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商业 - 传媒与文化

美国在线:网络娱乐帝国美梦或成空

Dan Mitchell 2011年09月05日

美国在线如今正为生存而苦苦挣扎,而公司的首席执行官曾经梦想着把它打造成21世纪的迪士尼,一个繁荣兴盛、多元经营的媒体巨无霸。现在看来,事情发展得不遂人意。

    美国在线公司(AOL)的首席执行官蒂姆•阿姆斯特朗是个浪漫主义者。这本身就是件值得称道的事,更不用提这样的人在现代美国商界已属凤毛麟角。不幸的是,如果浪漫主义者不能将雄心壮志转化为可观的利润,就不大可能得到当代美国投资者,尤其是公共投资者的青睐。

    私人投资者虽然也好不到哪儿去,但他们至少愿意给阿姆斯特朗一个机会,让他实现自己的浪漫梦想:打造全球首家互联网媒体帝国。2年前,阿姆斯特朗带领美国在线脱离时代华纳公司(Time Warner),他当时宣称,要将该公司打造成21世纪的迪士尼(Disney);对了,同时还要成为21世纪的美国有线电视新闻网(CNN)。不少传奇性的老牌杂志一度纷纷裁员,人数以数百计;但他却不吝投入,斥资发展严肃的新闻报道。真不愧是浪漫派。

    可悲的是,时代并未眷顾阿姆斯特朗的美好愿景。美国在线今年第二季度损失了1,180万美元。尽管这家独立不久的公司广告营收额首次实现增长(5%),但与投资者的预期仍然相差十万八千里。该公司的股票曾在2010年4月创下最高,达到28.45美元,如今的交易价却只有15美元。上周三,有消息称,美国在线已经开始一系列洽谈,欲转为私有公司。《纽约邮报》(New York Post)对此进行了报道,称有消息人士对该报透露:“即使现在作为上市公司开始赢利,也未必有用。因为这样一来,他们有可能更胆大妄为,从而承受更大的风险。”

    事实上,阿姆斯特朗的梦想本身就是个巨大的风险,因而也就不可能赢得公共股东的支持。他试图借助超本地化新闻网站Patch.com,建立一个涵盖美国各地新闻站点的全国性网络。这项事业耗资惊人,又充满了变数,但阿姆斯特朗依然态度坚决,誓要将其打造为美国在线的战略基石。公司第二季度财务数据低迷,8月初,阿姆斯特朗在发布该报告时称,2013年,美国在线的业务将出现改观。他同时还称:“继续保留上市公司的身份,同时又坚持我们既定的战略,这条路在未来行不通。”美国在线只能选择其一,而不能鱼与熊掌兼得。

    除了转为私有公司或者将命运寄托在私募机构KKR(据报道该机构有兴趣投资美国在线)的身上,美国在线还可以将自己全部或部分卖给雅虎(Yahoo)这样的公司(这条路有可能奏效,也可能会乱上添乱),将公司化整为零然后分别出手,或者关闭Patch网站。此外,它还可选择出售其拨号上网业务,这块业务固然可以带来现金流,但其赢利周期其实已近尾声。菲利克斯•萨尔曼曾在路透社(Reuters)撰文称,拨号上网业务是私募机构的上佳选择。迄今这块业务依然在产生大量现金而且利润丰厚。“出让这块业务的管理权的时机已然成熟,”萨尔曼写道。

    Patch的运营范围覆盖美国的850个城市。如果关闭这块业务,美国在线转眼就能赢利。但是,那样做就违背了阿姆斯特朗的梦想。他坚持认为,从长远角度看,网络是本地新闻的未来。同时,《赫芬顿邮报》(Huffington Post)一直干得有声有色,自美国在线今年2月收购该网站以来,它的流量增加了12%。该网站长期依赖廉价内容吸引流量,但是用于员工的开支也颇为高昂,这点与Patch如出一辙。

    迄今为止,网络媒体的成功几乎无一例外地是依靠低成本、雇佣少量员工的运营策略实现的。但是,阿姆斯特朗认为,为了提供优质内容而支付高额成本,这种做法最终会得到回报。这种观点不仅是其梦想中最为捉摸不定的一块,同时也是最烧钱的一块。

    译者:大海

    Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL (AOL), is a romantic. That's laudable, not to mention rare in modern American business. Unfortunately, modern American investors don't look favorably on romantics if they can't bring profits along with their lofty ideals -- especially modern American public investors.

    Private investors aren't much better, but they'd probably at least give Armstrong a better chance of realizing his romantic dream: to build the first great Internet media empire. As he was shepherding AOL through its public spinoff from Time Warner (TWX) two years ago, Armstrong said he meant to turn the company into the 21st century's Disney (DIS). Oh, and also the 21st century's CNN. He invested in real reporting at a time when storied magazines were shedding jobs by the hundreds. Romantic.

    Sadly, times have not been hospitable to Armstrong's vision. AOL lost $11.8 million in its second quarter, and while ad revenues were up for the first time in the young spinoff's history (by 5%), they aren't anything close to what investors want or expect. The stock, which peaked in April 2010 at $28.45, is trading just north of $15 –- and that's up on the news Wednesday that AOL is in talks for a private takeover. The New York Post reported those talks, with one source telling the paper: "It doesn't help to be doing a turnaround in public. They could be more bold and take more risks."

    Armstrong's dream, indeed, is also a giant risk –- one that is unlikely to ever gain favor with public shareholders. With Patch, he's trying to build a national network of local news sites. It's an incredibly expensive, highly uncertain undertaking, but Armstrong still seems determined to make it a cornerstone of AOL's strategy. In reporting the company's dismal second-quarter numbers earlier this month, Armstrong said a turnaround would take until 2013. He might as well have said: "Sticking with our strategy while remaining a public company just isn't going to work." AOL can do one or the other, but not both.

    Besides going private and relying on the patience of, say, private-equity shop KKR (KKR) (which is reported to be interested), AOL could sell itself in whole or in part to a company like Yahoo (YHOO) (which could work, or could simply be adding trouble to trouble), break the company up and sell off the pieces, or close down Patch. It could also sell off its dialup business, which provides cash flow, but is nearing the end of its useful life. As Felix Salmon notes at Reuters, the dialup business is perfect for private equity. It's still generating lots of cash and margins are thick. It's "ripe for a managed decline," Salmon writes.

    Closing Patch, which operates in 850 towns around the country, would make AOL instantly profitable. But that wouldn't hew to Armstrong's dreams. He insists that in the long term, local news will work online. The Huffington Post, meanwhile, is doing well, with traffic up 12% since AOL acquired it in February. But that site, which long relied on inexpensive content to draw high volume, is spending big on staff now just like Patch.

    Web-media success stories up to now have nearly always involved low-cost, small-staff operations. Armstrong believes that spending for quality content will eventually pay off. It's the most uncertain aspect of his dream -- and also the most expensive.

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