As Environmentalism Grows, Online Publishers Go Green

Nytimes
By BOB TEDESCHI

Online publishers are strapping on their Birkenstocks.

Buoyed by the breakaway success of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the film documentary of Al Gore’s environmental lecture, publishers like The Washington Post,
National Geographic and others are increasing their offerings of
“green” content, hoping to attract readers and advertising revenues
from manufacturers and retailers who are suddenly walking the
earth-friendly path.

Yesterday, for instance, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the online arm of The Washington Post Company, introduced Sprig.com,
a new Web site aimed at environmentally conscious women. The site is
the first new property the company has built from scratch; it bought Slate.com and operates BudgetTravelOnline.com
in partnership with Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine and
Newsweek. Analysts said the initiative is well-enough timed and
executed.

“If you looked at 10 new markets to go after right now,
this would probably be close to the top, because the number of
companies advertising green stuff will explode in the next couple of
years,” said Josh Bernoff, an online media analyst with Forrester Research, a consulting firm. “And having an established company behind it is a good way to kick something like this off.”

Sprig.com
features articles in five categories: food, fashion, beauty, home and
lifestyle, with videos liberally mixed into each section. In the beauty
section, a video features an eco-friendly manicure and pedicure, while
in the food section, visitors can watch organic cooking demonstrations.
The site will post about six new articles a day, written in a way one
might characterize as Green Lite.

“We’re targeting this to the
95 percent of people who want to be 5 percent green,” said Jeanie Pyun,
Sprig’s editor in chief. “Not the 5 percent of people who want to be 95
percent green.”

According to Mark Whitaker, the vice president
and editor in chief of new ventures for The Post’s online division,
Sprig has already signed up more than 100,000 subscribers to its daily
e-mail newsletter, which it marketed on other Post sites like
BudgetTravelOnline.com, in addition to sites outside the company.

Mr.
Whitaker said the initiative follows a mandate from The Post’s chairman
and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, to expand the digital division
beyond its four Web sites, which last year generated more than $100
million in revenue (an increase of 28 percent from 2005). Sara
Levinson, a former executive at Rodale, NFL Properties and MTV, pitched
the idea to The Post last fall, Mr. Whitaker said.

“We thought
the idea was very, very ripe,” Mr. Whitaker said, “so it was important
to us to get it out there as quickly as possible.”

According to
Goli Sheikholeslami, Sprig’s vice president and general manager, ad
rates should “be in line” with those on other Post Web sites. Finding
interested advertisers, she said, has been less of a problem than it
would have been had the company not started life as a Post property.
The company’s advertising sales staff is pitching Sprig to existing
clients, many of whom are major brands.

One advertiser already lined up is the Clorox
Company, which produces a range of consumer products including Hidden
Valley Ranch salad dressings. Sumona Pramanik, associate marketing
manager for Hidden Valley, said she chose Sprig to carry ads about her
brand’s new organic ranch dressing partly because Sprig is aimed at a
mainstream audience.

“Their positioning as a stylish green site
made them a perfect fit,” Ms. Pramanik said. “And having that female
target consumer, that’s definitely a place where we play.”

Analysts
acknowledge some risk in investing big dollars in the green movement,
given that in past decades, the interest in environmentalism eventually
waned.

But, they said, the Internet offers media companies a good
way to hedge. Even though a new Web site costs much to get off the
ground, it is less expensive than starting a magazine or television
production. And, a Web site can be adjusted more easily for shifting
tastes.

Lauren Rich Fine, a former media analyst with Merrill Lynch,
said it is too early to tell if the site will have any meaningful
impact on The Post’s sales. “But there’s a good business reason to be
green right now,” she said. “And The Post has been, bar none, the most
innovative newspaper company when it comes to online.”

Mr.
Bernoff, of Forrester, said that despite such innovation, Sprig still
carries a whiff of old-media hubris because it has not done enough to
incorporate the voices of its readers, with comments and social
networking features, for instance.

“They have a lot of that in
Sprig, but compared to what else is happening right now on the Web,
they could have a lot more,” he said. “It’s a typical media company
attitude to say ‘We control the editorial because we’re the smart
people,’ ” Mr. Bernoff added. “And I think these days, you have to
admit the readers are the smart people, too.”

The National Geographic Society also will roll out a new site on Monday,  Green.NationalGeographic.com.
That site will include more than 2,000 pages of environmental news,
how-to videos and tips on eco-friendly travel and activities.

According
to Betsy Scolnik, president of National Geographic’s online division,
the new site follows last month’s acquisition of TheGreenGuide.com,
a Web site that, among other things, offers buying guides in various
categories. TheGreenGuide’s content, she said, will appear both on NationalGeographic.com as well as the new “green” site.

To
build out the content on Green.NationalGeographic.com, Ms. Scolnik said
the organization is relying on its National Geographic News division,
in which more than 200 correspondents file daily reports on
environmental news from around the world. Advertising support for this
type of news, Ms. Scolnik said, has grown briskly in the past year.

“We’ve
definitely seen more advertisers interested in this type of content,”
she said. “It’s thrilling to us that everybody’s interested in the
planet — finally.”

Ms. Scolnik would not comment on advertising
revenues or traffic to the organization’s Web sites, but she said: “The
growth in our Internet business reflects what’s going on over all in
the Internet industry.”

As more established media companies focus on the green movement, independent green sites like TreeHugger.com
are in an interesting position. Do they accede to acquisition offers
from traditional print publishers, or do they watch those companies
build sites and try to compete against their formidable sales and
marketing teams?

Ken Rother, TreeHugger’s president, said he has
declined buyout offers from newspaper publishers, among others, partly
because revenue and traffic have increased at a breakneck pace since
Mr. Gore’s big-screen success. Hertz,
Sundance and other mainstream marketers have advertised on his site
recently, and traffic has roughly doubled since November, to about 1.6
million monthly visitors.

Mr. Rother said he is bracing for a
possible drop in advertising revenue once Sprig’s sales pick up. “We
absolutely worry about it,” he said. “Advertisers will have a tough
choice in front of them.”

“It could be that the market will
segment in different ways, and we might see a drop in our fashion
advertising because Sprig might take ownership of that,” Mr. Rother
added. “But it also depends on how good they are. We have trust with
our readership. These other organizations will have to develop that if
they’re going to succeed.”

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