About.com Vet Darline Jean Promoted To CEO; Will Report To Nisenholtz

The New York Times Company (NYSE: NYT) is making some personnel shifts at its About Group unit once again with the promotion of CFO Darline Jean to CEO. In addition, About is also making some adjustments to its executive sales team. The announcement comes two months after Martin Nisenholtz, SVP, digital operations, New York Times Company digital, took over responsibility for unit on a day-to-day basis, replacing previous CEO Cella Irvine.

In Jean’s place, Karen Messineo will move over from her role as a VP of finance in The New York Times Media Group, to become CFO of the About Group on September 1.

Meanwhile, Tracy Raiser has been named About’s SVP of sales. She was previously VP, sales, western region. Frank Minishak had been her Eastern region counterpart and will now be VP, national sales.

The news Jean’s promotion to the top spot at About is not entirely surprising. Though, it was sooner than the NYTCo might have led people to believe. When I asked Nisenholtz back in May if he was taking on the running of About on a temporary basis, he said the company was not conducting a CEO search. He further indicated that he was entirely comfortable with doing the job in addition to his current duties at About’s parent.

Nisenholtz helmed About with the unit’s former CTO Ron McCoy during the period current Evidon CEO Scott Meyer departed as head of the unit in February 2008 and Irvine took on the job that July.

In an interview with paidContent shortly after he stepped in for Irvine in May, Nisenholtz said, “I’m very excited to be back involved in the day-to-day running of About. You have to remember that About has reported to me since we acquired the company in March 2005.”

Almost immediately after Irvine’s exit, people close to About told me they expected Jean to be the real force running About. “Darline knows About inside and out; it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the business can’t be run without her,” one About observer told me.”

For the most part, About has been a major online revenue generator for the NYTCo, except for a brief stumble during the deepest part of the recession in early 2009. Under Irvine, the company cut costs and expanded its sales of cost-per-click advertising to buttress the weakness in display revenues resulting from the economic downturn.

The shift into CPC advertising was based on the fact that the main guide site, About.com, and its sibling sites ConsumerSearch and Calorie-Count, gets about 80 percent of its traffic from search.

All was well until Google (NSDQ: GOOG) updated its algorithm, which was ostensibly aimed at curtailing “content farms” that would use search optimization to drive traffic to low-quality content. Although About.com has been able to avoid being tagged as a content farm, the changes nevertheless dented its traffic.

As such, since Q4, About’s revenues have been trending down and down. In last week’s NYTCo earnings, the company said About Group revenues dropped 17.3 percent to $27.8 million. In Q1, About Group revenues decreased 10.2 percent. The trends are expected to continue into Q3 and a turnaround may not be complete until next year.

Display revenues have been trending downward as well, so all the blame cannot be laid at Google’s feet. Although About.com, which recently marked its 15th anniversary, has been trying to reverse the negative trends for months. There were several initiatives that started under Irvine that are continuing and are expected to help change About’s fortunes: over the course of this year, About would be adding 200 more guide sites for a total of 1,000. It’s also introduced a Spanish-language version to appeal to that growing demographic and the advertisers who want to reach them. Lastly, it’s focusing a lot more on video and has worked with YouTube on building out its video channel.

There is also talk of more focus on mobile. Either way, About’s recovery can be expected to be gradual, as it adjusts its search plans in the face of Google’s changes. In choosing Jean and reorganizing its ad sales force with in-house veterans, the message the NYTCo seems to be sending is that the unit doesn’t need a complete overhaul. Just some tweaks on sales and management from a group of executives who know About well. Release