whither Dobbs' Space.com?
Nowhere good, it appears, as web carnage widens
By Marty Beard
At the height of the dot.com explosion, financial commentator Lou Dobbs bolted from his throne at CNNfn to start a web site all about outer space. Venture capitalists rallied behind it, big-name former astronauts signed aboard as advisors and officials, and Space.com lifted off with great expectations.
Today, with one dot.com collapsing after another, it becomes clear that maybe people thought Space.com was a good idea only because no one at that point really knew what a smart idea for a web site was.
Now suffering through a string of layoffs, executive departures, corporate restructuring and negative cash flow, the site appears as nothing less than a poster child for the idea of an extravagantly funded but intrinsically flawed web company.
"Space.com is in trouble," says Sean Carton, managing partner of Carton Donofrio Interactive. "The market was never big enough to support that size of a venture.
"I think what Space.comís going through is the same that so many dot.coms are going through: expecting that they had to be the biggest, baddest company on the web; expecting that they were going to go public to get rich; and expecting the bubble to last forever," Carton says.
Earlier this month, the site fired about 12 staffers. In September, it laid off 22. Top-ranking executives have fled as well, including chief operating officer Mitchell Cannold, who left the week before last.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, served as the siteís president until her September 2000 departure. She succeeded cofounder Rich Zahradnik, who left his post less than two months after the site launched. When Ride left, so did the siteís editor in chief and vice president of broadband.
Itís true that Ride isnít the only star to serve on Space.comís executive team.
"On the plus side, the cast of characters who support this site, either on the board of directors or advisors, is impressive," says Paul Benjou, senior vice president and group media director for Draft Worldwide. "Neil Armstrong, Eugene A. Cernan, General F. Thomas Stafford and Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov bring significant intellectual real estate to the party."
On the other hand, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway couldnít salvage their sports e-commerce venture, MVP.com, which recently announced its bankruptcy.
Founder Dobbs is also a big name, even if itís not one that calls space odysseys to mind. Onetime CNNfn president and anchor and apparent space nut Lou Dobbs launched Space.com in summer 1999. That was before content sites began dying off--a process that started when tech stocks took a nosedive last April.
By now Dobbs is rumored to be hedging his bets. Heís been spending more time on-air of late, offering guest commentary on CNBC.
Some observers wonder if Dobbs might not be easing himself back into his earlier, more stable careerówhich may be yet another indication that Space.com isnít long for this world or any other.
If a marquee name isnít enough to guarantee a web siteís success, neither is quality content, as illustrated by the downfall of APBNews.com, the all-but-defunct crime news site that won journalism awards but has been operating with a skeleton crew that it canít afford to pay on time.
"Any company that produces high quality content is simply going to be a victim of its own success, I fear, and this will continue to be a trend until a new model emerges," says Mike Potter, creative and production director at MFP Interactive.
"If the site is doing its job well, attracting people who are interested in the space program with intelligent articles on that subjectówell, then, why would you expect a lot of the people in the audience to click on the ads?"
According to Space.comís media kit, it has a better-than-average click-through rate of 1.04 percent.
Perhaps to its credit, the company has tried to diversify its revenue sources. For starters, it features a section called the Spaceshop, which peddles space books, videos and memorabilia plus gift-shop staples like astronaut ice cream. None of this stuff is especially hard to find elsewhere, however.
Space.com has also been acquisitive over the past year, but itís hard to say if the trend harms or helps its bottom line. The site has acquired web sites Spacenews.com, Florida Todayís Space Online, SpaceWatch.com, Starport.com and Explorezone.com along with print media such as Space Business International magazine and Gannettís Space News.
And Space.com, in tandem with Hearst, has also launched a magazine called Space Illustrated, although it has so far been greeted with a lukewarm reception at best.
So far the company has blasted through some $60 million in outside funding, a fact which didnít stop Gannett from recently taking a stake in the company.
The media community is not much impressed with any of this, seeing merely a web company thatís spending money with little chance for advertising support.
"Garden.com blew through $455 million before going bust," says Sean Carton. "I'd imagine that there are a heck of a lot more people interested in gardening than in space-related activities--a point underlined by the American public's general lack of interest in the subject unless thereís a disaster."
"Note to Lou Dobbs," writes an anonymous contributor to Fuckedcompany.com, a web site where people speculate which dot.coms are going to die next. "No one gives a fuck about space; they care about their stocks, sports and sex."
And people who do care about space have other highly credible, non-commercial options, such as the rich variety of sites operated by NASA.
Space.com does not make it even into Media Metrixís top 500 sites. It averages 700,000 monthly unique visitors, who spend about 11 minutes on the site.
"The problem: Eyeballs. They need more," says Benjou. "They need to charge for the service as a subscription. They desperately need to increase ad support. The site, as is, is not ad friendly.
"Relying on advertising and affiliate programs for support of this site will get them into trouble," says Benjou. "It could become another DrKoop.com if they don't act fast."
-Marty Beard is a staff writer for Media Life.
© 2001 Media Life