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Users Decide What’s News at Netscape

Times Staff Writer

AOL plans today to relaunch its Netscape Internet portal as an experiment in community journalism, trying to recapture the magic of the once-famous online brand.

Netscape will rely on its users to submit, rank and comment on news stories, videos and blog postings from across the Web. Stories will be organized into 30 categories, such as movies, travel and money.

The user-participation approach borrows from the model of tech sites such as Digg and Slashdot, and stands in contrast to Google News’ reliance on software for compiling relevant stories.

“It’s kind of a meta-journalism,” said Jason McCabe Calacanis, the AOL senior vice president who oversaw the Netscape redesign.

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After users post stories, professional editors will complement some with other material. For example, if a restaurant review rises to the top of the food category, an editor might interview the chef for a response.

The change is a gamble for AOL. More than 11.2 million Web surfers visited Netscape in May, according to Comscore Networks Inc., and the site pulls in millions of dollars in advertising a year. Netscape.com is a run-of-the-mill Web portal, similar to those of Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., with such features as weather, e-mail and stock updates.

After the change, regular users could abandon Netscape for other general interest portals -- such as AOL.com, MSN.com or Yahoo.com -- if they don’t like the new format.

“It could blow up in their face,” Jupiter Research analyst David Card said.

What is clear, analysts said, is that the Netscape brand needed new life.

Netscape was the world’s first commercial Web browser, and Netscape Communications Corp.'s initial public offering in 1995 ignited the dot-com boom.

But the company’s fortunes flagged under Microsoft’s brutal competitive tactics, which were later ruled antitrust violations. AOL bought Netscape in 1999 for $10 billion and, over the next few years, let much of its hipness fade. The Netscape brand name is now used for AOL’s discount dial-up Internet access service and the portal.

Some analysts were skeptical that people would embrace the new Netscape. When it comes to reading news online, Web surfers tend to jump quickly from story to story, said Mike Vorhaus, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a media consulting firm.

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“I don’t think there’s going to be a big tidal wave of consumers saying this is going to be better news,” he said.

Calacanis, who joined AOL last year when it acquired Weblogs Inc., which he founded, said the Internet was proving that consumers liked to comment on things they read and watched. It takes only a small percentage of visitors participating to create something that others would want to view, he said.

AOL plans to release the site in a test version today, then completely convert Netscape.com to the new format July 1.


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