Friday, July 21, 2006

Battle of the Online City Guides

second media column in the Free Times explores the emerging battle between various substantial players for localized online news and information sites. It focuses especially closely on, for a couple of reasons: it was founded by a Cleveland native and is now owned by the New York Times Company, which knows a thing or two about journalism, and is struggling with how to migrate to the web platform quickly enough to offset the declining prospects of print publishing. Because it appears in a local alt-weekly, the piece of course telescopes that battle down to what's happening in this region, but I'm following these developments on a larger basis, and expect to write about this subject again.

A day after this was published, a couple of interesting related things happened. The Times reported that it will follow the trend of other papers by trimming the size of the print paper (read editor Bill Keller's memo about that to the staff here). It will also be running ads on the cover of the printed business page, once considered unthinkable, but now not so unthinkable, since its main competition, the Wall Street Journal has just decided it will begin running ads on the very front page itself. Meanwhile, the paper's parent company, the New York Times Company, also reported quarterly earnings. To no one's surprise, they showed that revenues for print advertising were flat, while online operations continued to improve substantially. Overall ad revenues rose just one percent from the second quarter of last year, but revenues for all its online properties (including, and the Boston Globe's online version) were up a healthy 35 percent. Of course the online revenues start from a considerably smaller base, about 10% of the size of print advertising. But those numbers are moving in reverse directions.

NYT Company CEO Janet Robinson had this to say about " turned in another quarter of outstanding performance. All three of its revenue streams--display advertising, cost-per-click advertising and e-commerce--were strong in the quarter, resulting in an overall revenue increase of 63 percent." Much of that was built on a 22-percent increase in visitors. In other words, eyeballs count, a proposition that was ridiculed before the dot-com boom but which is now beyond debate.

Though I didn't have the space to go into it, all of this sets the stage for what will be a fascinating battle: whether the PD's online companion,, long the only real kid on the block in this niche (which for years has boasted about being the most heavily visited site in Ohio, which may no longer be the case; we'll check), can protect its fortress. In the battle for eyeballs and the ads that come with them, the site has made one gigantic goof: it erases articles after a few weeks online. That gives it far less opportunities to bring visitors in via online searches, with a corresponding lessening of inventory on which to run ads. It seems absurd, given the ever-plummeting cost of server storage space and the trends in online ads. I expect that will soon be remedied, as Steve Newhouse--the Yale-educated son of Donald, who has run the papers for years--takes charge of the chain's online properties. He had one major victory last week that bodes well for his progress: Advance finally succeeded in aquiring, the online companion of the iconic print magazine it purchased some years ago. That can only help the learning curve for its larger online efforts (just as is helping the NYT Company, and Myspace is helping Rupert Murdoch's News Corp figure out the web). Hell, maybe they'll even manage to finally fix that impossibly bad site architecture which all of the Advance papers' websites have suffered under for years, to near-universal complaint, thus far to no avail.


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