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LA.com launches insider's guide to LA

Latest MediaNews Group partnership venture runs on OpenBase SQL

"We wanted a database with a lot of power, stored procedures, clustering, and fault-tolerance -- but we also wanted it to be affordable, easy to set up, and quick to implement."

Fresh. Smart. Trustworthy. Dynamic. That's the kind of insight and information LA.com delivers on the city of Los Angeles -- and those are the same qualities it expects from its information technology.

"We offer a unique perspective that's fun, light-hearted and a little bit edgy," says John Matra, Vice President of Business Development at LA.com, the insider's guide on where to go, what to do, what's new, and what's classic in LA.

LA.com leverages the immediacy and interactivity of the Internet with daily reports on what's new and noteworthy in LA. LA.com reporters with wireless devices roam the city, sending in live, quirky, gossipy items that are posted immediately in the "LA.comfidential" blog. More than 30 regularly updated and contributed-to guides deliver the latest on shopping, dining and nightlife in the city's many and distinct neighborhoods, along with itineraries and insider tips, such as what to order and where to park.

The whole site was developed and runs on OpenBase SQL database and Apple WebObjects software on the Mac OS X platform. "We didn't rely on trade magazines to determine what technology to use," says Jeff Martirano, Director of Technology. "We had particular objectives and we set out to find the technologies that exactly fit our needs."

"At this stage of the online publishing game, the need is for quick and affordable, yet still scalable, flexible and very useful technology," he says. "The combination of OpenBase, WebObjects and OS X gives us just that."

Big ambition, small company

With more than 65 percent of LA's 10 million population online, MediaNews Group's California Newspapers Partnership, which also includes industry-leading Gannett and the Stephens Media Group, saw the opportunity to attract and to engage a desirable demographic for advertisers and sponsors.

To create and operate the new LA.com media property, the partnership recruited the best talent in the industry.

"We're a small company under the umbrella of a big company," says Matra of the team of 22. LA.com's goals are ambitious -- to provide value and an experience compelling enough to attract a high-scale "downtown" demographic. At the same time, says Matra, the business is "very bottom-line oriented."

"In this day and age, you have to have a viable business model. Like most media businesses, we expect it will take time to build the business. But we also recognize that if our burn rate is too high, we won't last long enough to make money."

When it came to choosing a database platform for the site, Martirano says the company didn't want to spend its development money on having someone set up a complex database. It also didn't want the on-going expense of a database administrator or costly per-processor database license.

"We wanted a database with a lot of power, stored procedures, clustering, and fault-tolerance -- but we also wanted it to be affordable, easy to set up, and quick to implement. We were looking for high quality at a post-bubble price."

Although its parent companies use a different database solution, LA.com'''s senior management approved the decision, says Matra. "OpenBase had the stability, reliability and scalability that we were looking for at a reasonable cost."

Speeding time to revenue

Speed of development was another important factor in the decision to go with OpenBase.

"We had very, very aggressive goals for getting the site live, building traffic, and driving revenue," says Matra. Advertising and sponsorships are the business' primary revenue stream, along with contextual advertising and transactional service fees for such things as buying event tickets or booking a hotel room.

Development on the legacy database used by the parent company was laborious, intensive, and strict, says Matra. "When you weigh that against a product that allows you to get up and running very quickly -- and costs significantly less -- OpenBase was the obvious choice." Martirano agrees. "There's no reason why databases should require some arcane scripting or configuration files to get going. We've had plenty of years to get interfaces for these things and I was really impressed when I saw that OpenBase has them." "The OpenBase database tools helped us reach our goals much faster. We were able to build the core of our site and the core functionality within about a month. And that is in large part due to the fact that we did not have to spend a lot of time configuring the database."

WebObjects was another key factor in helping LA.com launch faster, says Martirano. "WebObjects enabled our search tools, our sorting, everything, much faster than the other scripting languages I have used. Together, WebObjects and OpenBase are great technologies -- and the OpenBase folks have done a great job at making it a seamless environment."

Flawless performance and reliability

"The whole LA.com site is run from OpenBase and WebObjects," says Martirano. "The performance and reliability has been flawless. Our OpenBase database has not given us a single bit of downtime."

The remote management tools built into OpenBase enables Martirano to manage the system on a remote host. "The OpenBase tools have met our challenges every time. I don't even think twice about it anymore. We can be very comfortable hosting our site many, many miles away."

Growing with the business

Already LA.com has seen its viewership triple, simply through word-of-mouth and search engines. As the first marketing, advertising and PR campaign kicks in, the challenge will be to scale quickly and easily to meet increased traffic demands. Over time, the site plans to extend its offering to mobile/ wireless devices, MP3s, Internet Radio, instant messaging, and other downloadables.

"We're definitely going to need to serve a lot of people, " says Martirano. "OpenBase is a database we can cluster easily without having to spend a lot of time and resources to do it. So we can grow our site without having to grow our technology team."

Simplifying integration

LA.com also leverages the services, such as classified advertising, offered by all of the newspapers and web sites of its corporate parent companies. Making sure that its technology would work easily with these corporate systems, as well with the systems used by sponsors, partners and even users, made OpenBase compliance with open standards important.

"We also looked at Open Source database solutions, such as PostgresSQL and MySQL," says Martirano. "But, they lacked the truly seamless integration with Web Objects that OpenBase has."

"As you can imagine, when you have legacy systems powering 50+ newspaper websites, they're not going change quickly," says Matra. "That's not say that we could not become sort of the model for how to do things better and cheaper. To a certain extent, they're looking to us for that."

Into the future

Created by people passionate about LA, for people passionate about LA, LA.com is as dynamic as the city itself. "The city is huge, there's just so much going on," say Matra. "I live on the West Side and for me, going to Pasadena is like going to a different city. I'm a tourist there. LA.com is tailor-made to fill that need."

As LA.com continues to achieve its ambitious goals, it sees OpenBase as a partner that will grow alongside. In addition to a reliable, scalable database technology, says Martirano, OpenBase has provided excellent support. "We get the help we need nearly immediately, much faster than I was expecting. And it's been right on target each time."

"I've used a lot of technologies in my career, " he says. "What it really comes down to, is you have to spend the time yourself to use these tools and see what they can do for you. We wanted something that was very strong and very capable -- almost out-of-the-box and that's what we found with OpenBase."

"I'm just very happy and pleased that there was a database like OpenBase around when we needed it."

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