The reinvention of city guides

Now that they’ve grown up, what have city guides turned out to be?

By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review

What ever happened to city guides?

After staking claims during the mad online land grab of the mid-1990s, a few hardy survivors are still around, though much evolved. Others have morphed into “local networks” or city portals. And still others have given up the ghost, fleeing the space that just a few years ago was being hyped as a bonanza of local advertising riches.

But let’s forgo the usual business stories about content-driven sites hemorrhaging money during the online advertising slump. How are today’s city guides serving their editorial mission?

The answer, in short, is: pretty well, given today’s lowered expectations.

First, a disclosure. I’m a fan of city guides. I used to help run the editorial department of San Francisco Sidewalk during Microsoft’s brief fling with creating local content in 1997-99.

Clashing head on with Citysearch, AOL Digital City, Knight Ridder’s JustGo entertainment guides and a raft of other city guides, Sidewalk set the standard from an editorial standpoint. Each editorial team developed a rich, consumer-friendly database of venues, restaurants, places to go, movies, events, nightlife, sports, visitor guides, interactive features and more.

But from a business perspective, the idea of starting up a network of city magazines, each with as many as 30 to 35 staffers, was a model doomed to fail. And users, for some odd reason, weren’t keen on having Microsoft tell them where to go. In 1999, Microsoft folded its hand and sold Sidewalk to Citysearch.

Mike Gordon, who was Sidewalk’s executive editor, looks back and says: “Sidewalk did a great job of gaining traction with users — it was No. 1 in its category, probably because it was No. 1 in quality of content. I still hear regularly from people who wish Sidewalk was still around.

“It was harder to gain traction on the advertising side. First, back in the ’90s, we just didn’t know as much about Internet advertising as we do know. Second, it’s intrinsically hard to make money selling local online ads on a nationwide scale.”

As city guides have matured, they’ve become smarter about their strengths and limitations. They’ve learned they’ll never compete against local newspapers and broadcasters in covering local news — but they can serve up local weather and snippets of local news and sports headlines. They’ve learned that users want utility and seek out long-lasting “evergreen” content, so it makes more sense to pool resources across all cities rather than go in 20 different directions at once by producing lots of local news “one-offs” that fade into the ether. They’ve learned that offloading the chore of journalism and content creation — to outside partners and free-lancers — makes more sense than creating it in-house.

Now that they’ve figured out what readers want comes the hard part of delivering the goods. The city guides’ relentless focus on utility, ease of use and database-driven search convenience still holds lessons for newspaper sites that cling too closely to the trappings of old media.

We’re still a long way from the promised land — a site whose content and advertising is tailored to each individual’s specific interests. But I think city guides will keep gaining traction in the years ahead as they become more robust and useful in our daily lives.

We’re wired globally, but we live locally.

City guides run the gamut from travel destination sites to city-specific dining guides, but we’ll use the term to refer to sites that provide localized information about venues, events, services and merchants along with editorial commentary. Below we’ll look at Tribune Interactive’s Chicago Metromix, Citysearch and AOL Local. (OJR reported on Knight Ridder’s Real Cities in March and April.)

Metromix: Bringing in a new set of readers

Metromix, a sister site of chicagotribune.com, bills itself as Chicago’s leading entertainment guide, with a searchable database that highlights more than 20,000 events and 15,000 destinations, including more than 9,000 restaurants, 3,000 bars and clubs, 300 galleries and 150 theaters.

Given the core staff of a six full-time employees, that would be hard to pull off, but Metromix uses reviews and write-ups from the Chicago Tribune newsroom, as well as reader contributions (20,000 so far), to build out its site, which won the Newspaper Association of America’s 2001 Digital Edge Award for best city guide and is a finalist again this year.

“I’d hate to be in the standalone city guide business right now,” says David Hiller, president of Tribune Interactive. But tying a city guide like Metromix to the Tribune’s mother ship makes eminent business sense. Because of its distinct identity and market positioning, Metromix attracts a raft of users who wouldn’t normally visit an online newspaper.

“Metromix has demographics that any other medium would die for,” Hiller says. “You’re able to bring this great new young audience and expose them to the Tribune family of products.”

The site draws about 356,000 users a month and its page views have tripled in the past two years to about 6 million.

