Let’s say you surrender to the hype and decide to see The Blair Witch Project. You’re confronted with a few choices in acting on that decision. You could:
A. Fire up your home computer. Wait for it to boot up. Hit your Internet connection. Give it time to hook up. Log onto Netscape or AOL. Navigate your way to a local city service—Microsoft’s Sidewalk, AOL’s Digital City, CitySearch, Yahoo, WashingtonPost.com or WashingtonCityPaper.com. At that point, you’ll mouse around to find the search function, type in “Blair Witch Project,” and wait for the results. Elapsed time: four minutes.
B. Open up to the perfectly searchable database on Page 91 of this paper. Elapsed time: four seconds.
Seems like a simple choice. But it’s going to get a lot more complicated for listings providers—and even simpler for people like you.
Depending on where you punch in, the Web is already a transparent part of the work environment. People don’t even speak in terms of “surfing the Web” anymore—it’s just one more function on the desktop, because T1 connections make search engines respond just as quickly as any other application. Within two to three years, many homes in the Washington area will be just as seamlessly integrated with the Web. The impending arrival of cable modems, enhanced phone lines, and other as-yet-uninvented doodads means that the Web—and all its rich veins of data—will be just one more feature of your television or your home computer.
And on that day, the online search for Blair Witch showtimes will be measured in seconds, not minutes.
There will be more waiting for you once you’re there, too. On a good local arts and entertainment site, you’ll learn that Blair Witch is sold out days in advance and save yourself a trip to the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle. Thus informed, you’ll reserve your ticket for a future day with just one more click—or search other theaters in the region for an available seat so you don’t have to wait. If you’re interested in where the hype came from, you’ll drill into the site, read reviews, or follow links to the myriad Blair Witch Web pages and discussion groups. You’ll even be able to see the director’s diary, penned while he watched the film become a phenomenon at Sundance. (It’s a fun peek into the eye of the hurricane, btw—http://home.earthlink.net/-stickman7/.)
Contemplating a Saturday night filled with options courtesy of a Web-based personal appointments secretary is enough to turn anyone into a future-dork. Strange, then, that now that the bold digital realm of options is here, Microsoft’s Sidewalk—arguably the best-built, easiest-to-use city service—is dropping out of sight.
Last week, the software behemoth announced that it was selling its online entertainment guide to one of its biggest competitors—Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch Inc. (TMCS). In exchange, Microsoft will receive an estimated $238 million in stock, or roughly 9 percent of the outstanding shares of TMCS. (Microsoft maintains that the value of the deal is more like $400 million.) Nationally, that means that most Sidewalk sites will become CitySearch sites. But because the Washington Post already has an agreement to share technology, traffic, and revenues with TMCS, once Sidewalk shuts down here—reportedly on Oct. 31—the content and the traffic will be poured into the Post’s site.
Two years ago, newspapers were terrified by the Microsoft incursion. Big media and software companies were queuing up for the opportunity to tell you where to eat because delivering that kind of content attracts a demographic sweet spot. If CEO Bill Gates built a big enough tribe, the logic went, it represented a threat to classified advertising, which had been a steady print revenue stream for years. eBay had already proved that people have no compunction about buying and
selling stuff online, so dailies like the Post and weeklies like the Washington City Paper scurried
City Paper has poured a small amount of resources and a lot of energy into an idiosyncratic, if not overwhelmingly useful, site. Recent redesigns have increased both the site’s utility and its traffic, but it still doesn’t have the kind of e-commerce overlay that typically draws and keeps surfers.
The Post, on the other hand, responded ferociously to the digital assaults—first via a proprietary site that was a massive, expensive failure, and then with the hiring of Marc Teren from Disney, who came in and announced a jihad to protect the Post’s local franchise. The Post has
200 Arlington-based employees building its digital presence, and it services
2 million customers a month. And the Posties couldn’t be more thrilled by the turn of events. Microsoft is out of the market, the Post now owns its content, and they have a cooperative agreement with TMCS, the industry leader.
“We are pleased to see that local newspapers have been able to establish a relevance that Microsoft realized was difficult to compete with in the online space,” says Erin O’Shea Starzynski, communications director for WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive, doing her best not to gloat. “I think the Web is no different than other mediums to the extent that people are going to seek out trusted sources of information that they feel comfortable relying on,” she says.
This isn’t the first time Gates has been handed his lunch on the Web. Gates has been behind the curve of implications since the Internet began exploding beyond its nerd-hobbyist origins. In his 1996 book, The Road Ahead, he suggested that the Internet was just one more component of the infohighway and suggested that CD-ROMs, in which Microsoft was heavily vested at the time, would play just as important a role. Oops. But Microsoft has played steady catch-up with its popular Carpoint, MoneyCentral, and Expedia components. The company’s Microsoft Network site is the third most-visited kingdom in the digital realm. So how to explain his decision to dump Microsoft’s city service—getting out of Dodge just about the time that Dodge seems like the place to be?
“We are not saying goodbye to this business. We are still a partner. With Sidewalk, we built a successful business, and one of the times when it’s good to sell a business is when it is successful,” says Kevin Wueste, who ran Sidewalk nationally and is now general manager of commerce and services at Microsoft. “Although we were the leading site nationally in this category, we failed to monetize targeted consumers in those markets.” What that means is that Microsoft didn’t have the ability of a company like Ticketmaster to draw immediate and steady revenues from visitors through ticket sales. Ad-based revenue streams alone wouldn’t support something as expensive as Sidewalk, which Wueste estimates costs approximately $50 million a year.
