December 24, 1998
Well-Read on Web
By MATTHEW MIRAPAULDENIS DUTTON spotted a window of opportunity on the World Wide Web, but instead of opening a portal for the masses, he installed a porthole for intellectuals.
Mr. Dutton is the publisher of Arts & Letters Daily, a Web site intended to serve as an on-line starting point for cerebral browsers. Started in October, the site is really just a single, regularly updated page with links to about 75 carefully chosen articles, essays and book reviews residing elsewhere on the Internet (www.cybereditions.com/aldaily).
Current selections, culled from the on-line editions of academic journals, foreign magazines and dozens of other publications, include a British critic's witty dismissal of the best-selling novel "The God of Small Things" and political commentary by the author Salman Rushdie.
"There is emphatically not that much good writing available for free on the Web," Mr. Dutton said. "But what little is there can be a source of pleasure for readers who like the arts, ideas and debate."
Mr. Dutton, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, asserted that Arts & Letters Daily is a "portal," a hot concept in Web commerce these days. The term describes sites like Yahoo and the Walt Disney Company's new Go Network that strive to provide well-organized access to the Web's jumble of information. They do so with a collection of features like search engines and customized content like local sports scores.
To that end, Mr. Dutton, 54, and his three-person staff have equipped Arts & Letters Daily with links to news sites, on-line reference works and educationally inclined Web guides like Encyclopedia Britannica's Eblast (www.eblast.com).
Arts & Letters Daily, Mr. Dutton said, is basically a portal site. "It is a place for the literate Web surfer to begin the day," he said. "Disney can have its teen-agers. We are targeting educated adults, the people who make a difference to the intellectual, economic and political life of the world."
But Arts & Letters Daily and a new companion site concentrating on science and technology called Scitech Daily Review, at www.scitechdaily.com, function more like portholes than portals. Although the sites offer views of the same expansive sea of on-line information that the portals do, they do it through narrower windows.
Jim Hake, founder of the annual Global Information Infrastructure Awards to Web sites, said the emergence of portholes will be one of the major Internet trends of 1999.
"As people become more savvy users of the Net," Mr. Hake said, "they want things which are better focused on meeting their specific needs. We're going to see a whole lot more of this, and it's going to potentially erode the user base of some of the big portals."
At Eblast, which bills itself as "the thinking person's guide to the Web," 25 editors and 200 contributors categorize and rate more than 1,000 diverse sites each week. Eblast, a free supplement to a subscription-only version of the encyclopedia (www.eb.com), already contains about 160,000 sites. "We're putting our seal of approval on other people's Web sites," said Paul Hoffman, Eblast's 42-year-old publisher.
In late October, the site was redesigned to make it faster and, despite its smarty-pants slant, more generic in appearance. Noting that both the populist Zagat's guide and the more refined Michelin directory list their restaurants in alphabetical order, Mr. Hoffman said: "People are used to looking a certain way at information on the Web now. If you depart too extremely from that, it takes your users too long to find what they want." Mr. Hoffman also said his company is planning to add features like E-mail that would transform the site into a full-scale portal.
Mr. Dutton, a United States native who has lived in New Zealand since 1984, is certain there is a sizable audience for intellectual on-line content.
"Some people might reject Arts and Letters Daily as a niche interest," he said, "but there are a few million Americans who are genuinely interested in the life of the mind."
And even if the market turns out to be limited, there are limits to how wide Mr. Dutton is willing to expand his porthole.
"We will never have horoscopes," he said flatly. "If people want horoscopes, they will have to go elsewhere."