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Avoiding the ax

As we speak, buzzards are dancing above landfills, where non-biodegradable plastic champagne cups from long-forgotten, Web site launch parties languish just underneath the cold topsoil of winter.

For some months now, these pages have chronicled the downsizing of media Web sites. Disney's is being disbanded; CNN Interactive has furloughed 130 of 750 staffers; News Corp. has closed its digital media division.

Site closings and staff layoffs are only the most explicit sign of turmoil in the broadcasting-related Internet space. I have heard true stories of broadcast Web site free-lance writers whose once weekly columns have been adjusted to monthly frequency, or dropped in favor of syndicated or wire copy.

Content providers are not content. Content used to be "king," but in light of belt tightening, this monarch no longer has any clothes-or, in too many cases, a budget for anything but repackaged wire copy and news summaries.

So you've laid off half your staff: now what? How can you keep your Web site relevant, original and vibrant in light of shrinking staffs and editorial budgets? The bloodletting is approaching epidemic proportions, which brings to mind several strategic concerns for broadcast-related news and other sites.

For insight into this issue I spoke with Amy Gahran, a leading chronicler and observer of the Internet content space. Gahran is the creator and editor of Contentious, a Webzine for writers, editors and others who create content for online media.

As the vice president of the content provider-Web site Content Exchange matching service, Gahran is no abstract theorist. She's a consultant for several Fortune 500 company Web sites and Gahran is sensitive to matters such as producing a site with a non-lavish budget, and navigating the thicket of conflicting intra-company expectations of what a Web site's corporate mission should be.

"A lot of enthusiasm for the pure dotcoms carried over into the traditional media dotcoms. A lot of them over-hired, and burned a lot of money up. They were overzealous, and therefore [the layoffs that are happening now] are a reality check that had to happen," she says with a tinge of regret.

To be sure, many observers have tried to cast this new frugality in confrontational terms-the bean counters, under orders from corporate to cut expenses and boost the stock price vs. dedicated armies of cyber journalists who only want to light the way in the 21st century.

Gahran agrees with me that while this tension exists, it is simply an updated form of traditional Venus-Mars battles. "In media organizations, you always have had the struggle pitting either the budget or marketing-advertising people who will try to do things to impinge on the quality of news," she notes, correctly.

For a while, euphoric expectations muted the conflict, but now that prices of media stocks and income from online advertising have come down to earth, the two sides have simply reverted back to the way they look at the world.

If you are the editor of such a site, and the bean counters are insisting on budget cuts, counter arguments can be fashioned against these cuts.

"If you already have a good content plan, and [station management] is asking you to cut your budget," Gahran says, now would be the time to "give the best argument you can about how your site is going to contribute to business operations.

"Triage can be rendered a bit less painful, for example, if you have saved all your viewer feedback e-mail, and point to positive feedback about certain features that may be candidates for the budget ax. Log analysis files that note site-visitor-growth patterns for certain areas, can also spare those staffers or free-lancers that create that content from being downsized out.

Even a more effective strategy, Gahran counsels, is to convert on-site features to targeted e-mail newsletters that subscribers would receive free on an opt-in basis. On your site, you can use brief, staff-written teasers to route potential subscribers to sign-up forms for the newsletter. That's Media Buying 102, which you already know about. Now, it's time to sharpen your skills.