About.com CEO Issues His Own Walking Papers

About.com CEO Scott Meyer has decided to step down after nearly three years as head of The New York Times Co.'s prized digital unit.

"After almost 3 years at About and almost 8 years with The New York Times Company, I am moving on," Meyer said in a note to Times staffers on Wednesday.

"Going forward, Martin and Ron will be managing the Group," Meyer said, referring to Martin Nisenholtz, The Times Co.'s senior vice president of digital operations, and Ron McCoy, its chief digital architect for digital operations.

The timing of Meyer's decision is less that ideal for The Times Co., which was rumored last month to be considering a sale of About.com. The unsubstantiated rumors came amid news that two hedge funds--Harbinger Capital and Firebrand Partners--were planning to launch a proxy fight to win four seats on the company's board, and were pressuring it to sell non-core assets.

Rumors of a possible sale were completely false, however, and could therefore have no bearing on Meyer's move, according to a source close to the situation who asked not to be named.

News of Meyer's announcement was first reported on Wednesday by industry blog paidContent.

Meyer said that his last day with the company will be March 6. According to a Times Co. spokeswomen, the company is now planning to "launch a search that will encompass both internal and external candidates" to fill the position.

By his own assessment, Meyer is leaving a very healthy About.com. "The About Group is in a very strong position," his email asserted to staffers. "I will miss not being a part of About's future, but I'm confident that the Group's best days are ahead."

About.com, which The Times Co. acquired from Primedia for $410 million in 2005, has established itself as a formidable network of some 600 sites covering a wide breadth of topics from technology to travel.

The unit is now estimated to be worth as much as $600 million, and--typical of its consistent rises in profit since 2005--About.com's 2007 revenue rose 28% year-over-year to $103 million.

While healthy, About.com does face challenges in key markets moving forward. In the critical health arena, for instance, About is up against increasing competition from new and deep-pocketed entrants into the space.

Microsoft, for one, now offers a specialized health care search engine to accompany its health records storage service. Google, which already has its own dedicated search tool, Google Co-op, for consumers to find health information, is presently working on new health products and services.

About's health channel drew 8.4 million unique visitors in January, up 36% from January 2007, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Those traffic numbers, however, still significantly trail market leaders like WebMD, which is averaging around 40 million monthly users.

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