If there’s one common quality among media-marinated New Yorkers, it’s this: the fastest way to their hearts is through the byline. The roster of contributors to AOL’s flagship local guide, Digital City NY, launched this week, is therefore intentionally spectacular, including ex-Daily News editor Pete Hamill with a weekly column on city life, playwright Wendy Wasserstein on her favorite urban oases, monologuist Spalding Gray on his exile to Long Island, and coverage of the Alley from the editors of @NY.
But the two most important names aren’t on the marquee. Wharton grad John Borthwick and ex-Time writer Guy Garcia were a pair of entrepreneurs with a company name, an available living room, and an excess of vision back in the fall of 1994. Bestowed a tidy sum from a brain-surgeon friend, they launched a production house for Web properties called WP Studio and within the year unveiled the edgy, Downtown scene guide Total New York and the art laboratory ada ‘web. From the beginning, Garcia and Borthwick perceived a need for name-brand contributors, and their sites have featured Sting, Jenny Holzer, and Carlos Fuentes.
AOL execs may not have always understood ada’s user-hostile interfaces or Total’s gritty style, but they admired (and wanted a piece of) the creators’ ambition. Last February, the Digital City division of the Vienna, Virginia, juggernaut purchased WP Studio to lead the development on AOL’s own local NYC guide, the model for a planned national rollout of dual AOL/Web guides later this year. Rechristening their company Digital City Studio, Borthwick and Garcia went to work shaping AOL’s most massive content project for its biggest subscriber market (800,000 in the New York area).
Despite the influx of money into online city guides, it’s not yet clear there’s an audience. Microsoft’s Sidewalk, launched last May, went through a national staffing reduction last week, shaving off three to four staffers from each of their 10 local efforts to “allow for more efficiencies on the business side,” according to Eric Etheridge, executive producer of the site (to which the Voice contributes listings information). Undaunted, the other major venture CitySearch (newyork.citysearch.com), flush with investments from The Washington Post, Intel, the Home Shopping Network, and others and partnered locally with Time Out NY, expects to be in 27 cities by the end of 1998.
AOL chose to hold back until now, but the waiting wasn’t pretty. Digital City NY is a significant upgrade from the paltry offerings in AOL’s current WebGuide local information service, which Borthwick and Garcia helped set up last year. Flavorless categories and editorially suspect listings (DC Studio’s own TotalNY gets a rave) make WebGuide basically brochure material, but with a planned obsolescence: Digital City NY cannibalizes and augments the WebGuide database.
More tellingly, DCNY explores avenues “that Sidewalk and CitySearch haven’t touched,” says Borthwick–reader-generated reviews and “neighborhoods” of user content. And while Sidewalk has a cache of talented scribes, they’re not selling them with the same brio.
But in Digital City Studio’s rush to go mainstream, how long will AOL tolerate its eddies TotalNY and ada ‘web? Garcia assures that the quirkier sites will continue publishing, though the top editors from TotalNY and ada ‘web have already been inculcated as art and film “critics” on DCNY–suggesting an editorial siphoning that could easily turn into simple consolidation. One staffer who has worked on the ancillary DC Studio says AOL is keeping them on as “R&D” and won’t meddle. “AOL’s like a stodgy but avuncular relative living in a nearby town, who you stay in touch with, you’re very nice to, but don’t actually have to spend too much time with. When you do, it’s to play show-and-tell.” For Garcia and Borthwick, their work–and reputations–are now up for public trial. You can be sure that relative is watching damn closely.
Click the Vote
It’s a common pathology of tech journalism: a heralded new product never materializes, slinking into “vaporware.” But when the smoke and mirrors wander way beyond the trade press, a little follow-up is in order.
Take “online elections.” Last fall, both CyberTimes and Hotwired fawningly covered the planned Costa Rican Internet voting system, which was to be implemented for their national elections on February 1. Based on Project Bosnia (which is also adrift), the Costa Rica initiative–a joint effort among the Villanova University School of Law, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Center for Information Law and Policy–was intended to help solve one of the roiling inefficiencies of the country’s election process. Currently, the government pays for a massive busing system to get its citizens to a legal ballot box because, under Costa Rican law, voting is mandatory, and if citizens haven’t registered to vote in the region where they live, they have to return to their birthplace. The plan was to test online voting in four or five sites, using trained children to teach the adults how to use the computers.
Though the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal backed it initially, they pulled their support for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to the Americans on the project. AT&T researcher Lorrie Cranor, who worked on the election’s security issues, ventured that the government “was fearful that the losing party would try to appeal because of it–that doing [the Net elections] could disrupt the rest of the election.”
No surprise. Online elections haven’t been tested anywhere yet, and the chances that they would succeed in a “developing” nation with little computer literacy were slim at best. In fact, Project Costa Rica barely made it off the white boards before it was nixed. Its advocates now hope to attempt a national test in 2002.
The End of Op-Eds?
CyberTimes, the technology-centered and original-reporting hub of the New York Times Web site, is undergoing a significant overhaul, including deep-sixing some of its 10 (count ’em 10) columns, which were the bedrock of the site. To avoid duplication with the Times’s new consumer electronics section and Web site Circuits, launching next month, CyberTimes will more fully develop individual features, and, say sources, is considering moving to a newsbyte format like that of CNet’s news.com.
CyberTimes may never have been as relevant as its print version, but coverage in the two-year-old “Digital Metropolis” column–slated to be cut–had legitimized many Alley firms. CyberTimes editor John Haskins says, “We want to expand our tech coverage and see how to use the people differently. We haven’t let anyone go yet.”
“It’s troubling to see them give up,” said one source involved in the changes. “They shouldn’t try to be CNet–it’s a terrible dilution of a great journalistic tradition.”
Signal and Noise