The Journalists Running a Local Sidewalk Unit

By: Steve Outing

Last week, I wrote about some of the new Sidewalk online city entertainment guides recently launched in U.S. cities by Microsoft, and about the latest strategy by newspaper chain Knight-Ridder to counter initiatives such as Sidewalk, called Real Cities.

During my reporting, I spoke with a number of newspaper executives and editors who were very critical of Sidewalk, specifically. That's not surprising, but what I heard underlying the bluster was also a level of denial that Sidewalk could pose a threat to their long-held local franchises. "We can do so much better"; "They don't really understand journalism"; "The public won't accept them as a credible source of local information"; etc. But if that's anything more than predictable industry chest-thumping -- and in several cases I sensed that it was a heartfelt view -- I think that's unhealthy for the newspaper business. The competitive threat is quite real.

Are you credible?

One of the main arguments I hear is that Sidewalk is not hiring people to write reviews who the community will find credible. Editors mentioned rumored staffing problems at Sidewalks in New York and San Francisco, with some experienced journalists and professional critics taking jobs but then finding that this wasn't "real journalism," so they quit.

Each Sidewalk (and each local unit of the other online city guide companies) is a bit different, but to get an idea of the actual threat posed to an established local newspaper franchise, let's take a look at Houston Sidewalk, which was launched just last week. What you find is a team of seasoned journalists, many of them from the local dailies, newsweekly and city magazines. A full-time staff of 14 produces the site, plus a team of freelance and contract workers and writers.

According to Houston Sidewalk general manager Chris Hearne, his staff is comprised of a number of high-profile, experienced local journalists who know the Houston market and whose names are familiar to local residents. Indeed, attracting credible journalistic personalities was part of Hearne's strategy for competing with Houston's newspapers. And playing up the personalities as well as the technology of Sidewalk itself is part of Houston Sidewalk's marketing plan.

Hearne himself is well known in town. In 1989, he founded the city's main alternative newsweekly, the Houston Press, which in 1993 was sold to Phoenix-based New Times Inc. Houston Sidewalk executive producer (a.k.a., editor) John Wilburn was founding editor of the Press, alongside Hearne. Wilburn also has been managing editor of Houston City Magazine and managing editor of Dallas Life. Managing producer Josh Daniel comes to Sidewalk after spending three years as an editor at Texas Monthly magazine.

In staffing up Houston Sidewalk, Hearne was the beneficiary of a local market where experienced journalists were hungry for work. The Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle is the only daily newspaper in town, after the demise of the Houston Post two years ago, so the market had a glut of underemployed people with journalism credentials.

One of Hearne's star hires is Betsy Parish, who for six years was the gossip columnist for the Houston Post until it was shut down. Parish is back doing her thing with a column called "Confidentially ..."

Parish is one of five Sidewalk staffers who are called "columnists." Others include:
Brad Tyer, Music. He previously was music editor of the Houston Press, and has written for the Houston Chronicle, Texas Monthly, Dallas Morning News and the New York Times Book Review. Eric Gerber, City Life. He spent two decades at the Houston Post, as a movie reviewer, book editor, TV critic and daily columnist. Alison Cook, Restaurants. She is a long-time food writer and restaurant critic, whose Texas dining reviews have appeared in Texas Monthly, Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and several Houston magazines and newspapers. She also is a contributing editor for Conde Nast House & Garden and has twice won national James Beard food writing awards. Meg Halverson, Arts. She covered the arts for the Houston Press, and before that was a founder of Planet Magazine, an arts and entertainment bi-weekly in Phoenix, Arizona (now owned by New Times Inc.). While Sidewalk markets itself in large part on the technology that brings personalized leisure-time information to individuals, in Houston, at least, the people staffing the operation are just as important. Hearne says he realizes that many consumers will visit the site to see what one of his star columnists has written this week -- and make it a habit for that reason alone.

Indeed, the formula for the Houston Sidewalk site is somewhat akin to that of an alternative entertainment newsweekly featuring extensive listings with quality editorial content on top, designed to make people pick up the paper every week.

The trust factor

Hearne recognizes that the credibility issue is important if his fledgling venture is to succeed, but dismisses suggestions from newspaper executives that Sidewalk can't quickly gain public trust. "Building a local media brand that people trust can be done quickly and much easier than the dailies care to admit," he says. "Look at the alternative weeklies. They've done it on staffs, circulation, and budgets that are a fraction of the dailies' budget. The same for city magazines. ... (Successful) new media brands, both nationally and in local markets, are created on a regular basis."

On the trust issue, he says, "I've read the same line from papers about trust and I think it is rather funny. People trust Microsoft every day -- from their operating system to applications to content tools such as Encarta and Bookshelf. ... Besides, people can sniff out a phony real quick. And they are smart enough to decide for themselves very quickly if you are putting out a strong, honest, useful editorial product."

Hearne says that at his operation, and across the entire Sidewalk operation, managers are firm in their commitment to a "church-state" split between editorial content and advertising. "We're hardcore about it," he says. "Everyone (in Sidewalk) realizes that if you violate the church-state (rule), you will never earn the respect and loyalty of consumers."

As to the Microsoft connection and "trust" issues arising from Sidewalk's corporate parent, Hearne comments: "And aren't the big dailies typically near-monopolistic beasts owned by mega-corporations? And they don't think that their readers know it?"

Hearne sees the introduction of Houston Sidewalk as "adding some spice to the local mix once again" -- especially since the demise of the Houston Post tightened the local media scene. "That's a good thing in everyone's eyes except the guys who have grown used to the idea that they own a city without fear of serious competition." Gee, this Microsoft manager sounds a bit like a combative alternative newsweekly publisher!

The final word

Upon closer examination of Houston Sidewalk, I think we can put to rest the controversial comment by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates of last year, when he claimed that Sidewalk was not hiring newspaper people. Indeed, in markets like Houston's, it may be those hires who largely determine success for a local Sidewalk unit.

Sneaking a peek inside

Military City Online, the online publishing venture from Army Times Publishing Co., has put up an interesting Web site (available also on MCO's area on America Online) of interest to history buffs, military folks and the home-and-garden set, reports MCO director of online content Lee Ewing. Called "Quarters 6: A virtual visit to the historic home of America's senior military officer and his family," it's a "virtual walkthrough" and historic profile of the home of the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. It's one of the government's most historic buildings, where such famous names as Colin Powell, Omar Bradley and George Patton lived during their tenures. (The current residents are Gen. Hugh Shelton and his wife, Carolyn.)

Says Ewing, "Other online newspapers easily could do something similar on cultural and historic attractions in their circulation areas. That's one small way to go beyond 'putting the paper online.'" MCO plans to sell up to three ad sponsorships to support the site.

Contact: Lee Ewing,


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