Gates is folding up an operation once perceived as a category killer for a bunch of reasons. Most importantly, it’s doubtful that local guides will ever yield the kind of 40 percent-plus profit margins that Microsoft and its shareholders are used to. Producing and updating local content is harder and more expensive than Microsoft first surmised. And it turns out that people don’t go to the Web for content in droves anyway. Content is not king; commerce is—and Sidewalk lacked the transactional capability of Ticketmaster’s local guide. It’s a simple, powerful formula: See an event, buy a ticket. People go on the Web because it has value added: Not only can you find out about stuff, you can do something about it. By selling out, Microsoft can go back into businesses it monopolizes and not worry about finding freelancers who can tell you which restaurant has the best buffalo wings.
When Microsoft came into the market, it scooped up a lot of talent by offering decent salaries and an opportunity for content providers to ride the wave of the future. (Nationally, all but 70 of 170 people currently working will be out of a job when Microsoft’s Sidewalk goes dark.) They bought cred by buying names you’d recognize, like Brett Anderson, who does the Young & Hungry column for City Paper. Back then, the threat was big enough to print providers like City Paper and the Post that we ended up having exploratory discussions about getting into bed with each other. A lot of time and energy at our organization and at the Post went into defending the franchise against Big Bad Bill.
“I think that Microsoft’s Sidewalk was the best thing that ever happened to print outlets,” says Mark Potts, an Internet publishing consultant who works with the Post’s dot-com component. “It provided a much-needed wake-up call.”
By Potts’ lights, Sidewalk was a good, well-executed idea whose time had come. And although Microsoft had the wherewithal to wait out the future, it didn’t have the patience. “They got it right,” Potts says. “I was surprised how good their site was—[Post] readers used it. But they didn’t promote it well—they just sort of took a build-it-and-they-will-come approach, and that’s silly. They never gave the market a chance to find the product. Microsoft entered a very competitive market with many established brands, and they should have known it was going to take lots of time to become competitive.”
Potts also believes that Microsoft was caught off guard by the amount of lifting the start-up took. “[At the Post], we had a lot of the content already, and it was still brutal to get the site up and running. They had to build the database from scratch, so you could imagine how much more brutal that is going to be. And they had to do it over 30 cities in order to make it attractive to national advertisers, and you could imagine what kind of challenge that represents,” he adds.
Still, “I think they blew a big advantage here. Newspapers had ceded the field to them because they were so slow in getting going. You can build brand on the Web. Amazon and others have proved that. If Sidewalk had been given a chance, I think they eventually would have had a real great component to their national network,” Potts says.
Lisa Allen, who follows Microsoft for Forrester Research, thinks Gates is right and Potts is wrong. “It’s very appropriate for them to move out of local city guides and focus on their core competencies. They do some things very well, including developing technical applications, and selling off Sidewalk gives them a graceful exit from a business they were having trouble in….They did not have what people wanted. If you had a choice between having the opportunity to read about an event and then the ability to act on it vs. a site where all you can do is read about it, you will go to the former. And Microsoft saw that,” says Allen.
AOL—another technological behemoth that is investing heavily in city sites—might find out the same thing. But Digital City, as its guides are called, lack the editorial credibility of Sidewalk, and have spotty listings to boot. (Full disclosure moment—City Paper is currently negotiating with AOL to provide it a limited amount of content in exchange for other considerations.) AOL did not return phone calls asking for comment on Microsoft’s exit from the field.
For people looking to fill up a weekend, browsing a print medium that has the flora and fauna of entertainment options in both ad and editorial manifestations is a much more typical behavior. You might see a movie if Ebert’s thumb in a print ad catches your attention, or if our Mark Jenkins actually likes it, or if one of the editor’s picks in the Post Weekend section catches your eye. Or maybe, on the way to the movies, you’ll spot a bar listing mentioning that your secret favorite band is playing right down the street. At some point, that model will be credibly replicated on the Web. When it comes to making choices about a broad array of entertainment options, readers don’t just want options—they want advice. Bill Gates apparently decided that they didn’t want it from him.
Cheaper by the Inch What does $37 million get you? How about 1,200 inches in the Post? George Dubayew, who has yet to garner a vote in his quest for the presidency, is getting an unprecedented seven-day ride in the capital’s paper of record. We may not know where he stands on affirmative action or Kosovo, but we are apprised that he was “a pint-size pied piper they called ‘Bushtail,’ always leading his gang on adventures.” The endless hagiography defies description, but “gooey, ill-conceived, and freakishly premature” might be a good place to start.(The series’ revelation about Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard gambit wasn’t really a revelation. The Los Angeles Times had it first.) Post Managing Editor Steve Coll says it’s all part of the plan: “This political cycle is occurring earlier than past ones, and we made a decision to be the first to undertake deep biographical reporting of all the major candidates….I want us to be the leading political newspaper in the country, and there is a real appetite for biography in the American political narrative. [In the past], we have always waited for the votes to be counted, and we thought that it would be appropriate instead to do serious reporting on all the chapters of his life and that of the other major candidates.” Coll added that Bush’s positions on the issues, or lack of them, is manifest in the daily coverage of the candidate. Judging by the wall-to-wall JFK Jr. coverage, the Post has a profound institutional soft spot for presidential sons who make like Prince Hal and set down their tankard of mead in order to assume the mantle of adulthood. —David Carr
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