Internet Forces Legislative Service to Reinvent Itself

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By: Steve Outing

Legi-Tech has been in the online services game for a long time, providing California state legislative data and bill-tracking services on a proprietary dial-up service since 1980. The business, which is owned by McClatchy Newspapers of Sacramento, has done well, providing information to politicians, corporations, lobbyists and news organizations, who pay annual fees to access Legi-Tech's data.

But the Internet has upset the company, which is being forced to reinvent itself. Not the least reason for its new-found impetus to revamp itself as an Internet company is the state of California, which is a pioneer in putting its information on the Internet. The state is putting on the Internet much of the information -- available free -- that Legi-Tech has charged for access. California's state Web sites already post the same type of bill information, and legislation introduced this year would put campaign contributions data online. LegiTech sells access to campaign contribution data.

Smaller commercial competitors also have popped up, offering bill-tracking services by intercepting the free state data, repackaging and selling it in their own Internet services.

Rethinking the model

Legi-Tech's transition to an Internet service has begun -- though the proprietary service is not likely to go away and is expected to continue bringing in revenues even after the full move to the Internet.

Its new Web site is called Capitol Alert, and as editor Peter Tira describes it, "It's half political magazine, half legislative news service." Like the original Legi-Tech proprietary service, Capitol Alert serves a niche audience of politicians, lobbyists, business people and others who have a deep interest in California politics. It's not a site aimed at the casual reader who has an interest in politics -- though members of the public are likely to use it -- but rather a niche site for the political community.

Tira heads up a newly assembled editorial team, consisting of two political reporters (with a third coming soon), a news clerk, a calendar editor, a designer and a producer. Along with several freelancers, the Capitol Alert staff generates original news content exclusive to the Web site. "The goal is to meet the heavy demand for legislative and political news by our clients -- a demand not met generally with just a few stories in the local papers," Tira says.

He has hired freelance columnists for the site, including Dan Schnur, a KGO Radio political analyst and former press secretary for Governor Pete Wilson. Another is Bill Aynsworth, who is the capitol reporter for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. The site also carries audio reports on legislative happenings from the state capitol reporter of Sacramento's National Public Radio affiliate. The audio reports are archived so that a Web user who missed the regular radio broadcast can listen to them later.

Coverage on the site includes legislative news, of course, as well as news of the state's regulatory agencies. The staff has written about the recent Prop. 209 (affirmative action) ruling, and about mass murderer Charlie Manson's Web site and plans by the Department of Corrections for regulating prisoners who might funnel content to Web sites.

The site also links to political stories written by McClatchy's newspapers (the Sacramento Bee and Modesto Bee) and by the San Francisco Chronicle. Tira says he hopes to establish cross-promotional relationships with all newspapers that have state capitol bureaus, linking to those publications' political coverage published on the Web. "We've also cut deals with local newsletter publishers to put some of their content online," he says.

New revenue model required

While much of that political news coverage will be free to any Web user, Legi-Tech's core data is likely to continue to be charged. The bill tracking service is currently in beta testing on the Web but will become a subscription service. Campaign contributions records are on the Web already. On the proprietary Legi-Tech service, access to bill tracking and and campaign data is priced starting at $1,200 per year. Internet pricing has not yet been confirmed, but likely will not be far from the proprietary service rates. Tira says that the Legi-Tech service provides many more features for analysis and tracking multiple bills, which the free state service lacks.

The company also provides a Lobby Tracking service that monitors California lobbying activities. That service currently costs $1,000 per year for an individual subscription. Lobby Tracking is not yet on the Internet, but it is expected to be one day. California officials have said that they will put the lobbying data on the Internet in May, "so that's another area that we have to deal with," says Tira.

Future revenue streams are still being concocted, but Tira says the site is looking at soliciting advertising. He's bullish on "pushed" content services, such as a delivery service for information about a particular industry or topic. A farmers' organization might pay for a stream of news and information about the progress of agriculture legislation or regulations, for example. Legi-Tech also might provide custom news streams on particular topics for other Web sites.

Tira says Legi-Tech was the first McClatchy online service to produce original content for the online medium. "Not being affiliated with a print product, we are free to be much more creative, I think, than some of our online newspaper counterparts, and I think (our) site reflects that," he says.

Contact: Peter Tira, petert@legitech.com

'Hey, that's our name!'

The Tampa Tribune in Florida filed a lawsuit earlier this week, accusing an Internet company of infringing the trademark of the newspaper's online service, Tampa Bay Online. In January, the domain name tampabayonline.com was registered by Internet Integration Inc. and William and Janet Frith. The Tribune, a Media General newspaper, contends that the domain registered by the Friths will be confused with the newspaper's Web service and that the couple is trying to misappropriate the Tribune's reputation and deceive the public.

The Tribune did not register tampabayonline.com, but rather uses an abbreviated URL (or Web address) -- http://www.tboweb.com -- for its Tampa Bay Online service. Its experience points out the need for publishers to register domain names that contain trademarked newspaper or online service names, in order to prevent such problems. Even if tampabayonline.com would not be used by the paper, it could be redirected to the paper's Web site. Some Web users guess at site URLs in order to find a particular publication, so some users seeking to find Tampa Bay Online will type in http://www.tampabayonline.com as a logical guess.

Steve

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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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