Sites get down with the OPA

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Formed quietly in June to serve as another organization to move the beleaguered Internet industry forward, the Online Publishers Association is making its mission clearer in a business world that has grown increasingly uncertain in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Last week, the New York-based OPA announced Bankrate.com, Microsoft Corp.'s Slate.com, Space.com and Landmark Communications' Weather.com had joined a membership roster that already includes venerable online brands such as Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal Online, The New York Times Co.'s New York Times Digital and CNET Networks. As an organization that aims to serve the wide array of online-publisher concerns, the group got together the week after the attacks to discuss challenges the industry faced. Although dealing with advertiser issues during national crises is a standard practice among TV broadcasters, for online publishers the experience was new. "In some cases what we talked about is how to handle [it], and what advertising is appropriate to keep on your site and what is not," said Deborah Wilson, president-CEO of Weather.com.

Michael Zimbalist, the organization's acting executive director, said the members focused on several key questions, including, "What should our tone be?" However, anecdotally, he said, the industry seemed to be in a better position than some other media because of the speed with which ads could be retooled. "They're not seeing a lot of cancellations," he said of the member base.

While an air of uncertainty remains-as Weather.com's Ms. Wilson put it, "I think that all marketers spent a good two weeks just trying to absorb what was occurring"-Mr. Zimbalist said history shows that some of the attack-related surge in Internet usage will be permanent. Therefore, sites should be prepared. "We know people are going to the Web much more regularly," he said. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, even news sites in areas only minimally affected by the disaster, such as Knight Ridder Digital's charlotte.com, saw traffic skyrocket. At that North Carolina-based site, the number of average daily unique visitors grew from 42,000 in the weeks before the attacks to 67,000 afterwards. As another example, Slate.com saw huge leaps, jumping 385% to 678,000 daily unique visitors.

The traffic increases, according to Mr. Zimbalist, need to be addressed, in part so advertisers understand how ingrained Internet usage has become. Though many online publications have become increasingly indispensable, many are far from earning their keep. The mission, he said, is "How can we ensure that this grows and flourishes?"

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