Enterainment on the web has been a sad story for most newspapers. Too little, too late….and maybe too old. Or maybe not, if the Star Tribune's new vita.mn (get it: Vital or Life, Minnesota) succeeds when publicly launched.
Maybe there's just enough time for newspapers to reclaim a fundamental "things-to-do" franchise and grow it in the age of citizen/eater involvement. One bright light that bears attention: the new stealth-mode, very tag-friendly, user-gen-oriented vita.mn product planned by the StarTribune in Minneapolis. It's unpublicized, but take a sneak peek. Here is its very with-it promise:
Vita.mn is your ultimate guide to what's going on in the Twin Cities, where you can connect with other locals to share thoughts and recommendations on hotspots and happenings. Surf our massive collection of arts and entertainment info to your heart's content, or register and log in to do much more:
- SAVE anything for easy access to the stuff that interests you most ...
- TAG anything with your keywords and descriptions, or see what other users have tagged ...
- Read or contribute RATINGS and REVIEWS for any Twin Cities venue ...
- Read or edit GUIDES to life in the Twin Cities ...
- CONNECT with other vita.mn users who share your interests .
And you gotta love the first entertainment site that uses a domain suffix from Mongolia, the start of a trend (check out the country list for other useful ideas.)
Let's remember how we got here.
Microsoft’s “Sidewalk” and Zip 2’s “Just Go,” burst out the gates in the mid-90s, bringing the huzzahs that only the first dawn of searchable, data-based information could. You could find a concert in a haystack of information. You could attach a movie review to movie theater and a movie time. You could get a capsule restaurant review by cuisine, star rating, or geography. And then the city guide business foundered, as the lack of revenue -- contextual ads weren't around to provide revenue, and local salespeople just couldn’t sell it the product.
Companies stopped putting investment into their "event" platforms, and entertainment products stood still, a backwater of news-oriented sites. At Knight Ridder Digital, we couldn’t even export the substantial information we had when Navteq (premium supplier of data for auto screens and other location-based services) came calling.
Flash forward 10 years later. Sure, there are some bright lights – the Washington Post’s City Guide, advances in the Tribune’s Metromix products, but most newspaper sites don’t make it easy to find the city guide information they’ve already paid for and printed. Still, the city guide function of entertainment sites are stuck: Clunky search, outmoded platforms, lack of contextual connections of events to reviews, little connection to what consumers think about what is going on in their cities.
And on that last point, the next revolution turns, and that's what we can see vita.mn exploring.
Take my road to Iluna Basque, a small, newish restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach.
My route to Iluna Basque told me lots
about the city guides of our time.
I started with OpenTable.com. Not only does it offer easy reservations – no waiting on hold while the reservationist checks and checks and checks. OpenTable also offers a fairly good roster of restaurants in many cities, and it’s been adding links to restaurant reviews on its left nav. The sources vary, a little Gayot, a mediocre, but deep national database, City Search's largely promotional reviews, and some newspaper reviews in some markets.
I searched by cuisine, in this case, tapas/small plates. About 8 restaurants came up. So I checked out the review links. Gayot's and City Search's proved true to form. The surprise: the San Francisco Chronicle's reviews that came up would have been useful -- but they were all dated 2001 or 2002. Four or five years in the life of a restaurant is more than a lifetime. I remember that in the early days of the Web, we'd argue within companies about our standards: was it right to put up reviews more than two years old? Now, where are the standards?
I disregarded the ancient reviews, and went to Google. I chose Iluna Basque because I liked OpenTable's description of it best, but wasn't convinced it was a good place. Then revelation: Yelp, the consumer-generated site that started in San Francisco and has spread throughout the country, popped up numerous times. It turned out there were 64 user-gen reviews of Iluna Basque on Yelp. Browsing through them, most seemed reasonable, detailed and persuasive. Then there was TripAdvisor, the travel user-gen sites. Several more useful reviews there. And four or five other useful, user-gen reviews. All told, maybe close to a hundred user -- eater! -- comments on the restaurant. Sure, some clinkers among them, but give me the choice: 100 user-gen reviews (best aggregated, star-rated, summed-up, etc.) or one 5-year-old local newspaper critic, and the decision is clear.
And the eaters were right. We had a choice post-Pac Bell Park dinner, augmented with well-priced Tempranillo.
So I'll raise my glass to my fellow eaters, and hope that vita.mn works, and that newspaper sites rapidly innovate on the model.