CBS News Becomes Widget Factory

What does the long-term future hold for local television news business? Unclear. What does the short term promise?

Widgets.

On Wednesday, June 18, executives as WCBS, the CBS-owned and -operated station in New York City, unveiled a new online business venture in which they will supply “widgets with real-time news feeds” to a network of local blogs.

Reached on the phone recently, Dan Shelley, the director of digital media for the station, explained that WCBS was offering bloggers a variety of different widget packages to choose from, ranging from sports to entertainment to breaking news.

“We have a ‘water cooler’ section, which is a robust section full of weird news stories,” said Mr. Shelley. “No doubt, some blogs will go for that.”

Each widget comes with an advertising component, he said. The station will sell the ads that pop up in the widgets. Any blogger who agrees to post the widget on their Web site will get a cut of the ad sales.

He said that a third-party vendor was helping WCBS recruit the bloggers. So far, according to Mr. Shelley, 34 blogs have signed up for the deal. Early pioneers include www.yanksblog.com, www.metsgrrl.com and www.nycscenequeen.com. “There’s no criteria other than it not be obscene in any way,” said Mr. Shelley. Eventually, he hopes to sign up several hundred blogs in the tristate region.

So, um, what’s a widget?

Mr. Shelley directed NYTV to www.urbanspoon.com, a Web site that aggregates food reviews from newspapers and bloggers. We clicked on a page of reviews for Mario Batali’s foodie mecca Babbo. Sure enough, there at the top right side of the page was the WCBS widget. It had two parts: a box at the top full of links to news stories provided by the WCBS Web site and a box at the bottom featuring an ad.

The top link in the widget’s news box redirected readers to a story on the WCBS Web site, titled “Stabbed Man Knocks on Long Island Door, Then Dies.” In the widget’s ad space, Dr. Joseph Dello Russo of New York and New Jersey beckoned with laser eye surgery services. “Envision Your Future,” read the ad.

Recently, the future of local broadcast journalism has looked bleak. Stations, which for decades enjoyed astronomical profit margins, have been gradually losing ad revenue as viewers migrate to the Web. In April, CBS stations around the country laid off more than 150 employees, including a number of seasoned veteran reporters and anchors. WCBS was no exception. In the recent months, several top on-air talents, including Jim Rosenfield and Scott Weinberger, have disappeared from the New York air waves.

But compared to seasoned reporters and anchors, widgets are cheap.

Mr. Shelley pointed out that WCBS didn’t have to hire a single extra reporter or editor in order to launch the program. All of the content will be provided by the handful of full-time editorial employees of the WCBS Web site. He said the software and infrastructure was supplied by the CBS Television Stations Digital Media Group, which will be helping to roll out similar widget-revenue-sharing programs at the more than a dozen CBS-owned stations around the country.

How long until the widget-syndication program turns a profit?

“It’s profitable today,” said Mr. Shelley. “This is one of the beautiful things about online. You launch it, and if you have advertisers attached to it already, as we did, you’re making money from day one.”

Mr. Shelley said that WCBS already had a number of advertisers signed up (including Grand Bahama Island)—all of which were interested in targeting “hyper-local blogs.”

After speaking with Mr. Shelley, The Observer sent an e-mail to the proprietors of www.urbanspoon.com. A few minutes later we got a call back from Ethan Lowry, the 34-year-old co-founder of the growing blog network. He said his company was based in Seattle. He and his partners launched the New York version of Urbanspoon in January 2007.

“Our whole model is, we try to pull together all the local voices, newspapers, bloggers and local food lovers writing reviews,” said Mr. Lowry. “One of the things that we really pride ourselves on is having extremely locally oriented sites.”

Mr. Lowry said he has zero editorial employees in New York.

“For us, this is a great way to get access to local advertisers that we wouldn’t otherwise have a relationship with,” said Mr. Lowry. “The other thing we get is credibility. They know WCBS. They know that they’re credible. There’s a rub-off effect. They know we’re working with a real brand.”

Mr. Lowry declined to say how much money his Web site received for helping to syndicate the WCBS content and ads. But he said it paid well—roughly twice what he gets from Google AdSense.

“It’s a good partnership,” said Mr. Lowry. “It’s easy.”

fgillette@observer.com

CBS News Becomes Widget Factory