Fortune Launches Tech Site To Complement Its Conference; Chasing AllThingsD

Everything’s up for change at the biz mags this week, it seems. Fortune is launching a new tech site this morning, called BrainstormTech (screenshot here), complementing its eight-year-old Brainstorm conference. The site will be a sub-section on Fortune.com, and brings together an all-star team of reporters on a WordPress-driven blog. Besides contributions from its journalists, it will have guest columns from tech execs, including at launch, from Jeremy Allaire, CEO of Brightcove, John Chen, CEO of Sybase, and Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameen Phone.  And of course, video from its Green and Tech Brainstorm conferences.

Since there are lots of threads to this, I will give it the bullet-point treatment for ease of grokking:

—When I first heard of it this morning, my first reaction was, why? But then, why not? Yes, they’re the last ones into the party, but they do have a great team of senior tech journalists, including Stephanie Mehta, Adam Lashinsky, Michael Copeland, Jessi Hempel, Philip Elmer-DeWitt and others (where’s our friend Richard Siklos?). Most of them I grew up admiring. They all came together after Business 2.0 closed two years ago and Time Inc merged the tech journalists with Fortune.
—But nothing much has happened since then, despite some individual blogs, with low traffic, infrequent updates and no coherent strategy.
—The Fortune.com web presence has been a joke over the years: if CNN.com and CNNMoney didn’t throw traffic at it, it would have faded into further oblivion a long time ago.
—The mag’s tech coverage, which Time Inc CEO Ann Moore promised to be the best in the industry when they folded Business 2.0 journalists in, has been sub-par as well (sorry, a Marc Andreessen cover story in the latest issue, when he’s out speaking to everyone about his new fund, doesn’t count). Which again is a pity, considering the talent.
—If this new site launch only helps in raising the metabolism of their otherwise low-productivity but excellent journalists, all the more power to them.
—They didn’t want me to call the new site a “blog”. Whatever. It runs on WordPress, and the official URL is http://brainstormtech.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/. Deal with it.
—I can’t give you my take on the quality of the site, because they wouldn’t provide a login before it launched, and one screenshot doesn’t help. They wouldn’t give me anything more.
—David Kirkpatrick, senior editor at Fortune and the most visible of the lot, is not officially a part of this effort, as he is on an extended leave to write his book on Facebook. He may contribute to it down the line.
—The Brainstorm Tech conference is here in Pasadena next week, with some big-name speakers including Barry Diller, Bob Iger, Tim Armstrong, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jon Miller and others. The site’s launch coincides with it.
—Now to the more political part: there are obvious parallels to the AllThingsD website and D conference by the WSJ. That there is no love lost between the two teams is no secret. Brainstorm the conference started in 2001, by Kirkpatrick and Walter Isaacson, in Apsen, a year before the D conference was launched by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. Since then, the Brainstorm conference has gone through a few iterations of purpose, from a tech focus to a general business focus, to splitting it up into two conferences, and at least for the last two years that I attended it, it seemed like a wannabe-D conference despite the quality of speakers. (I can’t judge the previous versions ‘cause I wasn’t there). The D conference has grown to be the definitive event in the media industry, and AllThingsD the website launched two years ago, has quickly emerged to be a force in the tech-media landscape. Now the Brainstorm Tech site, which is also trying to build a conference into an online franchise, will have to forge its path. And if they do well, they will do it despite of all the legacy they inherit from the magazine, not because of it. And in the meantime, CNN.com and CNNMoney can push gobs of traffic to it.
—There’s lots happening at Fortune the print magazine. I won’t get into it. And no, Andy Serwer is not leaving anytime soon.


Van Natta Taps New Design Execs To Simplify MySpace; Katz, Andrus Leaving

Owen Van Natta is saying goodbye to two more execs, and hoping a pair of design-focused new starters can sort out the site’s sprawl. In a staff memo (via TechCrunch), he confirmed the rumoured exit of International SVP and MD Travis Katz, who first built the business overseas in 2006 and steered its growth to 21 European countries alone, and said product SVP Tom Andrus “has decided to explore other opportunities” after two years.

