I've been working diligently compiling the ratings of 15 judges who've spent the last few days reviewing online newspaper services for the 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition, sponsored by Editor & Publisher and The Kelsey Group. (Results will be announced at a presentation at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24.) It's been an interesting exercise.
Today I'll give you a preview of part of the contest, which includes awards in 15 categories. (Some categories are split up into sub-categories for online services produced by large-print-circulation newspapers and small-circulation papers.) One of the more interesting awards is for "Best Original Feature," meaning the most outstanding component of an online newspaper service. Here are descriptions of a few innovative entries that you might not have seen:
* ALT. is a feature of Arizona Central, Phoenix Newspapers' service on America Online. ALT. is written mainly by and for teenagers, drawing on the talents of high school writers and photographers. Features include movie, music and TV reviews; advice columns; college information; focus topics such as smoking and open campuses; and an area called A Style of Your Own, which is a photo/story album of students and what they think.
* Voices is part of the Detroit News' Web site. It is a compilation of selected columnists in one spot for easy access. The idea behind grouping columnists is to give Web visitors a taste of the identity of the newspaper.
* Virtual Voyager is a part of the Houston Chronicle's Web site. VV takes readers to interesting places and events around the world, as seen through the eyes of online correspondents. They've visited the Great Wall of China and gone on a Search for Elvis.
* The Indianapolis Star/News has created a Daily Digest news summary that it bills as "the most informative 5 minutes Hoosiers can spend on the Internet."
* Newsday Direct on Prodigy offers Straight From School, a feature that allows students and teachers to post and update news, information and commentary via email. The idea was to make it as simple as possible for them to post information online, without having to learn HTML or some other coding language. Each participating school -- there are more than 60 -- has its own area on the service.
* The Spokesman-Review has a Revolving Quote that appears on the top of the Virtually Northwest page and changes every 60 seconds. It's a snippet from the daily news package and leads to a full story. The site's creators say the Revolving Quote is based on using "fuzzy logic" to detect quotes worthy of "page one" treatment. (Note: If you use Netscape, you'll want to use version 2.0 to get the full effect.)
* The Tampa Tribune features Doppler Weather Radar images on its area of Prodigy. Reportedly it's one of the most used parts of the service.
* The Virginian-Pilot operates a ground-breaking newsroom database project called DataPilot. Searchable databases are offered on school performance for all public schools in Virginia, Hampton Roads Neighborhood Demographics, and city crime logs searchable by city block.
* At the Abilene Reporter News in Texas, there's the Warm Fuzzy Page, which presents "feel-good" photos, updated twice a week.
* The Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming has created the First Amendment Cyber Tribune, a Web site devoted to protection of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The site provides information about where a reader might get help if his or her liberties are challenged, and provides access to experts in the field through email inquiries.
* The Nashville Scene in Tennessee features the Movie Clock, an easy to use search form that helps you find where and what time a movie is playing in the Nashville area. This is the most used feature of the site.
This is just a sampling of the entries in this category. I hope to see you at the Interactive Newspapers conference, where I will be announcing the winners of this and the other 14 categories. I'll also announce the winners in this column.
Newspaper ISPs take note
Connecticut telephone company SNET has entered the Internet access business and launched a Web site containing links to Connecticut-related information. SNET's prices, which offer dial-up Internet access from anywhere in the state, are competitive: $6.95 per month for 7 hours usage (plus $1.95 per additional hour) or $19.95 per month for 40 hours (plus 95 cents per additional hour). There's also a one-time connect fee of $30 (waived until March 31), and the company offers a customized version of Netscape for $29.95.
This is just the beginning of the trend for telephone companies to enter the consumer Internet access business, and they will pose a serious competitive threat to newspapers operating as ISPs. This and other developments are likely to push access prices down over the next couple years -- which is great for consumers but not such welcome news for publishers trying to hold on to opportunities in the access business.
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