CNET casts net to catch digital talent

CNET's custom-built TV studio is just opposite the pool table at the web-only publisher's new £3million offices in Southwark, south London.

Perhaps this spot best sums up CNET's ambitions: it is placing more emphasis on its websites' multimedia content and wants to create an environment that appeals to a young talent pool which managing director Tom Bureau says is in short supply.

Last year the company added more than 50 staff. Its previous home near Tower Bridge had been bursting at the seams and moving to new offices has given it space to grow to up to 300 staff.

There is much glass, metal, bright colours and natural light. Once a private lift from the ground floor is completed, visitors will walk across a bridge over an airy canteen and seminar facility on the lower floor before reaching the main reception area.

"It's a California feel with a UK progressive theme," Bureau says proudly. Whatever that means, the space befits a publishing company trying to convey a laid-back dot-com attitude.

In its first ABCe audit, published in February, CNET's 18-month-old consumer technology site CNET.co.uk boasted 1.3 million unique users and over seven million page impressions.

The company's longer-established business-to-business title, Silicon.com, recorded a 42 per cent year-on-year growth to 752,838 unique users and four million impressions.

Presiding over an online-only publishing company, Bureau is in the enviable position of not having to worry about how the sites affect legacy print titles.

"It's very tough for a lot of the traditional media groups who are having to deal with the concept of internal cannibalisation of revenues, having to get together the right strategy, get the right blend of experience. It's well known that it's causing a lot of anguish and heartache and uncertainty," he says.

CNET's individual titles compete with traditional magazine publishers' online offerings, particularly VNU on the business-to-business side and Future Publishing's consumer technology titles. As an online-only publisher its closest corporate equivalents may be those corners of much larger online portal empires like Yahoo! or AOL that produce original content.

At the other end of the scale, technology blogs like Weblogs Inc's Engadget, the Gawker-VNU collaboration Gizmodo and Michael Arrington's TechCrunch are clawing their way into CNET's market, particularly in the United States.

"We don't find [blogs] very scary in the UK market, because they're American and centralised, but I know they are very much at the forefront of what the guys in the US are thinking in terms of the competitive landscape."

The blogs, says Bureau, are an "interesting competitor", but he doubts that many of them will be able to produce high-quality professional content, particularly in video form. The fact that a semi-professional HD video set-up can be assembled for around £5,000 does not mean everyone will be able to use it well, he insists.

Instead, Bureau expects blog software and cheap video equipment to have an impact analogous to the introduction of Apple Macs and desktop publishing in the 1980s.

That development also made professional tools affordable, but only a few start-ups to adopt these new capabilities threatened established publishers.

"It doesn't mean that everybody is going to have the skills and ability to build successful businesses on the back of it. And if they do, bloody good luck to them – people like me will buy them."

Bureau speaks from experience. A magazine he helped launch in the early 1990s, Business & Technology, was eventually bought by Dennis Publishing. That magazine's digital wing became what is today Silicon.com. That site's acquisition by CNET Networks brought Bureau into the company.

In the United States, CNET has expanded beyond tech with the parenting site UrbanBaby and food site Chow. It has also launched a user-generated television fan site TV.com, which the company is hoping to bring to the UK later this year. Beyond that, the UK division is looking to grow with new launches or possibly acquisitions.

"Its incumbent upon us to look to sectors where online is the perfect medium to bring that content to life. There are sectors that lend themselves to that more than others," says Bureau.

In all of the titles, user-generated and video content figures prominently in all of CNET's titles. "There's a huge explosion in the demand for TV advertising, be it pre-roll, post-roll or tenancy," Bureau explains.

Publishing between 2.5 million and three million streams per month, CNET is finding video increasingly lucrative, and is planning to increase the operation to keep up with demand.

Around 80 per cent of CNET Networks editorial staff are now involved in podcasting or video production of some sort. In addition, they are all expected to blog and moderate community features in addition to writing their conventional stories.

Harnessing the skills and knowledge of its technology-literate readership is a central feature of CNET's sites.

"If you're a national newspaper, it's much more difficult to see how user-generated content and feedback will add to your editorial product than if you are a very vertical product where your audience likely knows more or at least as much about the subject as the journalists," says Bureau.

The company's B2B site ZDnet relaunched recently with new community features. Eventually, the company hopes that 30 to 40 per cent of the site's content will be user-generated.

"We try not to make a distinction between our editors' or the best of the users' content. Whatever is the best content gets promoted and tacked to the original story. You've got to have a pretty different mindset as a journalist."

The company's journalists, he says, "are expected to understand that we need to stop being a push medium and start being an interactive and pull medium."

Moving to the new office, says Bureau, is part of a strategy of making CNET an attractive employer to recruits most suited to this new type of media company.

"It's clear that it's a very competitive market. In terms of recruitment there's a great shortage of talented people," says Bureau.

The problem is particularly acute on the advertising sales side of the business, but editorial recruitment is affected as well.

The technical skills that are specific to online journalism, like writing search-engine friendly headlines, Bureau says, are easily learned on the job.

"There are skills you can teach quite easily if you've got the right raw material. One of the things you can't teach is attitude," says Bureau.

Far more difficult, he says, is finding people who are willing to experiment and embrace new tools. Many journalists, he says, have a tendency to be "quite habitual".

Another plank in the strategy is to create a company culture that fosters young recruits' instinctive understanding of technology.

Bureau cites a 2001 essay by Marc Prensky that argues that everyone born after about 1980 does not remember a world without digital technology. In contrast to these "digital natives", everyone older is a "digital immigrant" who has had to learn about these technologies.

"Us immigrant lot have to realise that if you want to talk to a certain audience that you're not part of, then you have no real validity in your views. So you've got to get experience blended with youth, and that leads to an exciting work environment. But it also means that you have to [change] old management styles."

On one occasion, at least, CNET's approach to multimedia and user-generated content has come together neatly with its human resources concerns.

CNET.co.uk's most recent editorial appointment was digital music reviewer Nate Lanxon, who was offered a job after impressing editors with the CNET-style video review of his mobile phone that he had uploaded to YouTube.

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