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Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 30, 2001
(Issue 1913, Ultimate Upgrades)

Two years back, online news was all the rage in San Diego. With AOL opening a Digital City bureau here in town, Microsoft's Sidewalk coming to town, and the Daily Transcript's Source vying with the Union-Tribune's SignOn San Diego for supremacy, online news was more of a battlefield than either TV or newspapers.

Then CitySearch (which is contractually aligned with SignOn) bought out Sidewalk, AOL shuttered its San Diego office, The Source went to subscription status, and it seemed that SignOn would rule local cyberspace unchallenged. Now, though, one of San Diego's network affiliates – KGTV Channel 10 (ABC) – is mounting a full-scale offensive to earn its own place in the online ratings.

(Personal disclaimer: In previous careers, I was the original online editor for the North County Times web site, and then worked two and a half years at SignOn.)

Much as SignOn is able to draw on the Union-Tribune's existing news coverage in preparing its daily report, so seems to have full access to Channel 10's news package. Admittedly, no TV news report – even the ones running a full hour – can every present the depth of information found in a major daily newspaper like the U-T, but (I mean, we need some sort of abbreviation here) comes fairly close.

There are generally a dozen or so local stories every day. Oddly, few of them contain any accompanying video – only a couple. Seeing as nearly every local story presented by Channel 10 has video, the paucity of it online is a bit confusing. Heck, SignOn has as much video as

Nearly as surprising as the lack of video is the high caliber of the writing. Okay, maybe I'm being a newspaper snob here, but I honestly did not expect to find the writing at Channel 10's site to be as good as it is. Will it set the world on fire? Maybe not, but for the most part it's crisp, informative and well-edited.

You have to think that has at least an even chance of carving out a nice audience for itself. has a built-in advantage in being run by an operation that's used to stopping what it's doing to present breaking news. How often do modern-day newspapers print an Extra edition? Maybe when Princess Diana or John F. Kennedy Jr. were killed, but it's become a real rarity. Now, how often do you see even a favorite TV show interrupted with a breaking news story? A lot more often, no?

And this institutional difference between the U-T and KGTV is reflected online. SignOn is not allowed to publish any Union-Tribune stories until after they're in print – so if a huge brush fire breaks out in Santee, say, SignOn either sends its own news staff out to cover it (not a bad option, given the caliber of editors and reporters assembled there) or carries the Associated Press coverage. Ludicrous? Perhaps, but it's not like the U-T is alone in this attitude of not wanting its Web site to "scoop" the printed product; few newspapers publish their stories online before they're in the next day's paper.

If can avoid that mentality and aggressively cover breaking local news stories, they ought to be able to give SignOn a real run for local primacy. And at the worst, might have to sit on a story until it's aired – so you're talking a few hours at most. The 11 p.m. newscast still beats the 5 a.m. thump of the newspaper on your front porch.

It's still too soon to tell whether can break into SignOn's vast audience. At the very least, though, it makes it less likely that the U-T will cut back its investment in SignOn anytime soon – as has happened recently at the Chicago Tribune's Web site.

Regardless of who comes out on top in this incipient battle (and the smart money would have to be on SignOn), local news junkies will be the unquestioned winners.