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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Media Giants Create Web Gateways   

"Portals" provide local news, shopping, chat rooms and more.

By David Carlson
David Carlson is a former AJR new-media columnist.     

WHEN THE BOSTON GLOBE created Boston.com in 1995, there were quite a few Web-centric folks who were skeptical.
The Globe, instead of striking out solely to establish its newspaper brand on the Web, chose to create a regional online site and--horror of horrors--offered to let all Boston media become a part of it. This ran against the prevailing thinking among newspaper companies adventurous enough to be creating Web sites in 1994. They were there to battle their traditional competitors, just as they had done on the streets of America for more than 100 years. Each struck out on its own and jealously guarded its Internet "space. "
The result, of course, is history. Boston.com links to virtually every media company in the greater Boston area, including six TV stations, 12 radio stations and eight magazines--more than 60 "partners, " as the Globe calls them. The site serves up 29.4 million page views a month to 4.8 million visitors, according to its media guide.
I guess you could say the skepticism has abated. Now, five years later, some of the biggest players in newspaper Web sites are moving in a similar direction.
There was no accepted term for what the Globe did in 1994, but there is a word for it now: portal.
Just what is a portal? My dictionary says it's "a doorway, entrance, or gate, especially one that is large and imposing. " Web portals are intended to be exactly that: starting points for computer users when they surf.
Since April, online sites for Dow Jones & Co., the New York Times Co., the Washington Post Co. and Knight Ridder have announced their intentions to become portals. Cox Interactive Media embarked on the strategy three years ago. The question is, why?
The theory is this: If a portal offers enough services in a single place, its online audience will grow, convincing advertisers to buy more space. That was the general thought put forward by executives of the Post, the Times and Knight Ridder at the annual Mid-Year Media Review, a meeting of publishers and Wall Street analysts held in New York in June.
"Consumers want and need a convenient entry into the entire local online information and commercial marketplace, " said Alan G. Spoon, president and chief operating officer of the Washington Post Co. "We want to be the first stop on everyone's electronic journey to Washington. " The Post's revamped Web site is expected to expand and make easier to find such features as online retailing, entertainment listings, neighborhood news, classifieds and Post content.
The Times' new portal will "allow our upscale audience to use the Internet to obtain high-quality information in a variety of content areas, " New York Times Co. President and CEO Russell T. Lewis was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.
While Lewis didn't elaborate, most Web portals try to become a "home " to users by offering at least four major services: e-mail, chat areas where users can exchange ideas, shopping, and directories of categorized links to other sites.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News, owned by the A.H. Belo Corp., and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a Knight Ridder property, announced they are combining resources to create a regional portal called dfw.com. The site will carry the classifieds of both newspapers, offer links to more than 6,000 local Web sites and "be well-positioned as the one-stop-shop resource for the area, " the companies said. It will be hosted on Knight Ridder's Real Cities Network, which aims to have regional portals in the top 25 U.S. markets.
This portal rage is nothing new. Dozens of major Internet players have been establishing portals for almost as long as Boston.com has been around. Microsoft adopted the strategy with the Microsoft Network and Sidewalk, its city sites and entertainment information. (It is selling off the entertainment portion of its city guides.) Yahoo! is perhaps the ultimate portal; it also owns GeoCities, a series of "neighborhoods " where users can create free home pages. Dozens of other portals include Snap.com, the Lycos Network and Netscape's NetCenter.
The motivation for creating them is simple: All of the 10 most popular Web sites are portals, according to Nielsen//NetRatings and Media Metrix, two Internet measurement companies. As for newspapers becoming involved, "It's a recognition that they need to move beyond the news, " Lauren Rich Fine, a publishing industry analyst at Merrill Lynch, told AP. "People don't only want the local news--they want more entertainment listings and other services. "
My opinion? The shift to portals indicates an important change of mind-set. To be successful, online newspapers must be more than newspapers online.