Pioneer in the wilderness

What do you do with a prize-winning Web editor who brings in almost a billion page views per month? You get rid of him. At least you do if you are in charge of the newly merged AOL Time Warner Inc.

Scott Woelfel left the company in January when it closed CNN Interactive - the division he had created and led for more than five years. The closure was another indication that the tide had turned against the Web as a big business in its own right.

Woelfel is 41, a hard-nosed journalist but thoughtful and scrupulously polite. He chooses words carefully and uses them sparingly.

The story of his career is the story of how traditional media have struggled to understand and embrace the Internet.

Back in the early 1990s, he was a CNN television producer. Unusually among journalists at that time, he was interested in CD-Roms and the emerging online services - and that marked him out as someone who "understood the new technology". He was asked to create CNN.com. The first task was to find an office. The only room available in the CNN Centre, a retail and office complex in downtown Atlanta, was about to be vacated by an English-style pub.

"I must admit that as I walked through the flotsam and jetsam that a tavern leaves in its wake, I had trouble seeing how we could build the interactive newsroom of the future in this place," he says. "But in the end it turned out very well, and it's still in use today."

The site launched on 30 August 1995. He says: "It was a busy news day. Nato was attacking Serb positions in Bosnia and we had news of the impending merger between CNN's parent, Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner."

The site was popular right from the start - it attracted 3 million page views in December 1995. Five years on - December 2000 was Woelfel's last month in charge - and the CNN sites had recorded well over 900 million page views.

With the growth came prizes, acclaim and more and more resources from the parent company. In 1999, CNN.com and its sister sites brought in enough revenue to cover their operating costs. It is still the only major commercial news site to achieve break-even. The money was ploughed back into the Interactive Division to fund a policy of international expansion.

That formula worked well while new media's sap was rising. CNN was perceived to be a big success because it was winning the race for traffic. But after the collapse in confidence in the dotcom sector, and the merger with AOL, the writing was on the wall for Woelfel. The end came in January when the company decided to merge the Web sites back into the TV news operation. One executive said: "Stand-alone didn't make sense for us any more. We needed to have one voice going across multiple platforms."

His former colleagues in the CNN management seem to regard his departure as sad but inevitable. One said Woelfel was "highly, highly regarded". Jim Walton, president of CNN's Domestic Networks, said he was "a valued and respected leader who was one of CNN.com's early innovators, and much of the site's success is due to his leadership".

Woelfel's words of wisdom

Standard Europe: Old-media companies have notoriously erratic Internet strategies. Back in the early days, how committed was CNN?

Scott Woelfel: It had a long-term strategy while being a bit experimental at the same time. We assembled long-range plans and we were expected to break even as best we could and eventually make a profit. But we knew that this was such a new area that it would be very difficult to make accurate predictions. So we had to be nimble and keep revising our business plan along with our product line.

SE: Has the Web experience changed CNN?

SW: Well, there have been changes - what remains to be seen is if it has hit on the right formula. AOL is going to have a big impact on that, so it is too early to say.

SE: Do old media have anything to learn from the Web experience?

SW: If you take just one lesson from all this, it is that consumer choice is the only thing that really matters. If you're not meeting the needs of your consumers and producing what it is that they want, then you have failed completely. And they will let you know by going somewhere else. Too many media companies have not realised this. Producers think that by choosing what stories to include in a broadcast that they have met consumer need. Wrong! The consumer is going to decide what he requires and then seek it out in the way that is most convenient to him or her. If that means watching a news broadcast on television, then fine. But more and more it means going online to create some sort of customised experience using multiple sources. Unfortunately the contraction we're seeing in a lot of online publishers is going to make it very hard to meet that demand. And I think that this is good news for companies like AOL and Yahoo or other portals that offer convenience and speed above all else.

SE: Which news sites will survive the shakedown?

SW: There are 10 or 12 sites which I think make up the top tier of news sites. They'll include the obvious - CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and a few other print publications.I would also include one or two Web-only sites such as CNet. I think all of these sites will still be around in 2005, mostly because they have large parent companies with well-established core brands. I think it is much more difficult to predict that smaller, Web-only news organisations like Salon or Slate will survive. And that's too bad. The more choice there is for the news consumer, the more the news sites will have to compete for that consumer's attention. That makes us all better.

SE: How important are the Web sites you built?

SW: I do have a modest streak but I think I can say CNN.com belongs with the handful of Web essentials - sites which everyone does or should use, and which stand at the top of their respective classes as examples of how to do it right. In this group, I would include Yahoo for its directory, Google for searches, the Internet Movie Database for film information and so on. I have about 20 on my personal list. And I think CNN.com belongs there for bringing the concept of global breaking news to the Web. Taking the essence of CNN - live, global breaking news - to the Web would be what I consider my biggest success. No one had done it before we did and many who did it after were copying what we had done. I'm very proud of the team I built and the pioneer spirit that they exhibited. I also think the creation of the CNN mobile wireless service was a great achievement, because it took the brand to the final leg of the distribution triangle of home (TV), work (PC) and everywhere else (mobile device).

SE: Are you bitter about the way you left the company?

SW: It's not surprising they wanted a new strategy. That being the case, the new organisation did not have a place for me with the authority that I had in the past. So CNN and I amicably parted ways.

The Wright brothers didn't become airline pilots. It was time for me to move on.

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