Column: Gestalt -- The Death of the Portal

Living in Washington, D.C., I’ve become accustomed to the glee with which so many watch who’s up and who’s down. There’s nothing like SecretarySo-and-So resigning for “family reasons,” or Senator Blowhard not running for re-election due to a “change in personal situation” to send the hearts of the Beltway atwitter.

So it was no great surprise to see all the Kremlinologists come out of the woodwork in recent months to find the “real story” behind management shakeups at AOL, Yahoo, Fox Digital Media, and elsewhere in the new media world. The cuts were too deep or they weren’t deep enough. The management shuffles and changes were a victory for traditional media, or a victory for new media forces that are slowly but surely making new media into traditional media. So-and-so was fired because his boss should have been fired. So-and-so wasn’t fired at all, but had long planned on escaping. And so forth and so on.

One theme that’s consistent in this chatter is a belief that the companies involved are “poorly (expletive deleted) managed.” If (substitute any large portal name) had only done “X,” and if management had been smart enough to drive “X,” all would be good and exciting.

If I’ve learned anything in a decade of running companies, it’s this: One, all leaders and their management teams screw up; and two, it’s therefore foolish to criticize those in whose shoes one hasn’t walked.

For the sake of argument, let’s say in all instances management could have done things better. Let’s further say that all who lost their jobs should have. This misses the point. Even if management was flawless, the bigger issue is transcendental. The central issue is that among all the shakeups in recent months, the business models were structurally unsound because the portal is dead.

 Now just looking at the collective audiences of AOL, Yahoo, MSN, and others, such a statement would seem rash, if not just plain foolish. But a deeper dig into audience behaviors raises some interesting questions. If these services didn’t offer e-mail, search, personalization via MyPages kinds of tools, and other services, what would their audiences look like? Further, how much of their “content” is consumed because it is on a portal (accessed through the home page, for example) or merely accessed from search links? How expensive are the “switching costs” to consumers who can find whatever they want just one click away?

Two examples brought this home to me. One was from my old job: At, where we wanted to attract anyone interested in Washington to come and stay as long as possible, it stunned me that most came in at the article page level. Now that I run a network of highly targeted Web health properties, I was unsurprised to hear that when asked what the No. 1 health Web site was, a majority of WebMD users answered Google. 

Consumers are in charge of their media and communications experiences and want what they want when, where, and how they want it. They’re sophisticated Internet users now, and need organizing tools on their terms to find experiences that matter to them. They don’t need walled gardens of safety where new media companies have behaved like — well — old media companies telling them what they want.

The arc of history is long, and behavior changes slowly. But if you were going to invent the portal today, would you? Why?

Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of The Health Central Network, a ChoiceMedia company. (,

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