In a recent eight-page ad insert in The New York Times, Contentville.com is depicted as a sleepy little village, surrounded by mountains and topped by puffy clouds in a blue sky.
That's the image that Steven Brill (Brill's Content) and company chose for their new Internet venture, described in the ad as "part magazine stand, part corner bookstore and part research library.
"It's a place where you can buy and instantly download the 'Checkers' speech; magazine articles on getting rid of deer in the suburbs; transcripts of 'All Things Considered'; scripts from 'The West Wing'; depositions from trailblazing court cases; and e-book on fishing. Even your shrink's dissertation."
Brill calls it "a traditional store with old-fashioned values using the newest technology."
His critics call the enterprise a potential conflict of interest, questioning how Brill's Content can continue as a media-watchdog publication when Contentville.com's backers include CBS, NBC, Primedia Inc., Microsoft and the Ingram Book Group.
Cindy Rosenthal, Contentville's public relations director, says the site has "no editorial content that crosses that line. We have reports from Brill's Content writers on the site, but (Brill's Content) will always do what we've done from the beginning, which is to write about anybody, including NBC and CBS people."
She mentions a recent cover story criticizing Bryant Gumbel's stewardship of "The Early Show" on CBS. Another story in this month's issue by Editor Eric Effron questions why news divisions of NBC's affiliates tailored news features to promote the network's series "The '70s."
Doubtless, there are other examples that would both support and rebut the critics' arguments. But lost amid the media bickering are the concepts behind Contentville.com, which are fresh, original and a boost for readers helplessly awash in the cyclone of books, magazines and "content" whipping across the landscape of contemporary culture.
Part of the site's purpose is to sell books and magazines. For the most part, most book prices aren't competitive with Amazon.com, something Rosenthal acknowledges.
"We have a flat 25 percent discount, so it's not really in line with what they do at Amazon, but some of our books are lower than theirs," she said.
What is unusual about the site is the breadth of services for readers. In the magazine department, a stable of experts (including Keith Olbermann of Fox Sports News and Elaina Richardson, former editor of Elle) talk about the top reads in current periodicals. This month, for example, former White House adviser Rahm Emanuel discusses articles he's read in Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books.
There are also magazine features on new launches, niche publications, question-and-answer interviews with editors and a monthly "trove" of 10 outstanding articles.
In the books section, Contentville has comment from its venerable contributing editors, including authors Harold Bloom, David Halberstam and George Plimpton, food critic Mimi Sheraton and sports writer Frank Deford. Readers can click on interviews with writers of newly published books, discover the world of a book scout, read entire first chapters and horn in on New York's book-party circuit. In the works are plans to present authors' new works and e-books in their entirety.
Contentville also has capitalized on the expertise of independent booksellers, who write reviews, trend stories and news features for the site; in turn, readers can follow links to connect with individual stores.
Susan Cohn, marketing director for R.J. Julia, says her store is responsible for providing monthly articles on new business books, paperback fiction, hardcover nonfiction and style books.
She thinks Contentville will help people make better choices about what to read.
"What it does is highlights what independent booksellers do best, and that's sharing an opinion about the books we're reading and selling," she said. "This has been sort of an exciting venture for us, to work with a company that's very interested in opinion and insight, and it enables people to have a broader view of us. They certainly can get their eyes to the site because of the marketing dollars (Contentville) has been spending."
Dana Brigham, the general manager and co-owner of Brookline Booksmith near Boston, says some independents were leery about the concept, in that they would be selling books on their own Web sites in competition with Contentville.
"It's a little hard to swallow, but we decided on balance we felt it would be worth it to have the independents' presence out there," she said. "I think for booksellers who didn't opt to do it, that's probably a big reason. Either that or time constraints as far as reading and writing."
Besides books and magazines, more arcane documents are on sale at Contentville. Readers can search the archives for articles from more than 1,800 magazines and journals and The New York Times. The archive service is sponsored by EB SCO Publishing, an information-service company.
More than 1.5 million dissertations, dating back to 1861, are available for sale as well, through an agreement with Bell & Howell Information Learning. Screenplays and legal documents, such as wills of the rich and famous and notable court decisions, are available for a fee, along with landmark speeches and transcripts from radio and TV programs.
Contentville has taken a drubbing in some media quarters for its low-key launch. A recent article in Salon.com, for example, was titled "Brill's Folly: What If You Launched a Web Site and Nobody Came?"
The site had a "soft launch" on July 5, Rosenthal said, and was officially opened a week later. Although media types were waiting for a drumroll-and-fireworks premiere, that was never the plan. Contentville's intention is to build gradually. The site has done little promotion to date, beyond the Times insert and ads in Brill's Content; ads on Web sites and TV and radio are planned.
Rosenthal says comparisons with Amazon.com aren't logical. "Amazon.com has 7,000 employees and owns 5 million square feet of warehouse space. We don't own any warehouse, and we have 50 employees. What that means is that our plans are going to be much more cost-effective," she says.
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