Sidewalk Serves 'The City' Well, But Where's Its Personality?

By: Steve Outing

Last week, Microsoft launched one of its most important Sidewalk local entertainment guides, in San Francisco. Having lived in the Bay Area for 10 years (though I now live in Colorado), I know that getting a handle on the cultural and entertainment scene in San Francisco is a challenge. There's so much great stuff going on in The City, if you don't pay attention you'll miss some great music act, or museum opening, or lecture, or ...

When I lived in San Francisco, the way to plan leisure time was to pick up the "Pinkie," a.k.a. the Sunday Datebook section produced by the San Francisco Chronicle, or the alternative news and entertainment weekly, the Bay Guardian. With the arrival of Sidewalk, I think this long-held tradition of relying on the Pinkie (so nicknamed because it is printed on pink newsprint) is beginning to be threatened.

San Francisco Sidewalk out of the gate is the most complete guide to what's happening in the Bay Area that I've seen. Microsoft is really taking its San Francisco unit seriously, and has staffed up accordingly. The local Sidewalk office boasts 27 staff members -- 19 of them on the editorial side and another four in the art department -- plus numerous freelancers. These people spend their days compiling listing information and reviewing shows, restaurants, etc. (Most technical positions, of course, are housed at the central Microsoft Sidewalk office in Redmond, Washington, serving all local Sidewalk units.)

By comparison, the Chronicle's Web site, The Gate, has three positions devoted to its entertainment guide (out of a total staff of 32). The newspaper of course has a sizable print entertainment staff, which provides most of the Web site's review and its event listings. The Bay Guardian has a (print) entertainment staff of only five; its new media staff is four employees.

Those staff figures are telling. By focusing only on entertainment and leisure -- while the newspaper sites cover a broad spectrum of content, where a guide to local entertainment is just one of many elements -- SF Sidewalk is by default the hands-down winner in providing the best, most complete source of listings of local entertainment events.

The San Francisco papers have already lost this game, for I'm not sure that they can afford to increase their staffs that cover local entertainment sufficient to directly compete in this online niche area. Microsoft, with its considerable muscle, has moved in to quickly dominate the online entertainment guide scene (in terms of scope of coverage, if not yet audience) in one of America's biggest entertainment markets.

Of course, newspapers have some time. Sidewalk is about changing people's habits, according to general manager Kevin Wueste, a Microsoft transplant from Seattle, and it will take some time before sizable numbers of Bay Area residents turn to a computer and Sidewalk instead of picking up a newspaper to find information about a concert or where a movie is playing. Yet we all know the obvious trends toward mass Internet usage.

Make no mistake, once consumers do learn about what's available on SF Sidewalk, I think they will begin using it, to the detriment of printed local entertainment sections. I spent some time pouring over the site this week, and I found it to be very convenient for finding things to do that suit my interests and tastes. And once you find an event, ticketing information, driving instructions, nearby restaurants for after the show, etc. is all right there. For keeping apprised of what's available on the local entertainment scene, the printed entertainment section doesn't even come close.

You've got personality

It's important to note, however, that Sidewalk is primarily a listings site, and a useful one. Where it remains weak, in the eyes of its competitors, is in the quality of the reviews it publishes. John Paczkowski, head of the Bay Guardian's new media department, says he's unimpressed with the quality of the reviews he's seen on SF Sidewalk. "It looks like they were produced very quickly," he says.

Paczkowski doubts that Sidewalk's introduction will have much of an impact on his paper or the San Francisco dailies, because newspaper readers have come to trust over time the opinions of their writers and critics. They look to the Guardian for advice on what to do because of those personalities, he says. SF Sidewalk, without any big or well known names, is missing a key element that the Guardian has got.

Indeed, "personality" may be Sidewalk's achilles heel. In press coverage of Sidewalk recently, an alternative newsweekly publisher was quoted as saying that Sidewalk had "all the sexiness of reading the Yellow Pages." (The quotee was not speaking specifically about SF Sidewalk.) Sidewalk in general, critics charge, is boring in presentation and just doesn't exhibit much personality.

Wueste balks at that criticism and says that those who take that view haven't looked at his San Francisco site. "We have a team of professionals who understand what it is that brings people back," he says. And while conforming to corporate navigation and style demands, Wueste contends that his site is evolving to have its own style and personality that reflects The City and Bay area lifestyle and culture.