Incoming…
—Katie Geminder, who previously headed user experience design at Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and Facebook, comes in as SVP of that portfolio
—Mike Macadaan, previously VP of UX at AOL/Time Warner (NYSE: TWX), replaces Andrus as product VP.

From the memo: “Simplifying and unifying our site is fundamental to our success going forward. MySpace should feel like one platform – not 15 sites loosely stitched together. We consider our diverse content offering a strength but too many logos and disorganized verticals makes the site difficult to navigate and creates confusion about our brand identity. Our users don’t know if we’re a social portal, a music site, or an entertainment hub.” Van Natta is restructuring the technology and product group.


CBS Pulls Off Cross-Platform Paul McCartney Coup

Finally, some serious synergy … CBS (NYSE: CBS) parlayed Wednesday’s appearance by Paul McCartney on The Late Show with David Letterman into a surprise mini-concert from the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater—and then into a web-exclusive set. In front of cameras on scaffolds across from the theater where he first played with the Beatles in a legendary show 45 years ago, McCartney played seven songs for a live crowd on Broadway (one lane stayed open).

Two of the songs aired during the show; five, including Back in the USSR and Helter Skelter, are online only at the Late Show site and CBS Interactive’s TV.com.  The video can’t be embedded so all the traffic is being funneled to the sites (a plus for CBS but not so much for fans); the pre-roll ad I saw was for Tanqueray gin. Online display ads on CBS.com promoted TV.com and La

The video has a very you-are-there feel; not awesome sound but it works. The entire 22-minute set went online as the show ended on the east coast; Letterman episodes usually have more lag time. One small thing—I may have missed it but I don’t recall Letterman telling people to go to the website for more Sir Paul. Also, I’m not sure yet if the video can be seen (legally) outside the U.S.


Cox Sells Three Newspapers; Looking To Sell Majority In Travel Channel

Cox Enterprises, the Atlanta-based diversified media company, has sold off three of its newspapers: Waco Tribune-Herald to Robinson Media Company and The Daily Sentinel and The Nickel (Grand Junction, Colo.) to Grand Junction Media, which is owned by Seaton Publishing Co.

This comes as Cox Communications, a subsidiary of parent Cox, is looking to sell off a majority in Travel Channel. The company has hired Goldman Sachs to manage the sale process, and stories say that the sale could reach as much as $600 million to $1 billion. Scripps Networks Interactive (NYSE: SNI) is a front runner in the process (and a great fit considering its other lifestyle cable channels), says FT, with Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) being another interested party.

Other such as Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA), NBCU, Viacom (NYSE: VIA) and CBS (NYSE: CBS) could also be interested. Cox plans to retain a stake of 33-35 percent for tax reasons, the story says. The channel has shows such as the popular “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” though its online/mobile presence has been average, at best (Compete.com shows a million uniques a month, though traffic has been on the rise since earlier this year).

Launched in 1987, Cox acquired the channel in 2007, receiving $1.275 billion in cash along with the channel in exchange for its 25 percent stake in Discovery (NSDQ: DISAB) Communications (NSDQ: DISCA), and Reuters churns some numbers and comes to the conclusion that a price tag of anything above $300 million would translate into more than what Cox paid for the channel. Comparisons to the sale of Weather Channel to NBCU, while logical, may be moot as the downturn has changed the appetite for higher valuations, the channel’s revenue resilience notwithstanding.

On the newspaper front, The Tribune-Herald, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1994 for its investigative reporting, dates back to the 19th century. Robinson Media Company is led by local business leader Clifton Robinson and recently sold National Lloyds Insurance Company, which he founded in 1964. More here. Meanwhile, more on the sale of the other two newspapers here.

As it announced last year, Cox is looking to sell its newspapers in Colorado, North Carolina and Texas. It recently sold The Lufkin Daily News and The Daily Sentinel (Nacogdoches, Texas) to Houston-based Southern Newspapers. Citigroup and Dirks, Van Essen & Murray are the bankers helping sell the papers left in its portfolio.


