided three-time-a-day updates of storm news, and the Sentinel updated its online information every 15 minutes (providing detailed road conditions and street-specific/event/facility closures for part of the metro area).

(DC-Denver's weekend coverage was available on the America Online proprietary service, not on its Web site.)

The Denver site will be launching an events listings service this January, and that will not rely heavily on third-party partners, Tobey says. But it's unclear if Digital City's intent is to eventually provide breaking events coverage in addition to garden-variety future listings.

Tobey does note that the Denver site's chat rooms were buzzing with activity during the weekend, with many participants using the instant communication forum to exchange information. Clearly, online users were hungry for information, though they weren't getting a lot of it online.

USWest relies on others

At USWest's DiveIn Denver city guide site, spokeswoman Colleen Miller toed a similar line. Although DiveIn does provide some original content, the site is primarily about aggregating and packaging third-party content for local entities. DiveIn visitors looking for storm-related information, then, are guided to appropriate Denver area Web sites.

DiveIn Denver provides links to the Denver daily newspapers, plus TV channels 4, 7 and 9. Miller says that during the storm, DiveIn-directed traffic to the newspapers increased by 50%; traffic to the TV sites increased 100%; and traffic to the Weather Channel for local weather updates more than doubled.

Future directions

Online city guide sites do need to take this issue seriously if they want to truly serve local consumers. Late-breaking news about events can't be ignored. When a major event is delayed or cancelled, the city guide sites should be the place for consumers to go to get the latest news.


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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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