"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Farewell, My Lovely



The news hit us like a cold slap from a vicious venture capitalist with big hands, a regularly viewed Tae Bo video, and abandonment issues. APBNews.com, our favorite source for unbiased, in-depth, eight-year-old video footage of bawling drug-bust detainees, was dead. Deader than Boo.com. Deader than Bob Hope. Rotten, stinking, bloated dead, with a balance sheet only George Romero could love.

First we sobbed like a baby who'd invested all his Pampers money in toysmart.com. Then we hit the bottle like Big Lou Gandesi used to hit The All-Nite Cheeseburger Factory after puffing on the sweet leaf all day: hard. Then we sank into a sour-mash stupor and let the questions attack us like tiny flying monkeys wearing brass knuckles on their tiny, flying-monkey fists. Why had APBNews.com, a site with a unique editorial product and consistently solid execution, gone the way of so many lesser ideas? How had this possibly come to pass?

The geniuses down at headquarters weren't much help. They said APBNews.com died because it ran out of money. Which is sort of like looking at a murder victim's Swiss-cheesed corpse and realizing he probably got shot. Oh well. Maybe they were saving their real answers for paying customers. Either way, we still had questions.

Like, what about that nice slice of Madison pie APBNews.com had supposedly carved for itself by syndicating fresh mayhem to the big boys? Or even if that just ended up in a lot of let's-swap-traffic dirty talk, what about the $20 million in second-round gravy it had sopped up from Robertson Stephens last July? Sure the operation was a little staff-heavy, but $20 million can mask a lot of deadwood, can't it? Too drunk for pen-and-ink calculations, we broke out our Palm Pilots and did the math, Chris Byron-style. 140 full-time staffers multiplied by, say, $75 large for each one. It only added up to $10.5 million. So where had all the rest of that gravy disappeared to? Was loose-fingered pretty-boy David Talbot secretly running the joint? Had that fish-faced sack-twister Marcia Clark, recently hired by APBNews.com, reeled in one of her trademark $4.2 million advances?



In search of answers, we hit the clicks. Romenesko would know. He always knew. And there it was, the fourth bullet point in a four-item addendum, buried like a turd in a litter box by a cat with something dark and sinister to hide. The cat that ate the canary? Maybe. It was a piece from the OJR morgue, "The New Crime Boss," written back in the high-flying days of December. We clicked, we read, we marinated in the piece's prescient skepticism about APBNews.com's ambitious marketing strategy. And slowly, like an ugly, screaming, large-headed baby emerging from the overtaxed pelvis of his tiny-framed momma, our hypothesis began to materialize.

From OJR we hoofed it over to Lexis-Nexis, where we didn't ask questions. We demanded answers, Boolean style. And before you could say "natural language query engine," we had ourselves a name. Bozell Kamstra. Yeah, it sounds like the moniker of some Serbian lead distributor with a face like a pile of dirty laundry and less conscience than Bill Gates' pet shark. In reality, it's something much scarier. An advertising agency. With a branch office in Peabody, Massachusetts staffed by two hard cases with a taste for irritating banter and casual, comfortable ensembles sans neckties.

According to an APBNews.com press release, APBNews.com launched a Bozell Kamstra-crafted ad campaign on September 13, 1999. The objective? To do for crime reporting what The Kinsey Report did for stroke books. You know, give it the old shoeshine, make it respectable, credible. The cost? Initial billings were "estimated at $20 million."



Are you getting this, ace? Just weeks after the $20 million cash bath from Robertson Stephens, APBNews.com was fixing to blow it all on banner ads and spot TV. Yeah, those Kamstra boys, they're slick, all right. So slick they could probably sell dynamic, sales-related adjectives to a Fast Company columnist. Word is, to win the account, they hired actors to rob APBNews.com staffers at knifepoint in the midst of their sales pitch. And once the wallets were open, the deal was closed.

Of course, it was a different era back then. Getting large green from the bubble boys was as easy as scoring dick from Kurt Andersen in 1969. And $20 million, well, it must have seemed like a drop in the bucket to the APBNews.com gang. "I've told the staff that we are headed for TWD — total world domination," huffed APB's Chief Operating Officer Mark Sauter in the OJR. "People like to throw money at us," purred SVP of Marketing and Sales Erica Ress in American Demographics. "We're unstoppable."

Well. The marketing dames, they always think that. And then they get smarter, or they get dead. And you know how this story ends, right? In the beginning, everything was as rosy as Jennifer Aniston's ass after a steam bath and a detox herbal seaweed bio-wrap. The APBNews.com ad campaign kicked off in September 1999. In a month's time, unique monthly visitors jumped from 500,000 to 1.13 million. In November 1999, they rose again, to 1.69 million. In early 2000, thanks to the ongoing ad campaign and to an especially popular package about the NFL's most penalized stars, site traffic exploded, peaking in February at 2.48 million. But when the ad campaign ended this spring? In April, 2.1 million visitors came to the site. In May, when Sauter says APBNews.com spent no money at all on advertising, site traffic plunged to 972,000. (All stats courtesy of PC Data Online.)



As it turns out, APBNews.com didn't spend the $20 million it said it was going to spend. According to Sauter, "less than $2 million" went to offline advertising and "less than $10 million" went to online advertising during APBNews.com's brief 18-month life. Still, that means that out of the $23.5 million in total financing it raised, it spent nearly $12 million on advertising. These days, you could start a dozen Industry Standard obituaries with that sentence — plenty of e-tailers spend half or even more of their total budgets on advertising. But APBNews.com wasn't just another pet store puppet pimp desperate to get mindshare from an audience that wasn't exactly dying for one-click kibble commerce in the first place. It had a product people actually liked. It delivered that product in ways you couldn't get elsewhere, online or offline.

What if APBNews.com had limited itself to something closer to the 2.2% advertising-to-sales ratio that traditional newspapers maintain? What if they'd worried less about building brands through advertising and instead focused on what they were best at — building an audience through content? As Sauter pointed out to us, attracting 972,000 uniques with zero action from the Kamstra boys was a solid accomplishment. Still, as APBNews.com searches for someone with a spare $10 million and wheezes out a few last gasps, what's his sales pitch? A 54% drop in site traffic in one month is cause for big smiles? For a while, advertising pumped up APBNews.com's numbers with the able dispatch of a Beverly Hills boob doctor. Now it's created a reader-growth bar chart with a plunge so severe only Jennifer Lopez' dress designer could love it. Or maybe Fox News. But at a time when the world of online journalism has turned into a giant game of Survivor, a major post-mortem miracle seems only slightly more likely than a full confession from OJ.

courtesy of St. Huck
picturesTerry Colon

St. Huck