Spanfeller’s Resignation: The Internal Memo From Steve Forbes

We reported earlier on the resignation of Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Forbes.com. Steve Forbes, the President and CEO of Forbes, wrote an internal memo (it is being sent to employees tomorrow morning), thanking Spanfeller for his contributions for the last nine years, and mentioning that he will start a new media management company “that will help other traditional media companies make the most of their enormous prospects in digital venues.”

——————-
The full memo from Steve Forbes:

To: All Hands
From Steve Forbes
July 16, 2009

Jim Spanfeller, President and CEO of Forbes.com has decided to step down from leading our website after nine years. In the entrepreneurial spirit that Forbes has always championed, Jim will be setting up his own media management company.

Describing his future plans Jim said, “The world of media has changed rapidly in the past 10 years and the velocity of the change promises only to increase going forward. I’ve had a great run at Forbes and have been deeply involved in the breakthroughs and transformations between traditional and digital media.  Now I see a huge opportunity to have my own media management business that will help other traditional media companies make the most of their enormous prospects in digital venues, taking all I have learned here in the past decade and applying on a wider horizon.

Forbes.com has truly been a truly wonderful ride and I am deeply in debt to the Forbes family for letting me be a part of it.”

Jim has done a monumental job of bringing Forbes.com to the lead position in business websites, and secured Forbes.com as the must visit site for not only global business leaders but also anyone interested in the finest business reporting and analysis available. At present Forbes.com has 18 million unique visitors a month.

Along the way, Jim has overseen the development and growth of Forbes Digital, which includes Forbes.com, ForbesTraveler.com, Investopedia.com, RealClearPolitics.com, RealClearMarkets.com, Real Clear Sports, and Forbes Business and Finance Blog Network, which together reach 40 million unique visitors a month.
This immense growth on the digital side of the business was spearheaded, pursed, and led by Jim with enormous success. The digital world is still uncharted with few rules, and Jim’s intellect, creativity, and business acumen helped bring us our number one position. For this the Forbes family is very grateful and we wish him all the success in his future plans.
Since Elevation Partners partnered with Forbes three years ago, Jim has worked very closely with them on the growth and development and vision for Forbes.com.  Commenting on Jim’s departure, Roger McNamee of Elevation said, “Jim did a fantastic job leading Forbes.com. In an era when competitors feared it, Jim embraced and evangelized the internet, with huge benefits to Forbes and its audiences. We are grateful for his contributions over the past nine years.”

Jim will be staying through a transition period at least through Labor Day.

Please join me and my brothers in wishing Jim all the best in the future, which he deserves.


Spanfeller Resigns From Forbes.com; Starting A New Company

We’re hearing from a trusted source this evening that Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of Forbes.com, is resigning, and have confirmed it from him as well. No word yet on who, if anyone, would replace him. (The internal memo to the employees, supposed to go out tomorrow morning, is here).

Spanfeller talked to our co-editor Staci D. Kramer tonight about what he says is his decision to leave Forbes after nearly nine years (a record for him when it comes to staying in one place) to launch a new business that would manage startups and turnaround businesses for traditional media companies. His resignation, which he said was not a sudden move or a surprise to the owners of Forbes, will be announced officially Thursday and he plans to stay on at least through Labor Day to aid the transition.

“We’ve integrated the business; it’s not as web-centric anymore,” Spanfeller said. He spoke about joining Forbes when the website had roughly a half-million uniques and leaving with internal Omniture figures showing 20 million uniques—starting with at a multimillion dollar loss compared to what he says now is a multimillion dollar profit. He added: “A large part of the metrics around success have been hampered by the economic downtown and the secular change in media.”

Spanfeller knows that there will be any number of stories flying around, including some we’ve already heard about him being pushed out. “I think there will be lots of different angles on how people try to interpret it,” he said, adding, “at the end of the day, you can’t run your life” based on what other people say or think.

Back story: In the recent weeks, we have heard all kinds of tips about Forbes Media, including one that didn’t pan out about investor Elevation Partners had sold its stake in the firm. Rumors about Spanfeller’s fate at the company have been swirling since last year, with one camp rooting for him to be pushed to the top of the ladder (print + online) while another camp wanted him out. It seems like the latter has won, for now.

