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AOL Local: Granddaddy of the City Guides Gets an Overhaul
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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.

"Creating all those events every week was a madhouse. It was like running on a gerbil wheel. It never ended."

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.

Two weeks ago 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? Unger won't talk numbers. "We cover the nation," he 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.

AOL also doesn't disclose how much Digital City is losing each quarter. Last summer it folded Digital City into its AOL Interactive Services Group.
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 Digital City 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 Ni?o 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.

Last week, during the worst wildfires in Colorado history, the Denver sites of AOL Local and Citysearch ignored 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 Digital City, though AOL didn't forget a link to Gifts for Dad on its Weekender page early last week. But by Thursday there was no mention of dear old dad at all.

A search did turn 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.