Web Sites

Where the Sidewalk Ends

What’s wrong (and right) with the online city guides.

Before I indentured myself to Microsoft and its stock options, I worked for a publication called the Washington City Paper. The City Paper is what journalists pretentiously call an “alternative weekly” and what everyone else calls a “rag.” It’s a free paper, full of listings and reviews, that can be picked up from bookstores and restaurants on Thursday evenings, and from gutters and trash piles on Friday morning. When I started working at City Paper, I assumed that the only reason anyone ever took a copy was its listings, which were comprehensive and quirky. But after a few weeks I realized that I had it wrong. The listings are secondary. Washingtonians read City Paper because City Paper cares so intensely about Washingtonians–their local art, their local politics, their local controversies. Like any decent local paper, it views the city as the place of man’s highest achievement, of clashing ideas, power struggles, great ambitions. City Paper’s staffers are obsessed with their city. Whenever there was a movie with D.C. street scenes, our critic invariably devoted the bulk of his review to nit-picking about the film’s bogus geography. City Paper’s readers are both fiercely loyal and fierce: Every week the letters column fills with complaints from people who have been mortally offended. Almost every city in America has a publication like this, a paper that is parochial in the best possible way.

I thought about this recently as I was surfing through online city guides, the Web’s latest Next Big Thing. Internet tycoons have a new model for urban journalism, and it’s an ambitious one. Online city guides are meant to be category killers, a challenge to daily newspapers, alternative papers, city magazines, the Yellow Pages, and even ticket brokers. Online listings and reviews are going be more comprehensive, searchable, personalizable, and up-to-date than those in any print publication. Their designers want you to plan your entire weekend from your computer–read movie and food reviews, find the closest theater and show times, book reservations, buy tickets, and even print a map to the restaurant. During the past two years alone, CitySearch, a well-capitalized firm based in Pasadena, Calif., has opened sites for 10 North American cities, and more are on the way. Its chief rival, Microsoft, has launched its city guide, Sidewalk, in Seattle, New York, Boston, and the Twin Cities, and has plans to expand. Yahoo! and AOL’s Digital City cover most major metro areas. Daily and alternative newspapers are striking deals with the Internet services. (New York Sidewalk, for example, buys listings from the Village Voice, while CitySearch has made partnerships with the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.) The print outlets are also competing with their own cyberpartners. So the industry is crowded. In New York alone, Sidewalk, CitySearch, Total New York, New York Now, Yahoo!, the Village Voice, Time Out (registration required), Paper, and H/X are battling for online supremacy.

(I mentioned Sidewalk. Pause for full disclosure. I have embarrassingly large conflicts of interest in this story. Microsoft publishes both Sidewalk and Slate, and pays my salary. Sidewalk and Slate are headquartered in the same part of the Microsoft campus in Redmond. I also have a good friend who works for Sidewalk in New York. Oh, and I interviewed for the editor’s job at Washington Sidewalk.)

Give credit where it’s due. The utility of the online sites is high. The best of the guides–Sidewalk and CitySearch in New York–are very useful. Their listings are extensive enough to sate even the most jaded Manhattanite. Restaurants are catalogued by the thousands, and reviewed, competently, by the hundreds. Essentially all movies, plays, concerts, exhibits, readings, performances, and sports contests in the New York area are listed. All events get the basics (time, cost, location), most are accompanied by a brief description, and a hefty chunk are capsule-reviewed. Maps and directions are plentiful. The search engines are a breeze. You want to see Air Force One? A few mouse clicks locate the closest theater, show times, and a review. The most obscure events are found easily: Two minutes of surfing turned up a gastronomical walking tour of Chinatown, a place to rent boats for a lunch-hour sail, and a recitation of Beowulf, accompanied by medieval harp. Sidewalk and CitySearch are customizable: You tell them your preferences–German opera, Thai restaurants, action movies, Pablo Picasso–and they’ll send e-mail about events you’d like.

Sidewalk and CitySearch aren’t flawless, though. They shortchange the outer boroughs. I queried both for kosher restaurants in Queens–a county with 238,000 Jews and many Jewish restaurants–and turned up only a single eatery, a kosher Chinese place. Both sites are mildly buggy. Sidewalk’s maps tend to crash or load without street names. The greatest annoyance: Neither site enables you to buy tickets or make reservations online. But these technical glitches will be solved. CitySearch is about to start selling Ticketmaster tickets on its sites. (Sidewalk, on the other hand, is engaged in a nasty legal battle with Ticketmaster, and probably won’t be able to strike a similar deal.) The personalization software will improve. And as computers get faster and smaller, the online guides will be as convenient as magazines and newspapers.

A nd yet something is missing from this new city journalism–namely, the city. The online sites are mass-market operations, and they are infected with an inoffensive corporate blandness. They ignore politics. The editorial content is limited to capsule reviews and short, cheerleading columns about yuppiedom. The city sites are untouched by the grit and idiosyncrasy that define urban living. (Sidewalk’s movie reviews are pablum provided by Cinemania, for God’s sake. Couldn’t Microsoft afford a local reviewer?) The Sidewalks of New York, Boston, the Twin Cities, and Seattle even look exactly the same, stamped out by a cookie cutter at Microsoft headquarters. New York CitySearch and New York Sidewalk are based in Manhattan, but they could have been prepared in Pasadena or Redmond for all that they feel like the Big Apple.

The online guides, in search of the largest, richest, entertainment-hungriest audience, have an image of the city that is deeply depressing. Alternative and daily newspapers conceive of the city as a place of controversy and passion. The online guides see it strictly as a place of consumption. What is a city? The receptacle for your disposable income. The only urban problem to which the online guides have the answer is: “Where should we eat dinner?”