Microsoft Is Developing Regional Entertainment Sites

By: Steve Outing

A correspondent in San Diego, California, wrote to me recently, noting that Microsoft was running ads seeking "editorial talent" for a new project. As a newspaper Web publisher operating a regional site, he was concerned about what Microsoft might be up to in his back yard. Did I know anything about this, he asked. Is Microsoft moving into the news business?

I talked to a manager involved in the project at Microsoft's consumer division and learned that indeed Microsoft is working on a project in Southern California, as well as New York City and Washington, D.C., where ads have been placed in local newspapers seeking individuals with editorial backgrounds for an upcoming service.

The Microsoft source, who asked that he not be identified, could not give me any more than sketchy details about the project while on the record, but did indicate that Microsoft is crafting a consumer local entertainment guide service. Ads are being run in markets where a pilot project will likely be run. The upcoming service -- he could offer no timetable -- probably will include entertainment listings, theater locations, show times, etc. The intention is for it to include a combination of original content and that of third-party information providers, he said.

Competitive implications for publishers in those regions should be obvious, though what I was told also could point to the possibility of alliances rather than competition. Stay tuned.

What we can learn from contest judging

As you may know, 14 judges and I are in the process or deciding on winners of the 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition, sponsored by Editor & Publisher and The Kelsey Group. Results of the contest will be announced next week at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco (and published in this column on Monday, February 26).

I've been compiling the judges' ratings in preparation for the conference, and reading their comments about the entries. Let me share with you some of the impressions and criticisms that the judges included with their rankings. Ignoring comments about specific newspaper online services, let's go over some of the common criticisms that appeared on the evaluation forms.

(Judges for the contest were: David Carlson, University of Florida; Neil Chase, Northwestern University; Ben Compaine, Center for Information Industry Research, Temple University; Bill Densmore, Newshare Corp.; Roger Fidler; Howard Finberg, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.; Terry Maguire, International Federation of Newspaper Publishers (FIEJ); Rich Meislin, The New York Times; Nora Paul; The Poynter Institute; Madanmohan Rao, Inter Press Service; Bill Skeet, Knight-Ridder New Media Center; Norbert Specker, Catchup AG; Milverton Wallace, City University, London; and Peter Winter, New Century Network.)

* Big graphics. Many Web sites got marked down for using too many and too-large graphics files that painted slowly on screen. This was a complaint even from those judges who had fast connections to the Internet. Our judges had to look at a lot of sites (not unlike the typical browser who visits many places in a Web surfing session), and many of them complained of "painfully slow" sites. Commented one judge about a sluggish site, "After 7 minutes of loading the first page, I didn't dare to touch another link."

* Photo size. Those sites that strike a good balance between photo size and fast page loading got high marks. Photos can't be so small as to be unreadable, nor so large that they slow down the viewer's reception of the full page.

* Search functions. This is de rigueur for a good site, of course. Some sites got criticized for not highlighting search keywords in the output returned to the user. Sites without search functions were often dismissed from consideration for that reason alone.

* Platform. While the majority of entries were for newspaper services on the World Wide Web, several were for services that sit on proprietary commercial online services. In general, these did not rank well because of complaints about the online service platform itself. Entries got marked down if there were too many impediments to consumers accessing the service; those using AT&T Interchange, for example, lost points for being available only to those using PCs with the Windows operating system. Commented one judge about a service on Prodigy, "Everything's relative, but even making the best of an unattractive medium doesn't make an attractive site."

* News ranking. For sites that present news, those that ranked articles -- displaying the editorial judgment so much a part of the print product -- got higher marks. Those that merely displayed a list of clickable headlines, without a presentation style that gave readers a clue as to what stories were most important, lost points.

* Back-linking. One judge praised sites that "back-linked" stories -- that is, stories posted online that include hypertext links to previous articles written on the topic.

* Page size. For Web sites, most got marked down if the standard presentation of the page was larger than a standard computer monitor. One judge automatically dismissed a site if he had to scroll to the right in order to see everything on the page. Another was annoyed with sites that were wider than the screen on his Macintosh Powerbook.

* Navigation. Sites that ranked high were those that are easy to navigate and where it is easy to find what you are looking for without too many clicks. Sites that were criticized were those that required 3 or 4 or more clicks before the reader actually got to an article. Commented a judge about one site: "It doesn't adhere as well as it should to what I call the '3-click rule.' One should never have to click more than 3 times to get content on the screen."

* Index schemes. Navigation schemes that keep a handy index of the overall site in view of readers won praise. Particularly appealing to some of the judges were thin horizontal navigation bars running along the top of pages, and permanent indexes running vertically along the left side of pages -- which make it easy for a reader to find another section no matter where in the site they may be.

* Original content. Those sites that do little more than repurpose content from the print product and rely on wire stories didn't do well. Our judges gave high marks to those services that are creating original content found only online, and geared to an Internet audience.

* Dates on articles. A common flaw, our judges found, was the lack of a date published on Web site pages. If a reader prints out and files an article found on your online service, it's important that the date be included on the page.

* Story length. The common pattern for Web users is browsing, so sites need to recognize that visitors may not stick around long before flitting off to some other part of cyberspace. Those sites that kept articles short won praise from our judges. "Web readers want it fast," commented one judge.

* Too boring. Some sites, our judges found, were simply boring -- in content and presentation. In a world where you are competing with thousands of Web sites, many that are adding multimedia features like audio and video, newspaper online services need to be fresh, interesting, innovative and creative. The Internet is no place to be dull.

I will continue this discussion tomorrow, since there is much more good advice to online service operators contained within the judges' evaluations. There is much to be learned from the results of this contest, which we hope will not only recognize outstanding achievers in this new field, but also serve to improve the quality of work done by the newspaper industry as a whole in new media.

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