- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

ATLANTA — It’s safe to say this doesn’t seem like the best time to start a news outlet, given the recession and the struggles of the media industry.

However, the creators of the Mother Nature Network are betting that another trend will eclipse even the worst economic forecast: the green boom.

They’ve launched an advertising-supported Web site, mnn.com, that aims to be a dependable source of environmental news written for the average reader - a sort of WebMD for green topics.

The Atlanta-based site, which launched this month, is off to a quick start. Joel Babbit, a veteran marketing executive who is the company’s president, raised much of the $10 million for the venture in a 24-hour spree last year. He and his partners helped pitch in the rest.

So far, the company has hired 17 full-time staffers - many of them castoffs of CNN and belt-tightening media companies - and is assembling a vast network of college bloggers. The goal is to create the most visited green-themed destination on the Internet, beating out not only established commercial sites like TreeHugger.com, but also online resources maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Before starting the site, Mr. Babbit and his partners studied Web pages from government agencies and advocacy groups and concluded that most are either too biased, too shallow or too wonky.

The other sites “don’t seem to be doing what we thought they could do,” said one Mother Nature Network investor and contributor, Chuck Leavell, a Georgia tree farmer better-known as a keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and, before that, the Allman Brothers Band. “I think there’s a gap as big as the Grand Canyon there that needs to be filled.”

Six months of development have yielded a crisp, colorful Web site. Mother Nature Network features eight broad channels - like “transportation” and “food” - each with its own blogger and a cadre of news stories. Among the articles are reports on the environmental ideas of Cabinet appointees and features that delve into how to “green” your morning coffee with shade-grown blends that better preserve rain forests.

The Mother Nature Network, like other media sites, is breaking down complex stories using graphics and other multimedia. Much of the focus is on video. The company hired two full-time video reporters and has original programming made with such environmentalists as Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, a farmer and consultant to ecogrowers, and Mr. Leavell, who has written a book on forests. Mother Nature Network also plans to begin airing episodes of the 1990s cartoon “Captain Planet” on the site in February.

Of course, simply being an environmental site at a time when green sensibilities are becoming more mainstream won’t inoculate the start-up from the economic mess. National Geographic abandoned the print edition of its Green Guide in December, and environmental magazine Plenty folded its print product this month.

Still, green gurus say there’s lots of room for more competition in online environmental news.

“We think there’s a bunch of growth left to come, and we want to push it until the market is entirely saturated,” said Graham Hill, the founder of TreeHugger.com, one of the leading environmental sites.

Mr. Hill said his site, which was bought by Discovery Communications in 2007, attracted 3.5 million hits in December and is gearing up to expand. TreeHugger won’t say whether it is profitable.

Mr. Hill’s new rival, Mr. Babbit, said he’s confident that Mother Nature Network has a business model that can draw corporate ad dollars even in the economic downturn, and he points to about half a dozen corporate giants he said he’s recently signed, including Dell Inc., MillerCoors and AT&T; Inc.

The template he created gives advertisers five squares on Web pages that they can use as they choose. One ad, by energy utility Southern Co., offers graphics with power-saving tips and videos detailing how the company tries to balance its coal plants with cleaner energy technology.

“So many of these sites were started by environmentalists who had no experience as business people,” Mr. Babbit said. “We were able to build something that’s not just great from an environmental standpoint but also from a business standpoint.”

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