“Metromix has found a sweet spot in affluent, well-educated users in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic who don’t have kids and live in an urban area — or want to go there — and like to go out a lot,” says Digby Solomon, general manager of Chicago Tribune Interactive.

Whenever possible, Metromix taps into the resources of the print newsroom. To supplement its listing of 9,000 restaurants, the site features 400 reviews by Chicago Tribune food critics. Event listings are a joint effort of Metromix’s editors, stringers and the Trib’s newsroom, resulting in a deeper offering than found on the Chicago pages of Citysearch or AOL Local, Solomon says.

“When people come to our site, they can tell that we know what we’re talking about. It’s not written by somebody based three states away,” he says in a jab at the national city guides that maintain only a token local presence. The Metromix offices are located downtown in the Tribune Tower.

“Citysearch doesn’t really have the flavor of Chicago, and AOL’s Digital City has an increasingly generic feel,” says Leigh Behrens, the site’s editor. “We pay more attention to the editorial crafting of our stories. You have a sense of place on Metromix. We know Chicago best.”

Original content is a big draw

Behrens says the site’s most popular channels are nightlife — most of the stories about bars and clubs are written directly for the site — and restaurants, with thousands of reviews by readers who want to jump right into the conversation. A weekly e-mail newsletter on dining goes out to 25,000 subscribers.

Stage and movies get their share of diehard readers as well. “A review of ‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones’ started a good conversation that sparked reader reviews from all over the world,” she says.

Then there’s “Metromix: the TV Show.” A local cable channel (owned by Tribune Co., natch) runs segments of the Web site’s reports on reader polls and other features. The show drives a fair amount of traffic to Metromix.com. Ah, synergy.

Big annual events swell the site’s readership, too. In 1999 Metromix partnered with city hall to sponsor Cows on Parade — featuring huge fiberglass cow sculptures — which drew local media attention and coverage on the “Today” show. It has sponsored an online charity auction in which readers bid on meals prepared by the city’s top chefs.

Seasonal packages such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve remain big draws. The site’s Interactive Dining Poll every fall draws thousands of entries. And occasionally a Tribune critic writes an exclusive for Metromix, as when a film correspondent wrote an online diary from Sundance.

The site partners with national niche players such as OpenTable for online dining reservations, Vindigo for making Metromix dining and nightlife information available on PDAs, and Moviefone for purchasing movie tickets.

Behrens says one of the most eye-opening aspects of working for a city guide has been the direct communication with the site’s readers. “We get a lot of e-mail about what people like or don’t like. There’s been a real breakthrough with the awareness of our audience and the bond that’s been created.”

The site, launched in 1997 with a dozen staffers to fend off the threat from Sidewalk, has been pared back to an editor, dining producer, nightlife producer, a producer coordinating the movies and events channels, and two listings staffers.

Solomon says: “The cuts had less to do with Sidewalk than with a desire to make our interactive businesses have a more rational size. We don’t need three to four designers to change the look of our site every day. Let’s focus on what we do best online — the utility and usability and the quality of our editorial offerings.

“People see that our strength is well-researched, opinionated content. Nobody pays us to list or highlight their businesses. In this space we’re unique in that regard, and that contributes to readers’ trust in us.”

Road test

We couldn’t resist taking out the city guides for a spin in a side-by-side road test. We scouted out some options for a family outing on Father’s Day this Sunday.

Metromix fared the best, with a Father’s Day page suggesting a music concert, a stroll through botanic gardens, a brew festival, a food and wine fest, a historical tour, a biker brunch spot, a choice of steakhouses, a museum — and a place to get a straight-razor shave.

If only we lived in Chicago, we’d be set.

Citysearch: Establishing a track record of trust

Citysearch has come a long way from its roots in 1996, when it was mostly about setting up storefronts on the Web for local merchants.

Today, the L.A.-based company provides city guides for 128 cities worldwide, seeking to become the ultimate destination for local information. Seven million monthly users visit the site for information about entertainment and arts events, restaurants, movies and local merchants. Some 23 cities now receive more than 1 million plus page views a month, for a total of 105 million monthly page views across the network.

Citysearch’s strong suit is its database of more than 12 million business listings — a sort of Yellow Pages on steroids, with up-to-date listings, directions, user ratings (sometimes) and occasional coupon discounts (8,000 offers nationwide).