SF Sidewalk's staff is comprised of (mostly young) people who are well acquainted with the local scene, according to Wueste. Despite the top executive's Seattle roots, the top editorial person ("executive producer") has lived in the Bay Area for six years, and most of the staff are local hires. (Staffers come from a variety of backgrounds, often from local entertainment-related companies, from other online services, and from smaller local media outlets. Only one employee of SF Sidewalk is a former San Francisco Examiner employee; none hail from the Chronicle or Bay Guardian.)

When asked about infusing human personalities into SF Sidewalk, Wueste is tentative, preferring to talk about how Sidewalk's technology allows a user to receive "personalized" information -- with the system alerting you when Laurie Anderson is coming to town, or when the latest Andrew Wyeth exhibit opens, if that is your taste. The concept of creating "local celebrity" status for Sidewalk's staff is something that "if it helps, we'll consider it," Wueste says.

Sidewalk staffers do get credit for their selections of the best of breed local events, with their respective pages linked to biographies that include photos and the staff member's list of favorite Bay Area places. Still, they are not promoted in the way a newspaper rock critic or movie reviewer might be in a newspaper or at a TV station.

Where I find fault with SF Sidewalk (and other Sidewalks around the country, too) is also in its presentation, which is a bit too bland and sterile. I'd like to see Sidewalk's designers loosen up the reins a bit, allowing local site teams to use more daring artwork, and indicating through the design process what Sidewalk's local entertainment "experts" think are the most interesting events in the Bay Area. Critics who charge that Sidewalk looks like a Yellow Pages directory have a point; Sidewalk local sites need to loosen up and break free more often from the corporate design handed down by Redmond.

SF Sidewalk is at launch a nice service. A lot of people will find it useful. It has some weaknesses, but have no doubt that this is version 1.0, and Microsoft will improve the service over time. Listening to newspapers operating in the Bay Area, you hear some bluster and some denial that Sidewalk presents a threat. I think Sidewalk poses a very real threat, and a 27-member staff (plus freelancers!) operating in San Francisco should concern any publisher.

C'mon, admit it!

One thing I fail to understand is Microsoft executives' insistence on claiming that Sidewalk is not directly competitive to newspapers' entertainment coverage. Wueste toes the company line by saying only that "we recognize there will be some overlap" with other local media efforts in covering the entertainment scene. Microsoft should just admit it; Sidewalk is going after newspapers' entertainment section readers and advertisers. Not to admit it makes the bright people at Microsoft look foolish, if not sinister.

Editor's note: Steve Outing's consulting company has previously provided services to Microsoft.

Sidewalk rolled out today in Denver, Houston

Today marks the launch of two additional Sidewalk sites, in Denver (Colorado) and Houston (Texas). These sites are somewhat smaller in size than the SF Sidewalk.

Denver's unit operates with a staff of 14 full-time employees, plus freelancers. Like San Francisco, Denver Sidewalk has a Seattle Microsoft import, Brad Struss, at the helm as general manager, but most of the rest of the staff are local hires. The top content editor is Joe Rassenfoss, a 13-year veteran of Denver's Rocky Mountain News.

Follow-up: Read the review, buy the book

My recent column about the New York Times' deal with bookseller Barnes & Noble to enable online purchases of specific books from book review pages on the Web brought this note from Andrew Lih, a professor at Columbia University's graduate school of jouralism:

"One thing you did not mention is the fact that the NYT Book Review gets its Best Sellers list from the independent booksellers. By pointing to Barnes & Noble, NYT is not returning the favor to the independents. What used to be a symbiotic relationship between NYT and independents (free stats in return for generated book sales) is now lopsided with B&N in the picture."

I followed up on this point with Bill Goldstein, editor of the Books site at The New York Times on the Web. He says that the NYT Best Sellers list is compiled from about 4,000 bookstores and wholesalers, and represents a mix of independents and chain stores. On its Web site (but not in print), the Times will in the next couple of weeks begin running two additional best seller lists -- one for independent bookstore sales, the other for the chain stores. The site also will add a directory of independent bookstores, in part to appease the independents, many of whom were very upset over the Barnes & Noble deal.

Goldstein also says he doubts that a book review read on the Web will be strongly influential in getting consumers to purchase the book immediately online. He thinks potential sales will continue to be "much greater on land," and the consumer will continue to make the buying decision based on their normal book-buying preferences.


Previous day's column | Next day's column | Archive of columns
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

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here