'Information Porthole' sets critics on fire

He's an academic from Christchurch. His Web site, Arts & Letters Daily, has been praised by the New York Times.

The site claims 5,000 visitors a day and has beaten top sites around the globe to be named the best site in the world for 1998 by Britain's Observer newspaper. That means the site -- only launched in October last year -- beat players like Amazon.com, Salon magazine and the New York Times. Site creator Professor Denis Dutton cheerfully observes, "It gives those camps something to aspire to."

Dutton, perhaps best known to many New Zealanders as an outspoken member of the Skeptics Society, is a senior lecturer in the fine arts department at the University of Canterbury. His site could be described as an intellectual portal, with teaser links to about 75 top articles, essays and book reviews on the Web.

Dutton says he and the three US-based associates who work on the site -- which he designed initially as a drawcard for his out-of-print book service -- have been flattered by the recent attention of international media. But he's also in no doubt about what makes the site so successful. For many years he edited a scholarly journal called Philosophy and Literature. In doing so, he has searched for good writing on the Web and has often been disappointed. "Surfing the Web is like drinking from a fire-hose. The problem is there's too much material and too much of it is third-rate. It's verbose, and Web surfing is often a monumental waste of time," he said.

He searches out the best writing available on the Web at any one time -- from major newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals. He says the site aims to provide articles with a contrary bent. "We have a liking for essays and option pieces that go against current fads," Dutton said. He refers to the site as a specialist information "porthole", rather than a generalist portal site. "There's simply no reason for people to go to large generalised portals such as Yahoo or Netcenter when they can have a porthole which is more slanted toward their interests," he said. "Basically ours is an intellectual porthole for people who read and who are interested in books and ideas."

He believes other specialised portholes will develop for other interests. Already Arts & Letters has a sister site called SciTech Daily Review. He says the site treats Web surfers as literate, intelligent, cultivated adults. "So much of the Web seems pitched at the level of teenage boys," he said.

Dutton believes the problem with portal sites is they all look the same. "They're all constantly trying to sell you luggage, flowers, books and cheap airfares. It's handy but who wants to be sold this very time you open the page?" he asks.

He says he's talking to agencies at the moment about advertising for the site, but adds that advertising will be discreet, with no animation.

It will also be appropriate to the site. "I went to a search engine the other day… and they had on the top third of the page a huge advertising graphic that flashed -- bang, bang, bang -- with big letters at you," Dutton said. "You could not so much as use the search engine. I literally had to put my left hand over the screen while I used the search engine."

The opening page of Dutton's site has been designed in the style of old newspapers with three columns featuring the short teasers to full stories on other sites.

The masthead design and the technical construction of the site was done by Peter Fitzpatrick of Christchurch, but the design was Dutton's own. "It was just my own experience as a surfer. The 18th century broadsheet newspapers used a very efficient way to get a lot of information on a single page and it works very well on the Web. We want Arts & Letters daily to steer away from a multi-page document. People want simplicity and speed," he said.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the site is doing well. There has already been one copycat site which was changed after Dutton had lawyers send a letter. "We want to protect our format and approach to the fullest extent possible," he said.

Visitors obviously like Dutton's approach. He says the site regularly gets about 4,000 to 5,000 unique visits on weekdays. New Zealanders are the top visitors to the site on a per-capita basis.

Material on the site changes six days a week -- although only the top three to five articles change each day (Dutton says there's not enough good material on the Web to change the entire thing daily even if he wanted to.) He plans to keep access to the site free. Some users have suggested that the site is so valuable that there should be a charge. "But I think that would be against the spirit of the site," he said.

While it's not paying for itself at present, Dutton thinks advertising will eventually pay its way. "We're willing to take losses for the first year," he said.

Dutton got to know the other three workers on the site through the Phil-Lit (Listserv@listserv.tamu.edu) discussion list -- so effectively met them on the Internet. Managing Editor Sharon Killgrove lives in the Mojave Desert; Contributing Editor Harrison Solow lives in Malibu; and Contributor Kenneth Chen is a student at Berkley University.

"When you get to know people on the Internet there's no geographic requirement at all so it's interesting that they're all Californians," Dutton said.

The Web address for his site is: http://www.cybereditions.com/aldaily.

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