Back in May, Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, stepped down from the magazine company’s board, ceding the role to Bret Pearlman, who is based in NYC and reputed to be an aggressive cost-cutter. The company has already been fairly aggressive on reining in costs since the financial meltdown last fall. In addition to completing the merger of its online and print editorial operations in January, which left 19 staffers laid off, it shuttered its auto site and gutted the ForbesTraveler staff. In March, Forbes said it would lay off another 50 employees on top of the 60 jobs cut since the fall.

Spanfeller says the idea of a McNamee-Pearlman switch has been overplayed, that Pearlman has been active with the board since the beginning of Elevation’s investment. He also said the post-meltdown push for cost-cutting was internal as well as from investors. The board has a scheduled meeting in two weeks. 

In 2006, Elevation bought a 40 percent stake in the company for a reported $250 million or so, valuing the company at around $700 million. The investment was made with the belief that the online side would outperform the print—the phrase used was they were buying into a website with a magazine attached—and with enough capital, it could become the biggest franchise in business media. What happened after that is a complex game of internal politics and intrigue. And then, Forbes has been under a lot of pressure with the downturn, like others in the sector—especially as its main message of unfettered capitalism has taken more than a dent during this cycle. David Carr described it well in a column about the company last month.

Disclaimer: Spanfeller has been writing a regular column for us for the last two months. His latest one, about the future of professional journalists, was published on our site yesterday.


Vuzix’s Wearable Display: Not My Style

vuzix_av310I was never expecting that Vuzix’s iWear AV310 Widescreen glasses would replace my big-screen TV. But I did think that this “wearable display,” which the company claims can create the experience of viewing a 52-inch screen from nine feet away, could be fun. Sadly, I was wrong. While the glasses delivered an impressive-looking picture, they were so uncomfortable to wear that I was barely able to sit through a movie with them on.

Vuzix’s AV310 widescreen is just one of several different versions of “video eyewear” that the company offers.  The AV310 comes with an adapter that can connect to iPhones and iPods, and a composite A/V cable that can be used to connect to any gadget with a composite A/V output, including many DVD players, cable boxes, DVRs and more. (Additional cables are available for purchase from Vuzix.)

Hooking the glasses up to my iPhone was easy; you just plug them in and turn them on. What’s not easy is wearing them. The glasses weigh 4 ounces, which doesn’t sound heavy – until they’re perched on your face. The weight isn’t the only drawback; I also had trouble adjusting the nose bridge. No matter how I adjusted it, the contraption pinched my nose — which isn’t very big, I swear!

What I do have, though, are small ears, and I found the earbuds (which are attached to the arms of the glasses) too big to ever fit comfortably. Other users may have better luck with the AV310’s earbuds, which are about the same size as the white buds that come with all iPods. I’ve always found the iPod’s earbuds unwearable, too, but I may be in the minority on that.

Uncomfortable fit aside, the AV310 worked very well, delivering a crisp, clear picture. The glasses offer two 428×240 displays, which you see as one screen when you wear them. I was easily able to adjust the focus — the AV310 has two focus dials, one under each eye — to my liking. The picture looked colorful and sharp, though it wasn’t quite as clear as viewing 1080p HD content, and the sound quality was surprisingly good.

But I never, not for one second, felt that I was actually looking at a 52-inch screen from nine feet away. Perhaps it was the weight of the glasses and their uncomfortable fit that distracted me. Or maybe it was the fact that no matter what I did, I could always see the frame of the glasses around the virtual big-screen display. I was always aware that I was looking at a smallish screen inside a smallish pair of glasses.

I found the AV 310 video eyewear most comfortable when I was lying down, as this seemed to make them feel just a bit lighter. I could see wearing these while lying in bed, perhaps. But they cost $250, and I’d rather spend that money on a good-quality (though small, for sure) HDTV or even a projector. The picture quality would be better and the viewing experience would be a far more pleasant one.



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