N.Y. Guide Emphasizes the Local; Plans to Expand to Other Markets

By: Steve Outing

If you haven't seen the World Wide Web site of Metrobeat, go look at it right now. It's an ambitious entertainment guide service that has significance if you are a newspaper publisher trying to grab hold of online opportunities in your local market. Metrobeat (and competitors who may try to mimmick it) represents a looming threat to your online service if you expect to attract computer users with local content.

Metrobeat today is the most comprehensive guide -- either online or in print -- to entertainment, cultural and sports events in New York City. It's not an online publication, but rather is focused on providing the most in-depth guide to entertainment listings. It is the best place to go to find descriptions of events, maps to the venues, ticket prices, and in some cases reviews -- all either browsable or searchable. This is where the savvy cyber traveler will go to find an Italian restaurant in SoHo or the time and ticket cost of a kids' show in Central Park. It is not an online publication in the traditional sense, but a free-to-the-user guide to New York's myriad entertainment offerings.

Metrobeat president Mark Davies, a British entrepreneur who comes out of the listings business and formerly was the listings editor for the 7 Days entertainment newspaper in New York City, says that New York is the testing ground for the concept, which will expand to other major U.S. cities. Los Angeles and San Francisco are next on the expansion plan, and he hopes to be in 6 U.S. metro areas by the end of this year. Eventually, he wants to export the concept to Europe.

Davies has assembled a modest staff of 10 and works with about 50 freelancers. He is currently talking with several large companies that want to invest in the concept and take it nationwide.

The concept itself is ... obvious: Create the best listings service for events in a community or region, and add some editorial content. The team of freelance writers supplements the full-time staff and contributes descriptions, reviews and recommendations of the best events, and generally keeps tracks of entertainment events in different categories. For areas where there's just too much territory to cover, like restaurants, Metrobeat invites users to submit their own reviews and ratings; a restaurant listing has a "Buzz" icon that when clicked brings up voluntarily submitted consumer reviews of the place.

With such an obvious concept, the question is why no one else is doing it. Yes, many publications provide entertainment listings on their Web sites, but these are primarily listings from the print product ported online -- a.k.a. shovelware. I have not seen anything with as much depth as Metrobeat.

Davies says he has long felt that New York did not have a single comprehensive event guide; you have to buy three separate publications to get a complete guide to what's happening in New York. Listings in existing print media are inadequate -- "what's published in the newspapers is pretty much useless to us," he says -- and that's why he hasn't chosen to partner with other media companies. Rather, he has gathered the listings himself, through a system that utilizes the freelancers' contributions and collects incoming listings from the organizations that produce the events.

Gathering all this local data is "an incredible challenge," Davies says, but nevertheless, "I am amazed that no one else has done this." He recognizes, however, that some major players are now interested in the local listings business, including Microsoft (mentioned in this column several weeks ago as about to create entertainment sites for the New York, Southern California, Seattle and Washington, D.C., markets).

Metrobeat is not looking to traditional media as partners but intends to create New York-like sites nationwide on its own. The sites will primarily be local- and national-advertising supported, with eventual shared national ads among the future Metrobeats in other cities. Davies is, however, open to licensing the content, and possibly even licensing to publishers the technology that makes it all possible. Like many a new media start-up, Metrobeat is still fine-tuning its business plan.

Next up in the content department will be an expanded New York site, adding politics, conventions, travel and hotels. The site will add new editorial content as it grows, and new features such as personalized filters that will allow users to track events in their neighborhoods and interest areas. A version of the site utilizing "frames" for advanced Web browsers is coming soon.

Online newspaper service publishers need to recognize that Metrobeat-like competitors are coming. In the next year or two, they likely will target the largest U.S. cites -- New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago -- with smaller markets following. For newspaper publishers planning to use entertainment listings as a significant draw to their online sites, this suggests that a shovelware approach from print product to online is not enough. Sites like Metrobeat are raising the bar in terms of what consumers will expect from an online entertainment guide.

Contact: Mark Davies, mark@metrobeat.com

TV efforts in cyberspace

Mark Potts of @Home (and formerly of the Washington Post's Digital Ink) thinks I was too harsh on local television affiliates in last Friday's column (which was about one large U.S. city where the TV stations are doing little of substance online). He writes:

"A year or so ago I would have agreed with your assessment that local TV stations 'don't get it'; we were always struck at the (Washington) Post by how little activity we saw in new media from local TV and even the broadcast networks. But I no longer think that's true.

"Yes, it's still hit or miss (just as it is with online newspapers), but at least two of the best Web sites I know are run by local TV stations. Check out http://www.kpix.com/, which is the San Francisco CBS affiliate (all the stations in the Bay Area have Web sites, and they're all pretty good, but that one's the best). It's a LOT more than station promotion. And check out http://wxnet4.nbc4.com/, which is the weather site run by WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington. It's simply tremendous, containing everything one could possibly want to know about Washington weather. ... It's got maps, radar, weather-related closings -- even frequently updated RealAudio weather forecasts. You can't beat that, and it's better than just about any newspaper site I've ever seen for original, Web-related information and sheer depth.

"A couple of others: Washington's NewsChannel 8, a cable-only operation, is a major contributor to AOL's Digital Washington, and Peggy Bair says there's a station in Denver doing terrific stuff. And CNN, ESPN and Discovery Channel run three of the best (better than ANY newspaper site I can think of) and justifiably most popular Web sites.

"I think you've underestimated the online work being done in the broadcast world, much as newspapers ALWAYS underestimate their broadcast competitors (and their effect on their readers)."

Timothy Broeker of Minnesota Daily Online also wrote in:

"In regards to Friday's 'Stop the Presses,' you may want to check out Channel 4000, which ironically had its debut on the same day your article hit the wires. Haven't had much time to check it out yet, but C4000 is a MAJOR online collaboration between Minneapolis-St. Paul's WCCO-TV and the Internet Broadcasting Corporation. If it works, there is much to worry about."

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