L.A. Times Launches Online ... Again

By: Steve Outing

The Los Angeles Times is on the World Wide Web officially as of today. But this launch of an ambitious, overreaching online service is not the first time for the U.S. West Coast's largest newspaper. You may recall that for the last two years the Times operated a service on the Prodigy network called TimesLink, which was unceremoniously dumped at the end of last year in favor of development of a Web service.

TimesLink was one of several experiments on the Prodigy network by large U.S. newspapers, which hoped that online users would be willing to pay an extra $5 per month on top of their Prodigy bill to access a special newspaper service. That strategy is now viewed as a failure, and most of the newspapers involved are heading to the Web. The Times was the first to abandon Prodigy entirely and shift its considerable resources to building a Web service.

The Web site is impressive and offers a great deal of depth; obviously, a lot of work and money went into developing it. The same could be said of TimesLink on Prodigy, and much of the content that was origninally developed for use on the Prodigy platform has found its way to the Web site. But gone are the clunky, cartoonish design and graphics that were typical of Prodigy services due to required use of the NAPLPS page description language. The Web site looks sharp.

Managing the Web effort is Terry Schwadron, a Times deputy managing editor, who is serving as editor of the project as well after the departure of TimesLink editor Dan Fisher, who recently took a job with Microsoft.

During the paper's Prodigy days "we learned a lot about how people respond online and what they look for," Schwadron says, lessons applied during development of the Web service. "We ended the experiment (with Prodigy) because we didn't like the way it looked like it was heading as a business."

Beyond the cosmetic differences between Web and Prodigy, the business model is completely new -- and more in line with the common current wisdom about how newspapers can profit on the Internet. The site will be mostly free to any Web user, with only premium services like access to the paper's electronic archives and a personalized news clipping service called Hunter carrying a price tag.

The site will be supported primarily be advertising, and at launch it has six major sponsors, says Schwadron. What's interesting is that the initial advertisers are all local to Southern California; the site is not relying on national advertisers, as do so many other Web publishers. Among the first Web ads are those by auto dealers and a bank. The Times also is bundling Web ads with print placements, a practice that many newspaper new media managers don't favor.

The Web site is just one component of the Times' electronic publishing strategy, and hence it is linked to other Times properties. Times-Mirror recently bought Hollywood Online, so the Times Web site will include in its entertainment area links to that Web service and probably will not duplicate its content, for example. The classifieds area will include links to Careerpath.com, the multiple-newspaper job listings service of which the Times is a partner.

Schwadron emphasizes the importance of third-party deals to the overall e-publishing strategy. The Times is a content provider to Pointcast, the news service-cum-screensaver, and it is working with Excite! to develop a co-branded directory of Southern California Internet sites that will include reviews of a few thousand Web sites, supported by advertising. The newspaper company also has a deal with telephone company PacTel to offer Internet access services.

Editorially the site is deep, though the news content comes from the Times print staff plus the Associated Press Online news feed. (Times Web visitors must register to get access to AP Online.) Schwadron says he's going to go slow on original reporting for the online service.

The site's first feature, which has been open to the public for several weeks while the rest of the site was still under development, was the transcript of the O.J. Simpson deposition, presented online in full after being acquired by a Times reporter. The Times ran all 1,534 pages of text on the Web, accompanied by Times articles and archived stories on the case. Schwadron says the site received 65,000 visitors on its first day, 90,000 on the second, and no less than 25,000 individual visitors per day since then.

A big part of the site's content is informational: listings, calendar events, archived reviews, community databases, etc. Schwadron says the intent is to offer up the most comprehensive guide to California on the Web. "If you think about California, you'll think about this site," he says. He expects the site to draw both Californians and visitors from around the world, attracted by the reputation of the Los Angeles Times.

The capability for discussion forums and live chat sessions is built into the site, but will be used sparingly at the outset. Schwadron says he can see the value in bringing in celebrity guests for online sessions, but he doesn't want to offer up a 24-hour unmoderated discussion ground. There are plenty of places online for that, he says; "why would anyone want to use ours?"

The staff for the Times Web site is considerably leaner than what it took to run TimesLink on Prodigy -- about 20, down from the mid 30s -- attributable to the automation of many tasks that is possible on the Web but was not on Prodigy.

Internet Press Guild launched

A new organization, the Internet Press Guild, has been formed to "take a stand against shoddy, inaccurate reporting about the Internet." The IPG consists of writers, editors and analysts from around the world who are participating in this non-profit group in order to promote accuracy and excellence in reporting on and about the Internet.

Founder Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols says IPG will serve as an information clearninghouse "for all the hapless reporters out there who are being told to write about the 'Net, but have no idea where to begin." The Guild will post good and bad examples of Internet news coverage as a means of educating journalists, the group says.

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com


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