THE BEGINNING: PART I

I’m the type who plans a dinner party, and then obsesses over whether anyone will come. So when a good friend and former colleague, Sharon Litwin, asked me if I would help her start a new web site, my first worry wasn’t the obvious one – My God! Start a WEB SITE? Are you KIDDING? Do you know how much WORK that will be? Rather, it was one based on my own particular neuroses: If we threw a web party, would anyone come?

It’s not, it turns out, a bad thing to ponder. One problem with the Internet is that there is too much of it. Anyone can pitch a tent, and, Google and Yahoo aside, it takes luck and perseverance to find a particular address in the wilderness. At last count, there were more than 650,000 individual art blogs on the Web.

We did not need to start another one.

But the concept of a community cultural web site resonated. New Orleans is a quirky place, where people embrace eccentricity and live their after-work hours with exuberance. There is much to revel in here, much to explore, and the idea took root of an online community peopled by the many and varied voices of the city. We’d offer a sort of digital salon, focusing not only on the arts, but also on local culture (with a lower-case c), a place where New Orleanians could meet, discuss, share ideas, be entertained, exchange views, find out about happenings. Besides, with print journalism becoming an endangered species, the move was on to save investigative reporting through online outlets such as Pro Publica, but a similar trend had not emerged for soft news. Having spent three decades covering TV, food, entertainment, home and garden and other under-appreciated but excessively popular feature subjects, I know their impact and importance. Call me the Queen of Fluff.

Still, the best way to start a web site, we agreed, was to begin with an established audience. And the New Orleans Web site with the strongest audience is Nola.com. The site is by far the dominant e-presence in the city, built around the articles, photos and videos from its print partner The Times-Picayune, but also offering an array of interactive features of its own, from user input to Saints updates to hurricane tracking maps. So we approached Nola.com Director of Content James O’Byrne with a proposal for a partnership: We would build a community web site, and Nola.com would serve as the portal to it.

He was intrigued, agreed to consider the idea … and NolaVie was born.

THE BEGINNING: PART II

Fast forward a year. Rush past all the brainstorming, the late-night idea sessions, the bottles of wine and platters of Brie and pate.  NolaVie took shape.

About the name: We wanted to identify our community and potential partner, thus the inclusion of NOLA (for New Orleans, Louisiana, in case you live in Finland). We wanted to convey lifestyle, community and culture, too, and thus “Vie” – that’s not VI (as in strive), but VEE as in French for “life.” The site is about our life here, and the French pays homage to our past.  (Of course, that past includes more time as a Spanish colony than a French one, and lots of input from Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, but hey, people think we’re French. Also, we toyed with LaVidaNola, which was a clever suggestion from a TP colleague, but it makes us sound like we’re catering only to the sizable local Hispanic population. The nice thing about the French accent is that French is actually pretty much a dead language around here.)

Last week, Sharon and I met again with Nola.com’s O’Byrne, who outlined a suggested content agreement between his web site and ours. It is only that: a suggested partnership. It is yet to be reviewed or approved by Nola.com’s parent organization, Advance Publications, and it likely will have to go through many readings and permutations before any potential partnership is created.

Still, the idea of a public/private online partnership to bring New Orleans culture and community to the web is an exciting one. And O’Byrne’s willingness to think outside the box, to see the potential in hosting a digital repository of local cultural commentary and conversation, indicates just why Nola.com is the pre-eminent online New Orleans destination.

For now, the proposal for Nola.com/NolaVie cooperation is a simple one: They give us some space on their server, access to their pagination software/templates and a couple of pages, and we fill them with enticing local content (although not content that simply copycats what the feature writers at the Times-Picayune already are doing so well – but that’s a blog for another day). Our content would be branded with the NolaVie logo, but could float through other parts of Nola.com. Our content will be accessed primarily from the Nola.com home page, although we also have secured the nolavie.com URL.

There are lots more bottles of wine and wedges of Brie in our future. Business plans, content sessions, funding issues … well, you know the drill.

But for now, we toast our success at coming up with an innovative approach to delivering cultural and community content in a digital world. We have lots of ideas about shape and content, contributors and new media. About partnerships with local organizations, input from local groups and sponsorships from those who care about the city and its offerings. We can’t wait to get all the conversations started.