It's getting to be bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-way into L.A. At least two dozen local-content Web sites are jockeying to be the default city-guide portal for the vast, and vastly segmented, Los Angeles market.
The sites most tailored to L.A. residents include the online companions of local newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations. Most of the national city guide Web syndicates are here. The one that isn't, Microsoft Corp.'s Sidewalk, is on the way, sources say.
Yahoo!'s Los Angeles site is an all-links format with no original content. America Online brings la.digitalcity.com to the market. It's very functional and broad, but not especially deep on details of events.
L.A. TIMES CALENDAR IS WINNER
The clear content winner in the Southland market is the Los Angeles Times Calendar Live!, which taps the vast resources of the region's print media giant.
The Times' calendar site has recently affiliated with CitySearch, a Pasadena, Calif.-based city-guide content company that is preparing for an initial public offering.
Calendar Live! General Manager Stan Holt has a staff of 10 plus 40 to 50 free-lancers.
"This is a tough market," said Mr. Holt. "L.A. is so spread out. It's hard enough to have thorough coverage in a focused market like San Francisco, but there are so many more nodes here."
Mr. Holt says the L.A. city-guide battle will come down to two things: comprehensiveness and quality. "People are realizing, or re-realizing, just how expensive it is to create good content."
The big dogs are being challenged the little ones. The I Love L.A. site is a one-woman operation.
Its creator, Jennifer Godwin, has assembled a site consisting entirely of links, but this is a wonderful collection of soul-of-the-city archives, including walking tours, photos and even sites of murders and airplane crashes.
AGGRESSIVE NEWS REPORTING
New Times is a newcomer to the local weekly alternative newspaper scene, going against the well-established LA Weekly. Both offer deep entertainment and dining listings, take an aggressive approach to news reporting and eschew the urge to ally with third-party content providers.
Both appreciate the quirky story: buying pot in L.A. at 4 a.m. (LA Weekly) or visiting a former gang-banger now a stand-up comic (New Times).
Glenn Gaslin, editor of the New Times site, says the difference between his site and the rest of the city-guide pack is the content
"Our traffic is based on our articles, not on what people want to have for dinner tonight," he said.
Most of the city guides, he adds, "are just a big list with nothing on top. No personality. No attitude."
PECCANT PUBLIC OFFICIALS
To be sure, content on the New Times site is packed with attitude. Reporter Jill Stewart writes as if holding a can of Raid in her hand, sniffing out peccant public officials. She often writes about the L.A. school board, recently calling the board chair "incompetent" and "dumb as a rock."
New Times has been on the Web about a year, but finding the site isn't easy; it's not linked to the major search engines.
"Just getting listed is one of the hardest things any of us has to do," says Mr. Gaslin.
But once people find the site, "They learn to trust you, they get used to your voice and they want to hang out with you."
Creating comfortable Web hangouts seems to be the strategy at several major Los Angeles radio and TV properties.
TV station sites are also mainly news-based, with listings and lifestyle content. KCBS-TV assumes the brassier Web identity of Channel 2000, having partnered with Minneapolis-based Internet Broadcasting System.
Some material is original; some comes from alliances with content partners such as the Los Angeles Times and Pacific Bell SmartPages.
KABC-TV offers local bylines for breaking news, but also imports much guide material from content syndicates. For example, kids' content comes from Walt Disney Co.'s Family.com and recipes from Mr. Food, part of the HomeArts Network owned by Hearst Communications.
LOCAL WEB GUIDE
The local Web guide is a type of detail-heavy service journalism, said Mr. Holt of Calendar Live!
And gathering detail means investing in content.
"It's the little parks, the school events, the special screenings of `Gone With the Wind' before the re-release, the volleyball tournaments and special fairs," Mr. Holt says
"You can't go out and buy these listings. It is expensive to list all these things. But if you have a critical eye, you can tell the good guides from everybody else by how much effort they make to get the schedules and assemble the lists."
Sam Maddox is a free-lance writer based in Westlake Village, Calif.
Copyright July 1998, Crain Communications Inc.