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Conde Nast working on its Net

The New York publishing giant is trying to come to terms with a growing Internet audience.

To critics who think the term "old media" is a terrible insult, it's old news that the newspaper and magazine industries don't get the Net.

But now Conde Nast execs are out to prove they're not stuck in the world of Midtown Manhattan print publishing. Last month, the magazine giant's Internet arm, CondeNet, bought the tech site Wired News for $25 million, finally reuniting the site with Wired Magazine and ending eight years of separate ownership.

The Wired News purchase and CondeNet's acquisition of NutritionData.com several days later added to other CondeNet original-content Web brands such as Epicurious.com, Style.com, Men.Style.com and Concierge.com. And when the company's long-anticipated business magazine, Portfolio, launches next spring, planners say it will have an ambitious online presence as well.

In short, it appears that Conde Nast is finally making a strong play for online readership.

The question is: Are they going after it hard enough, since CondeNet execs said they're leaving the other 12 online properties--including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Glamour--as online, subscription-grabbing front ends to the magazines?

"Our core business is those four destination sites, and Wired makes a fifth and NutritionData makes a sixth," said Sarah Chubb, president of CondeNet. "My core job at CondeNet is primarily to make a business of our destination sites. We've been doing Internet stuff for over 11 years."

"We never set out to create a whole Web business out of those (other) brands," Chubb said. "They're companion sites meant to help the brands. But they weren't meant to be stand-alone businesses."

That may be true, but the company must still fight the theory--as do other major magazine publishers--that it runs the risk of letting smaller, more niche-focused Net publications run away with the market.

You're going to be able to launch with more subscribers and advertising if you launch online.
--Robert Niles, Online Journalism Review

"Magazines have a real threat from the Web," said Barry Parr, a media analyst with Jupiter Research. "So coming up with a good Web strategy for a magazine publisher is not an easy thing."

Parr said many big magazine publishers, Conde Nast among them, are still trying to figure out what they want to use the Web for, "and none of them have come up with good solutions."

Clearly, Conde Nast has some convincing to do.

"They've done some work, particularly with the Epicurious (food) site, in developing an (online) discussion community, which is an important component of many successful Internet sites," said Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review. "But they haven't gotten their staffs, their writers, to be leaders in these communities, and that's where the real power of the Internet lies."

For their part, CondeNet execs said their strategy of focusing content such as blogs, user polls and other interactive content related to several distinct categories--food, men's and women's style, and travel--on four destination sites has set them apart from other Web publishers.

"We've really tried to work with them to do things incrementally, (to create) a better experience than putting a magazine article online," said Chubb. "We're more interested in things you can't do in a magazine."

The destination sites are producing, she said. Epicurious, for example, gets 3.5 million unique monthly visitors, the vast majority of whom do not start out as Conde Nast magazine subscribers, she said. There is a huge opportunity, she argued, for the company to convert those readers into subscribers.

Epicurious and Style are profitable, she said, and Concierge--the Web home of Conde Nast Traveler--will likely join them this year.

But Niles still thinks that companies like CondeNet risk missing a gigantic opportunity if they don't actively try to marry print and online content.

"The medium is trivial," Niles said. "If you own print, that means nothing if someone else owns online. You have to own the market as the primary information resource."

Given that, Conde Nast faces a substantial challenge with its planned April 2007 launch of Portfolio. Parr and Niles believe the company cannot do too much to ensure that the new publication's Web site, which currently is little more than a placeholder, is full of content and interactive features.

Chubb agreed.

Perri Dorset, a Conde Nast spokeswoman, pointed to the company's recent hiring of Yahoo Finance Programming Director Chris Jones as Portfolio's Web editor as evidence of the company's dedication to building a solid Web site. She also said the site will have its own editorial staff and a significant amount of original content.

Niles thinks CondeNet could go a step further: Launch the Web site before the magazine, though the company has no plans to do so.

"That's where you're going to get the buzz," Niles said. "You're going to be able to launch with more subscribers and advertising if you launch online. You can also tweak a magazine's voice online more efficiently."

Ultimately, both Parr and Niles said they think Conde Nast actually does some good work online. But they could do better.

"To use kind of a crass analogy," Niles said, "it doesn't matter if you're six inches under water or 60 feet. If you don't get above water, you're going to drown."