Last week I wanted to send flowers to my uncle and aunt in Palm Coast, Florida, for their 65th wedding anniversary. I clicked over the Citysearch, found a florist down the street, ordered a bouquet online, and got a nice thank-you card from Walter and Jean yesterday.

Citysearch launched a redesigned site last month that includes a bit of personalization (it lets you store favorite pages for viewing later), integrated user reviews and ratings, and increased search functionality. Users type in 350,000 keyword searches a day.

“Fundamentally, we’re about solid search functionality and utility at the local level, so you can find a good local mechanic, doctor, florist, park or bar in a listing that’s accurate, timely and complete,” says Briggs Ferguson, who took over as Citysearch’s president in April. “Layered on top of that are editorial reviews and user ratings that let you compare one business or place to another.”

Citysearch has about 400 employees, roughly 60 of them in editorial. The company says it has full-time staffers on the ground in 18 different markets plus a cadre of about 100 local free-lancers. In my back yard, for instance, three editors in Citysearch’s San Francisco office coordinate coverage of restaurants, wineries, events and outings for all of Northern California.

“Our editorial staff is really the voice of the site,” Ferguson says. The editorial staff programs each city’s front page, works on content packages keyed to an editorial calendar, and pulls out best bets into various Best of Citysearch roundups, such as best radio DJ or cheap eats or tattoo parlor.

“We’re still trying to figure out the correct balance between automated feeds vs. editorial programming and between user ratings and what’s offered by the editorial staff,” he says.

A lot of the heavy lifting is now being done by the readers. Last year Citysearch plunged headlong into user ratings, letting people rate and comment on their experiences with everything from restaurants to vacation destinations to veterinarians. The site drew more than 425,000 responses in less than a year.

“It’s notoriously difficult to find an electrician or plumber you can trust,” Ferguson says. “We’re all about giving people the proper decision-making tools.”

Building a reputation for credibility

I mention that in its early days I never trusted Citysearch writeups because they bordered on puff pieces, shilling for local merchants who paid the site’s fare. In the old days there were reports of city guides bending to advertiser pressure and rewriting reviews to make them more positive. Somewhere along the line, Citysearch got the message that its users wanted honest, even-handed consumer journalism.

“We maintain a separation of church and state between editorial and sales,” Ferguson says. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure we’re providing an accurate picture of what consumers think about the business establishments they frequent. If a patron comes to my restaurant and doesn’t have a good experience, as a restaurant owner I’d want to know about that.”

Any registered user can rate or review a restaurant or most of the other 12 million other businesses in the site’s database. Ferguson, for example, thinks readers have been too harsh with Spago, the Beverly Hills celebrity restaurant that currently carries a 7 rating. But the users rule, and Citysearch won’t mess with the rating.

“We don’t want to compromise the consumer experience because people will see right through that,” Ferguson says. “The users will just crucify you if you’re not honest and straightforward, and they can tell because of how transparent our system is. You post a negative comment and you should see it.

“That’s not the case with Zagat, where customer comments go into a black box and out pops a summary that’s massaged and manipulated and perhaps isn’t really reflective of consumers’ opinions. So we feel we’re the No. 1 source for restaurant information. It’s gonna be a hell of a challenge, but you have to take the moral high ground.”

Citysearch, a core business of Ticketmaster, is still losing millions of dollars, though Ferguson says the company is on course to become profitable next year. While the site hopes to more fully integrate the ability to order online tickets, Ferguson says, “we’re pushing on more fundamental things, like expanding our database, keeping our listings accurate and up to date, improving our search functionality and fine-tuning our ratings area.”

I ask him whether he sees Citysearch’s mission as distinctly different from that of local newspapers.

“We’re all in the local information marketplace,” he says, “but newspapers fill a different need. They’re about helping to catch up on what’s happening on a daily basis. Citysearch is more a utility to help you save time and money on the local level. We’re morphing utility and content and giving it a mediaesque quality.

“Are we going after the same consumers? Absolutely. Will city guides steal share or increase the overall local information market so that everyone benefits? I don’t think we know that yet.”

Road test

My family’s in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we figured Citysearch would have a suggestion or two for Father’s Day. A link from the front page took us to a Father’s Day Planner, but it proved to be a no-frills listing of five restaurants. Disappointing.

We ditched their Father’s Day suggestions and cobbled together our own itinerary by cruising through Citysearch’s Wine Country package and roundup of Northern California getaways.

