CNet Facing Shareholder Unrest

How can CNet bounce back when its audience isn't growing fast?

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A New Year’s downgrade of CNet Networks has an activist group of investors calling for big changes with the company.

If the investment group backed by the Jana Partners hedge fund has its way, the directors at CNet will be spending their time at CES in Las Vegas looking for new positions. The stock has languished ever since the dot-com crash at the turn of the century, its most recent 52-week high of $9.88 being less than three dollars away from the low for the same period.

Investors who want change at the top have made themselves known over the past couple of weeks. The group has picked up 21 percent of CNet, and made its demands known in late December 2007.

A Reuters report noted CNet’s third quarter ended with a net loss of $16.6 million. Forbes noted a downgrade by S&P analyst Scott Kessler, from ‘sell’ to ‘strong sell’.

The assessment by JPMorgan analyst Imran Khan cited by Forbes said CNet’s US visitor growth has been half that of the overall US Internet audience:

“We continue to believe that much of the audience for CNET’s core tech vertical is tech savvy and thus already online,” Khan said in a client note. “As such, the rising tide of continued growth in Internet penetration is not likely to significantly raise the tech sites’ audience.”

At Silicon Alley Insider, the prescription for fixing CNet involves paring away the non-technology sites that take away from what should be CNet’s focus:

The CNET brand has nothing to do with “food” and “parenting.” It has everything to do with technology-related stuff: gadgets, gaming, news, reviews, business, etc. (Or at least it did, until CNET management decided to become the next Conde Nast, diluted the brand, and opened the door for TechCrunch, Silicon Alley Insider, et al).

But if cutting back at CNet to its technology core means refocusing on what has been a slow-growth audience segment for the publisher, compared to the overall Internet, how will that help CNet rebound in visits and commensurate value for shareholders?

CNet Facing Shareholder Unrest
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