Walking His Talk -- Microsoft Editor Takes On Local Media With Online City Guides

He's essentially running a multimillion-dollar experiment, creating local entertainment guides on the Internet. Despite doing something so new, though, Microsoft's Michael Goff has deja vu.

Not long before joining Microsoft's Sidewalk project, first known as Cityscape, in late summer, Goff ran Out magazine, the glossy gay monthly he founded in 1992.

That project started with a thin budget, a thinner staff (just him) and digs in the heart of New York City. This time, Goff is running a billionaire-backed, fully staffed project headquartered at a suburban office campus in Redmond.

So what's the source of Goff's been-here-before feeling?

"People are skeptical," he says.

"People are skeptical of online; people are skeptical of a gay magazine - both on the reader front and on the advertising front."

As editor in chief of Microsoft's latest Internet media effort, Goff, 31, is entering a nascent business with a market that is far from proven - and a standing-room-only crowd of competitors who want to do the proving.

Microsoft plans to have its Sidewalk guides up in 10 to 15 cities by the end of next year, available free on the World Wide Web and supported by advertising. Eight have been named: Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis/St. Paul, San Diego and Sydney, Australia.

The guides will post local listings of movies, plays, restaurants, art shows and other events, searchable by neighborhood or other criteria. But when Sidewalk launches its first guide in Seattle, expected by March, it will join similar sites backed by AT&T, America Online, Internet-search company Yahoo!, the parent company of The Dallas Morning News, the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs & Co., and regional newspapers in many U.S. cities (including The Seattle Times). And that doesn't count the tiny start-ups looking to make a name for themselves.

An adventurer, Goff takes the optimist's attitude. He also has the benefit of Microsoft's willingness to spend millions on the project.

"We're starting something new," he says. "We have the chance to figure out what this medium is for. Even if we just figure out some of the small things . . . it's huge and great and fun and ambitious."

In some ways, Goff seems an odd fit at Microsoft. He wears an orange silk shirt one day, a sport coat with heavily padded shoulders another day - this at a company whose dress code is T-shirts and jeans. He talks of his lifestyle in New York - living in the East Village, spending evenings at friends' book-release parties.

In his career of less than 10 years, Goff has worked at three start-ups, helped redesign some of the nation's best-known magazines and been lauded as a publishing Midas in The New York Times and Newsweek. The son of diplomats who moved their family all over the world, he's confident in a way that hints he may not have suffered many failures. He says, for instance, that he got his first job, at a small San Francisco travel magazine, by calling the office right out of college, touting his world travels and international-relations degree from Stanford, and saying, "You have to hire me."

"I guess it was very forward," he says now. "To me, it just seemed logical."

Finding Goff

Microsoft's recruiters found Goff this summer by asking New York journalists to recommend "a young, bright lifestyles journalist . . . someone who was particularly innovative," said Sidewalk Publisher Frank Schott. Goff's name came up repeatedly, in part because he was between jobs; he had left Out in January in a dispute with his financial backer, who didn't support new ventures Goff wanted to pursue, including CD-ROMs.

Schott (pronounced "scott"), who's been at Microsoft three years on other projects, said Goff impressed him during meetings in Seattle and New York.

"We would . . . begin brainstorming about ways to treat certain topics in the online world, and you could just tell his mind was going 100 miles an hour about all the opportunities."

When talking about ways to cover an event in one city, say a B.B. King concert in Seattle, Goff suggested asking concert-goers from earlier cities on the tour to send in minireviews, complete with tips on which side of the stage had the best seats.

"He clearly gets what the opportunity is in this new medium," Schott said.

Goff said he came to Microsoft, instead of taking offers from more traditional magazines and media companies, because the project was new, innovative and larger-scale than his past efforts. Coincidentally, his father and brother live in the area - the family spent two short stints in Seattle years ago - but the main draw was Microsoft.

"Much better for me to work here than an old-school media company where it's much more difficult to do something new," he said.

Roger Black, a longtime magazine designer for whom Goff once worked, said: "I've always said that Michael will end up as a Hollywood producer. That's his talent set. He gets people excited about his confidence and sense of direction."

How Out began

While working for Black, Goff proposed a gay men's magazine, and Black introduced him to a financial backer. Out was born.

"That was totally Michael," Black said. "If he had not had the drive and ambition and talent to think through and make that happen, there would not be an Out magazine."

Goff recounts his strategy for Out: Hire serious writers, cater to upscale readers, run thoughtful articles and ensure that the magazine wouldn't serve as a siren for angry gay-rights protesters.

As a result, he overcame the fears of advertisers - Absolut Vodka was the only taker when the magazine launched - and attracted mainstream companies such as American Express, Seagrams, General Motors, Disney, Proctor & Gamble, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Nike.

Once again, Goff is in a business full of skeptical advertisers. The Internet, though it's scattered with small "banner" ads from big companies such as Ford and Microsoft, has yet to draw top-paying advertisers on a large scale.

Working on Sidewalk

As he did with Out, Goff intends to lure advertisers by luring readers. He says Sidewalk's sites will focus only on arts and entertainment for now. (Schott said Sidewalk could expand later to other areas, but he wouldn't elaborate; others have speculated that high-school sports statistics, retail listings or real-estate listings could follow.)

In addition to assembling local staffs, Microsoft is forming partnerships with local media to supply information. Locally, it's buying material from Seattle Weekly, Eastsideweek and Sasquatch Books, publisher of the Best Places guidebooks. Editorial content, including restaurant and movie reviews, must be distinct from advertising to remain credible, Goff says. Restaurants may buy space to run a menu, but those will be clearly marked as advertising and won't keep Sidewalk from running negative reviews or reader "feedback."

For now, Goff spends much of his time helping Sidewalk staffs decide what kinds of content to put on their sites. The sites must be customized to each city, he says, explaining that Seattle will include information on outdoor recreation while New York might feature fashion.

He's also focused on hiring, going after people with both print and online experience. The executive producer in New York, Eric Etheridge, has worked for George and Rolling Stone magazines. In Washington, D.C., general manager Anne Karalekas is former marketing director of The Washington Post and publisher of The Washington Post Magazine. In Boston, executive producer Lisa Allen was director of editorial operations at AT&T New Media Services and won three Emmy awards as a television reporter.

Seattle's staff is led by executive producer Jan Even, the former arts-and-entertainment editor of The Seattle Times, and general manager Kevin Eagan, a former product manager with Microsoft's interactive television group. Another Seattleite, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, will write for Sidewalk's national team, which will provide stories for the local sites.

Making it useful

Goff said Sidewalk will distinguish itself from its competitors with its talent and with its technology - the many ways it will allow people to search for information, customize the service to fit their interests or have notices sent to them by subject.

He condemns what he considers a huge number of boring, useless sites on the Internet.

"There's a huge get-a-life factor on the Internet," he says. "And I aim to do something about it."

Goff also says - at least for now - that the market is so new he hopes his competitors do well.

"The worst thing that could happen is if any of us do it poorly," he says. "We're all in a process of building and showing people what you can do online."

Of course, he felt the same way with Out. Five years later, there's really only one gay magazine that's prominent in that market, and that's Out.

Goff must be hoping his deja vu continues.