USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Whatever Happened to City Guides?
Whatever Happened to City Guides?
City Guides: An Overview
Metromix: Bringing in a New Set of Readers
Citysearch: Establishing a Track Record of Trust
AOL Local: Granddaddy of the City Guides Gets an Overhaul
Now that they've grown up, what have they turned out to be?

Whatever 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 idea of starting up a network of city magazines, each with as many as 30 to 35 staffers, was a model doomed to fail.

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.

City Guides

? Citysearch
? AOL Local/Digital City
? Chicago Metromix
? Real Cities
? TimeOut
? CNN City Guides
? World Executive
? AZ Central Entertainment Guide
? Washington Post Entertainment Guide
? New York Today
? SF Gate
? SF Station
? Tampa Bay Online
? Access Atlanta
? Hampton Roads

"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.)

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On to Metromix...