A few years ago it was big news when the Times bought About.com. They certainly paid a hefty price for it - $410 million. I remember at the time we were in the process of selling Topix and we looked at that number with envy. Since that time About.com made the deal look like a good move, increasing its revenue from $34 million in 2005 to $102 million in 2007. Based on this, it was a bit surprising when reports surfaced last months that the Times was looking to get rid of About. Not surprisingly, it turns out those reports were wrong though.
Whatever. All that's well and good. But what I find deliciously interesting about New York Times and about.com is the juxtaposition of two companies that really couldn't take more different approaches to the online content business.
On one hand you have the grey lady. All the news that's fit to print. The embodiment of the fourth estate - the government watchdog famous for its long history of distinguished journalism. This is the paper that fought for the standard of libel laws, bravely published the Pentagon Papers, and pretty much set the standard for journalism in the US. A more admired content brand does not exist.
On the other hand, you have about.com. About.com, is, well, a spam farm. It's model is to have its 500 authors create content on a host of popular topics which are then set out in the About.com SEO drift nets. These nets manage to snag 31 million uniques every month, 80% of which comes from search engine traffic. There's no breaking reporting here, no in-depth investigations. Controversial publications includes such matters as buying your first guitar, how to save money when you move and 5 myths about the middle east. Not quite the Pentagon Papers.
So here's groundbreaking original reporting and search engine spam both living under the same corporate roof. Nice. And here's the best part: as far as online audience and online revenue goes, About.com is the clear winner of the two. It's not even close. About's 30 million uniques are probably at least 3 times, if not more, the audience of nytimes.com. Don't believe me? Here, check out the chart from compete:
And you wonder why newspapers are cutting all those news room jobs. Now you know - online, the game is changed. In a world where limited distribution made all the consumer choices reside in the a 10 foot long new stand, newspapers and magazines could focus their energy on competing via quality content. Ad sales folks had life so good that they could afford the highminded indulgences of reporters, knowing that that at the end of the day it would be ok because the bills would be paid. Not anymore. That approach isn't working. Give the people what they want.
The other day Valleywag questioned why Martin Nisenholtz would want to take over the helm of a company like About.com. Doesn't surprise me at all. Like it or not, right now About.com is the flagship property of the company.
UPDATE: Valleywag is now reporting that About.com is being shopped around by NY Times....