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Summary:

After three years in the position — and three straight quarters of decline, Cella Irvine is no longer CEO of the New York Times (NYSE: NYT)…

Cella Irvine, About Group CEO

After three years in the position — and three straight quarters of decline, Cella Irvine is no longer CEO of the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) Co.’s About Group. She is being replaced by Martin Nisenholtz, the company’s SVP of digital operations.

In a staff memo, Nisenholtz said that he would be retaining his current corporate position as he extends his role to the About Group, which includes the main guide site About.com, ConsumerSearch and Calorie-Count. The company sold About’s UCompareHealthCare.com unit to MDxMedical in Februrary.

After a no-frills thank you to Irvine, Nisenholtz wrote: “My goal is to build on this incredible About franchise, leveraging the hundreds of passionate, independent guides and the collective intellect of the many talented employees within the business unit.”

Revenues stumble: The executive change comes amid three consecutive quarterly revenue declines at About, which was partially attributed to changes in Google’s search algorithm. The company’s traffic is heavily dependent on search, though display had been trending down as well.

Despite the recent stumbles, About had a pretty strong year in 2010, with revenues rising 12.4 percent at the unit. But despite the continuing ad recovery, Q4 saw a mild decline in revenues of around 3 percent. Things grew worse in Q1, as About revenues dropped 10.2 percent to $31.1 million. That trend is expected to continue into Q2.

The turnaround plan: A day before the NYTCO’s Q1 earnings report last month, I met with Irvine to discuss her plans for addressing the declines. “We’re making a significant expansion in our content and doubling down on video,” Irvine said at the time. Specifically, she said the over the course of the year, About would be adding 200 more guide sites for a total of 1,000. It’s also introducing a Spanish-language version to appeal to that growing demographic and the advertisers who want to reach them. In terms of video, About had been planning on doing more video and with special promotions on YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG).

Irvine’s approach: About had seen dark times before, particularly in 2009. Irvine stepped into the job at About in July 2008, roughly two months before the global financial meltdown halted the growth of online advertising.

She had been the chief administrative officer of interactive shop Digitas before she was selected to succeed Scott Meyer (currently CEO or Evidon) as About’s CEO. Meyer had stepped down in February of that year; Nisenholtz had taken the CEO reins in the interim.

As the economy and ad spending tanked, About sought to balance display with cost-per-click ads. In an interview with paidContent in August ’09, Irvine described her approach. “We have done some things to enhance the CPC offering. We have optimized some pages by adding an extra link or two for CPC advertising, for example. But those changes have mainly been around the edges, as opposed to a wholesale strategic shift. Think of it as tweaking, with an eye toward what is going to work best in the current environment.”

The latest turnaround: By focusing on the Hispanic audience, Irvine said she saw a way to build on a small segment of About’s audience. “Today, there are about 30 million U.S. Hispanics and we currently serve about 3.5 percent of them, mostly women,” Irvine said. “With the tremendous growth of that group over the next few years, it made sense to focus a lot more on building a relationship there. The good news is that we serve enough of that audience to observe them and see what they want. The goal is that by offering a dedicated site for them within the About umbrella, it would establish a foundation for continual growth over the years. You can’t just look quarter to quarter.”

  1. Niesenholtz is more of a “big ideas guy” than an operator. At NYTimes.com he always had an operator doing the day-to-day. Will be interesting to see what he does.

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  2. Niesenholtz didn’t take over as CEO when Scott Meyer left. Former CTO Ron McCoy stepped in during the search for Meyer’s replacement that resulted in the hiring of Cella Irvine.

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  3. Ding Dong, the Crazy Witch is Dead.

    How this could go on for 3 years is actually the question. This Martin crony (I guess she burned that bridge) never had the leadership to run About.com. It was clear from her legendary lunatic behavior, that the Empress had no clothes. All she had to offer was her charisma if you could call it that. Then she’d ask her senior team for ideas, and communicate them up to her management. About.com has always known that their traffic comes almost entirely from Google, and feared that a change in algorithm could substantially hurt their business. That fear played out, and Cella had no plan on how to turn it around. Meanwhile, under her “leadership,” many talented team members had their careers derailed while she pretended that everything was going to be fine.

    She was much more interested in talking about her family and personal life than in running the business. Her apartment being on the same block as the office presented many opportunities for her children to come in to visit, especially when they were ill, so that they could spread the love to the office. Meeting with Cella was always an exercise in pretending that she was interesting while you listened to her go on for the entire meeting about issues with her family, and it often inappropriate, too much information.

    Good riddance, and a comeuppance.

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  4. Shmabouter – that type of hiring of senior executives is typical of NYT. They hire and promote charismatic people who make nice with the higher ups. But these people usually lack relevant hard skills. The Times is a very political place.

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  5. Let me start out by saying I know nothing about CEOs and what they do so I can not evaluate her performance.@b723d0bf38450bd13320c753be95712f:disqus First, your targeting a mother for taking care of her sick children. Secondly, get real! About has two floors of a LARGE building for what 140-200 employees? Is one/two? sick child going to cause an epidemic? Get a flu shot and grow up.

    You say,
    “Then she’d ask her senior team for ideas, and communicate them up to her management.”
    Then you say,
    “many talented team members had their careers derailed while she pretended that everything was going to be fine”

    So combining these facts… anyone who’s career was derailed must have been derailed by their own ideas.

    Your opinion might be valid, but you sure are not going to convince me by scapegoating someone else for (your?) derailed career, or some supposed illness you contracted. How would you have solved the search problem for example?

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  6. asdasd asdasd Friday, May 13, 2011

    Good to see Martin at the helm. About is one of the few Web 1.0 companies to still be thriving and will hopefully benefit from his vision. About has been slow to add social functionality to its platform and remains overly reliant on the content farming model at a time when content is ubiquitous. I think going back its roots as a expert-based search service (perhaps in combination with Google) could be an interesting approach.

    From what I’ve heard, Cella was just impossible to work with and had zero ideas. (as an aside, I don’t know how managing the failure of Sidewalk.com makes you digital CEO material, but thats another thing). I know much of the senior staff left shortly after she had arrived and those who remained seemed disheartened. The company lost its magic and purpose.

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