After suffering setbacks, Rodale tries decentralizing

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Rodale press, buffeted by setbacks in its online plans, now says a decentralized approach will work best for its magazines and books.

After trying to package Men's Health and Prevention and its book division into a single offering on the now-defunct AT&T Corp. consumer online service and later on America Online, Rodale now will let each brand determine its destiny.

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For Men's Health, that means a Web site featuring a transaction system enabling users to purchase back issues and articles.

Prevention, meanwhile, has stopped updating its Web site and won't relaunch until late this year at the earliest.

Rodale's book division may have the most aggressive plan; it opened four Web sites last year and plans to build four more sites this year.

The realization that the properties, which had been grouped into a unit called Rodale Health Online, would be better off on their own happened last November, said Tony Pribyl, advertising director for Men's Health Daily and other projects.

After the AT&T venture folded last summer, "we realized those [Rodale] businesses were going after different markets," said Susan Russo, who had been brought in to lead the Rodale Health Online unit and left earlier this year. "It didn't make sense to develop them as a package anymore."

Rodale tried to negotiate a deal to place the properties on AOL, but that also failed to materialize.

Rodale said it will not replace Ms. Russo, who is now managing partner of an as-yet unannounced startup company.

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Men's Health has "a working model . . . to pursue a combination of ad revenue and transaction revenue from books we're selling," said Jeff Morgan, the magazine's VP-publisher. "We're also planning to sell subscriptions, back issues and past feature stories."

Men's Health is seeking six-month sponsorships for about a $40 cost per thousand, Mr. Pribyl said.

Prevention, slated for a Web relaunch later this year, had initially tried to target the female market with a "Women's Edge" site. The site had secured $100,000 in advertising from three sponsors but returned the money when Rodale pulled the plug, Mr. Pribyl said.

The books division could be the most healthy; a site for one title, "Sex: A Man's Guide", has generated 2,000 book sales per month since its launch last February, Ms. Russo said.

The reorganization has also meant shifts in assignments to Web shops. New York-based Buoyant (formerly Neographic) had handled both magazines and the book division, but retains only the book business, said President Greg Trueman.

Men's Health is now handled by Mercury 7, a New York shop formed by several former Buoyant/Neographic executives.

Where this decentralized strategy will leave the brands remains to be seen.

George Aposporos, president of consultancy Digital Brands, which advised Rodale on the deal with AT&T, said he hopes the brands will continue to court partnerships.

"In order to win, you have to stay in the game," he said.

Copyright February 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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