About Group CEO Irvine Out; NYTCo’s Nisenholtz Will Run Unit

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.”