AOL Local: Granddaddy of the city guides gets an overhaul

The new mantra at America Online? Bring local content to its 34 million members, instead of forcing them to go fetch it. So, it’s out with Digital City and in with AOL Local.

Digital City, the granddaddy of city guides, launched in 1995. Back in the olden days, teams of editors streamed across the land, working with local free-lance writers and photographers to produce venue summaries, restaurant reviews, special packages and other features. While its editorial content was thinner than those of other city guides, it had first-mover advantage, a motivated staff, and AOL’s huge jet engines behind it.

Today, the Digital City brand, Web site and staff are still around, but AOL is slowly phasing it out in favor of AOL Local, an approach that brings local content front and center, where it’s featured prominently on AOL 7.0’s Welcome Screen.

“When we launched 7.0 last fall, the No. 1 request we had from members was to integrate local content more tightly into the service,” says AOL spokeswoman Kathie Brockman.

AOL obliged, recognizing that people need information about their own communities as the online medium becomes more central in helping them manage their daily lives.

“We’re moving away from the concept of a destination site and toward the idea of helping consumers go out, make decisions and get things done in their everyday lives as part of their AOL experience,” says Todd Unger, vice president and general manager of AOL Local.

If you’re tooling through AOL’s Auto channel, you’ll see a directory of local auto dealers promoted on the same page. If you’re on an AOL shopping page, you can spot local merchants and make a purchase online. Looking for expert advice? You can see what AOL members who’ve been designated experts by their peers are saying about a product, service or local business.

Last week AOL redesigned its Digital City page, so instead of a list of 58 city guides you can now type in any city name or zip code. How many city guides does AOL offer? “We cover the nation,” Unger says. “You can get guide information in 30,000 communities. The first tier of cities has a full entertainment guide attached. The farther you go out of the metropolitan areas, the more scaled-down it becomes.”

AOL won’t disclose how many employees work for AOL Local. Brockman says AOL Local maintains city offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles “and a few other cities,” although some of them are staffed only by sales reps. Meantime, as this Craigslist job posting last week shows, Digital City is still hiring, though the contract editing jobs pay only $18 to $20 an hour — skimpy by Bay Area standards.

A heavy reliance on partnerships

Editors at AOL Local still work with free-lancers in the field. But much of the content comes from outside partners.

An outfit called Metro Networks provides local news feeds for AOL Local as well as broadcast stations across the country. EventSource provides live events culled from local sources. CNN/SI provides a smidgen of local sports. Moviefone, an AOL Time Warner property, provides movie listings and times.

AOL Local fleshes out that raw data with background, color and staff recommendations. And staff editors produce AOL Weekender, a free weekly newsletter listing local events, getaways, family entertainment, bargains and more, which goes out to 2.5 million recipients.

All in all, it’s a formula that works. AOL Local and DigitalCity combine for about 11 million visitors a month, according to Media Metrix.

Unger remembers the days when much of that content was produced in-house. “We covered 10 cities and we only had movie listings for about half the theaters in those 10 cities,” says Unger, who worked for Digital City in 1997. “Now we have a successful relationship with Moviefone, covering the whole country. That frees up our staff to focus on enhancing our core products rather than having to create everything from scratch.”

Adds a former Digital City editor: “Creating all those events every week was a madhouse. It was like running on a gerbil wheel. It never ended.”

Another change from the old days is that city guides no longer seem to think that news events fall within their purview. When El Niño hit the California coast in 1998, San Diego Sidewalk was all over it. City guides in Denver provided information about emergency services and safety tips during a severe blizzard.

This week, during the worst wildfires in Colorado history, the Denver sites of AOL Local and Citysearch ignore what’s happening in their back yard. It’s all one big happy face.

The former Digital City editor says that’s understandable. “It’s a tradeoff between devoting resources to one-off projects and news coverage versus contributing to the things that city guides do best, like a description of the hot new restaurant in town. They’re different missions.”

Road test

We had a bit of trouble finding Father’s Day activities on both the AOL service and DigitalCity, though AOL didn’t forget a link to Gifts for Dad on its Weekender page early in the week. By today, though, there’s no mention of dear old dad at all.

But a search turned up a hidden Father’s Day page, with some well-considered activities, such as golf, baseball, barbecue and other events.

Modest. Streamlined. Little effort on the editorial side.

On the city guide front, that, apparently, is progress.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT