New Top Contender: Philadelphia Online

By: Steve Outing

I spent some time yesterday checking out Philadelphia Online, the new World Wide Web service of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News (Pennsylvania, USA), and I'm impressed. It has evolved into one of the best newspaper sites on the Web.

The service has been around since April 1995, when the newspapers launched a single component of the service, "Get a Life!", an online entertainment guide. About a week and a half ago, the full Philadelphia Online service was launched, putting the content of both newspapers, updated daily, online.

You'll want to take a look at the site soon, because an admission charge will be instituted on January 1, 1996. As with most of Knight-Ridder's newspaper properties, the Philadelphia papers will slap a fee on full access to the site -- similar to the model used by the San Jose Mercury News on its Mercury Center Web. Pricing will be $6.95 per month for non-newspaper subscribers, and a lesser fee (yet to be announced) for print subscribers. The newspapers also will sell Internet access accounts (in a partnership with InfiNet, an Internet provider half-owned by Knight-Ridder) for $24.95 per month that will come bundled with an account to Philadelphia Online.

Deputy manager John McQuiggan says that, like Mercury Center Web, there will be content for free visitors to the site to see, and the site's advertisements will be visible to paying and non-paying visitors. The staff is still working out the details of what's free and what's charged, but McQuiggan says the papers recognize that they can't afford to shut down access to non-paying visitors if they expect to generate enough traffic to attract advertisers. The site currently gets about 6,000 unique visitors per day.

Besides subscriber fees, Internet access revenues and advertising, the site also will include premium charged services, such as a version of the "Newshound" personal news clipping service pioneered in San Jose, and access to the Dialog Information Services electronic archive of newspapers. Those services will be introduced in early 1996.

While the site is impressive to look at and appears to be the work of a large staff, in fact Philadelphia Online operates with a modest staff of 12. McQuiggan says much of the content is automated, such as the daily news sections culled from the pages of the Inquirer and Daily News. News sections of the site are compiled in the middle of the night by a software application -- the work of a "brilliant" programmer on staff, says McQuiggan -- that filters the printed daily content from the papers' Atex text processing system.

Best features

Here are a few of the features that I think make Philadelphia Online one of the best newspaper sites on the Web today:

* Navigation pop-up button. At the top of most pages is a simple pop-up menu that directs you easily to other major areas on the site. It's always there and takes up a minimum of screen real estate. Select the area you want and click the "Go" button.

* Comics page. This is similar to Mercury Center's comics page, but the interface is more efficient. You make your selection of favorite comics by selecting a button for each strip. Click a button to create your personal online comics page, then bookmark the page in your Web browser to use in the future.

* News sections. News selections include a list of the top stories of the day in a specific category (world news, business, etc.). Each story gets a main headline, a explanatory "deck" headline, a one-paragraph summary of the story, and a "More..." hypertext link to the complete article. You can read over the news sections and get a pretty good idea of what's happening in the world without having to click constantly. This concept is much superior to schemes requiring users to click on a new document to read anything more than the headline.

* Photos. Some stories include photos and captions, but Philadelphia Online's editors keep photo sizes to a minimum to facilitate faster loading on the screen.

* Interactive crossword. Philadelphia Online has created an interactive crossword puzzle. Players enter answers into a field and submit the answer, which shows up on a new page sent to your browser. The interface isn't perfect, since you can't type the answer directly onto the squares of the puzzle. (e.g., to answer 2-down, you would type in "d 2 aardvark" and click "Submit.") Also, I would like to see some sort of visual "reward" for completing the puzzle; when you complete the crossword nothing happens. Still, a very nice first effort at making crossword playing viable on the Web.

* Finder Genie. You can find anything on Philadelphia Online (but not the newspapers' archives) with the "Finder Genie." This is a nicely done search interface, allowing you to select which days to search (as far back as 7) and which sections of the service.

* PlanetJobs. This is the search function for finding help-wanted listings. A nice feature is that when a list of ads comes back to you as a result of a search, each one has a check box next to it. Click on the ads you want to save, click on a button and only those ads are returned to you as a new page -- which you can then print out.

* HeartNet. This is the online component of a personals ad service (done in partnership with another company). It searches the newspapers' personal ads based on your criteria and returns a list. To get in touch with a person whose ad appeals to you will cost $2.19 per minute on an affiliated voice personals system.

* Advertising. Ad placement is non-intrusive -- generally at the bottom of a page. McQuiggan says the service is getting a lot of interest from advertisers, with many taking out trial ads and a handful of paying advertisers. Most are being cautious before committing to being placed on the service, he says.

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