CHICAGO SITES HIT MIDDLE GROUND: DESIGN ARE EITHER TOO PLAIN OR OVER-THE-TOP WITH APPLICATIONS

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Chicago is a very middle city. Not too big, not too small. Not too East, not too West. Not too boring, but not too active, either.

So why is it the media sites here are so skewed to the polar extremes of 1995 text and 1998 over-belled interfaces?

On the far side of the spectrum is the MSNBC-like front end of the Chicago Tribune's site (chicagotribune.com). By trying to act unlike a Web site and more like a stand-alone app, the Tribune gains some points for style. Especially since the look is still a clean one without too much jumping all over the screen. On the other hand, it's sometimes difficult to find what you're looking for, especially if you're coming to a local media site looking for local news -- but that's a common complaint about the Trib as a whole. However, once you do find it, the Trib does a nice job of packaging articles, multimedia extras and related stories.

The other problem is that Tribune Co. has diversified its Web interests, making it harder to find info.

TOO MANY TRIB SITES?

Besides WGN radio, WGN-TV and the Tribune, this Chicago media giant also has a major stake in Digital City (all its sites) and an entertainment site called Metromix (www.metromix.com). The Tribune's best interests are served by the integration of all these sites, but that isn't always the most intuitive way for the reader to find information and find it fast. That seems odd for an industry that has been dealing with issues of presenting information efficiently since, well, the printing press was invented.

All of this will surely shake itself out at some point. Tribune Co. is clearly throwing a lot of money behind its interactive products. At some point it's sure to find a business model and stick with it, but that point hasn't quite come yet.

On the other side of the spectrum is the Chicago Sun-Times (www.suntimes.com). It's everything the Trib is not, for good or bad. Text. Lots of it. A simple user interface without any of the elegance of a Yahoo!. It's also all repurposed from the paper. So you'd think it would be simple to find what you're looking for and simple to come back to it later. But you'd be wrong on both counts. One major pet peeve with the Sun-Times' site is that articles don't have a unique and unchanging Web address. Which means that if you find a story and try to bookmark it for reference or link to it, it's probably not there later.

A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE

For pure utility, Chicagoans tend to turn to the Reader, both online and in print. The Reader, published by Chicago Reader, is widely known for its comprehensive entertainment listings and apartment classifieds, as well as links to syndicated favorites such as its "Straight Dope" column. For anyone looking for something to do in the city, this is where they turn. It takes the areas of the paper that would translate best to the Web, and leaves its long in-depth features where they belong -- in print.

A LEG UP ON APARTMENT SEARCHES

Online should be no different. The first feature debuted on its Web site (www.chireader.com) was SpaceFinder, a searchable (let me repeat: searchable) database of the Reader's apartment listings. Savvy surfers can get a leg up on their hunts by checking into the site, which is updated Tuesday nights with the new listings for Thursday's paper.

This feature, easily one of the site's biggest draws, is somewhat undercut by the banner ad on an otherwise text-based home page for the Apartment Zone, a rental agency that boasts "Chicago's coolest apartment listing Web site." A questionable sales decision for sure.

The radio stations also wind up on one side of the design dial or the other. Take two of the more popular stations on the FM dial. Alt-rock powerhouse, Q101 (WKQX) and somewhat formatless WXRT. Q101 follows the Tribune model, but to excess. An overly flashy/blinky design that's full of news, concert announcements, etc., but the content sometimes gets lost in the noise.

WXRT is far less glamorous, but with the same sort of content. Both stations have partnerships with various content partners such as JamTV to feed music news through their sites.

NO CLEAR LEADER

As for some of the national/local sites, there is no clear winner. Perhaps that is due in part to some longstanding Chicago sites that were building loyalty long before the likes of Microsoft Corp. ever got into the game.

Sidewalk Chicago has been in the works for years but has not surfaced. Dive-in partnered with an independent site, Centerstage (centerstage.net), which was already well established as a catchall entertainment guide. Centerstage takes the added step of structuring its listings along a well-traveled route, but an under-used metaphor. It set up a virtual map of Chicago's public transit light-rail system, the El, and has stop-by-stop guides to restaurants, clubs, etc.

And for music listings, nothing beats Andy Lester's Shows List, which began as a bulletin board system, moved to e-mail when that became a bit more pervasive and can now be located on the Web as well (www.chicagomusic.com). It was begun as and -- still is -- a free weekly service for Chicago's pop music lovers.

UNDER-MARKETED

One thing almost all these sites have in common is that they are under-marketed. The Reader's functionality gets great word-of-mouth, and probably does the most to help build its brand both online and offline.

Another commonality is that none of the sites is an obvious moneymaker for its parent company. The major media sites tend to lack banners from the big-spender ad categories or co-branded partnerships, and those without offline products generating revenue behind them have a hard time landing sponsors.

It's getting old to say this is a young medium. The more quickly the local media sites figure that out, hammer out a business plan that grows their business -- even if that means spending more on their sites initially -- and package it all in a way that readers find useful, the better off we'll all be.

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