- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009


Think of the most popular brands in celebrity news, and you’ll probably come up with a small list that includes Entertainment Tonight, Us Weekly and People.

Consider the most successful celebrity-news destinations online, and something else jumps to the top. For more than a year, one site has attracted more eyeballs than any other in the realm of celebrity gossip: Yahoo Inc.’s Omg!

With a dedicated staff of just five people and more than a dozen shared with other Yahoo sites, the company has settled on a formula that Yahoo Media Group head Jimmy Pitaro calls “highly profitable,” although Yahoo won’t reveal details.

The fact that Yahoo’s entertainment site outdraws rivals that aim to break news - such as TMZ.com, which broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death - helps illustrate that success online doesn’t always mean being first and having exclusives.

It also marks a rare success for the struggling Internet portal, which has shed thousands of employees and shuttered several businesses, a process Chief Executive Officer Carol Bartz accelerated after being hired in January.

While Miss Bartz said at a shareholders meeting in June that she felt too many entertainment stories make Yahoo’s front page, Mr. Pitaro says she’s a solid supporter of the company’s media properties in general.

Omg! puts a light, positive spin on articles and other tidbits that mostly come from other news organizations such as “Access Hollywood” and Associated Press. The vital placement of Omg! links and blurbs on Yahoo’s home page gives it access to 500 million unique visitors a month.

The strategy has vaulted the 2-year-old site past People and TMZ, both units of Time Warner Inc. as well as other popular celebrity sites such as PerezHilton.com.

According to the latest figures from tracking firm ComScore Inc., Omg! clocked 20.6 million unique visitors in May, a 65 percent increase from a year ago and more than No. 2 TMZ and No. 3 People combined.

The majority of the Omg! traffic comes from people who click through Yahoo’s home page, which critics and competitors view as giving it an unfair advantage.

Other large media organizations have taken notice. In February, Microsoft Corp. and Hollywood production company BermanBraun jointly launched Wonderwall with a similar strategy of drawing traffic from a large portal - in this case, Microsoft’s MSN. Like Omg!, Wonderwall runs on a small staff, about a dozen full time.

In April, the last month its data were broken out, Wonderwall had 9 million unique visitors, putting it past People and into third behind TMZ had it been ranked by ComScore among other entertainment news sites.

“They would not be there were they not affiliated with a Yahoo or an MSN or these large corporate entities,” says Perez Hilton, the celebrity blogger who runs PerezHilton.com. “I think their numbers are misleading.”

Like its rivals, Omg! says it has been gradually succeeding at deriving more of its traffic “organically,” through search queries or people bookmarking the pages. However, there’s no question traffic from the portal helps it stand out among some 1,000 or so celebrity news sites that have popped up, and occasionally dropped out, during the past several years.

The tone of Omg! is like Yahoo itself - bright, breezy and nonjudgmental.

After Mr. Jackson’s unexpected death, Omg! took a respectful, celebratory view of the pop icon’s life through photo galleries and celebrity reaction stories, leaving the hard-driving news pieces to Yahoo’s front page and news site.

That bright spin has attracted advertisers worried that appearing next to salacious scandal stories would turn off some consumers. State Farm Insurance Cos., for instance, has sponsored a series of short celebrity-mom interviews, targeting mothers in a conflict-free format that avoids some of the celebrity muckraking of other sites.

People.com Editor Mark Golin says that while such sites may capture a lot of visitors, reliance on a portal home page may not work in the long term. Although People benefits from links on AOL LLC’s home page and other sites - even Omg! - Mr. Golin says most traffic comes to the site directly. People writers work both for the magazine and the Web site, although he wouldn’t reveal how many.

Benefiting from the largesse of a portal is nothing new: TMZ launched in November 2005 attached to the AOL home page.

What is astonishing about Omg! and Wonderwall’s success is the lack of any aspiration to break news, while focusing on glossy, magazine-like packaging and photographs.

“I think Omg! is great for what they do. It’s different from what we do. We break stories,” says Harvey Levin, executive producer of TMZ. “You shouldn’t be reliant on another place for getting all your traffic…. It’s just better business.”

Mr. Levin says his reporters try to ferret out court documents, produce original video clips and obtain exclusive information. Major breaks have included the anti-Semitic tirade by actor Mel Gibson during a drunken driving arrest and racist epithets Michael Richards hurled at hecklers at a West Hollywood comedy club. TMZ also broke the news of Mr. Jackson’s death more than half an hour before traditional news organizations.

Although the page view count at Omg!, Wonderwall and other entertainment sites is staggering, revenue is likely to be fairly small (Yahoo doesn’t break out figures for Omg!).

Companies pay roughly $10 or more for every 1,000 people who look at a Web page with their advertisement displayed. With 321 million pages viewed in May, that’s an estimated $3.2 million in ad revenue.

In the fight for attention and Internet advertising dollars, Mr. Pitaro makes no excuses.

“If you consider our competitors who have siblings that are TV broadcasters, they get tons of promotion on air,” Mr. Pitaro said. “We’re differentiating ourselves by striking the right tone and aggregating the best content on the Web.”

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