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Can Crime Pay?

Can Crime Pay?

Marshall Davidson's goal for his Web-based news service couldn't be simpler: He wants APB Online to be to crime what ESPN.com is to sports and what Weather.com is to weather.

He appears to be well on the way. Within weeks after APB launched late in 1998, the site was already attracting more than 1 million page views daily. Billing itself as "the source for police and crime news, information and entertainment," the Manhattan-based Web site blends Court TV, America's Most Wanted and the metro section of any gritty urban newspaper with its own distinct sensibility. As Davidson's partner Mark Sauter points out, APB Online (derived from the classic police acronym "all-points bulletin") may be the world's only news organisation with a reporter assigned full-time to the missing persons beat.

Content occasionally leans toward the lurid: Visitors can, for instance, search a graphic of Jon Benet Ramsey's house for clues in the slaying of the 6-year-old Colorado beauty queen. In general, though, APB Online reflects its founders' mission of providing professional news coverage, public-service information and stuff that's just plain interesting or entertaining.

Want breaking news on a Mob trial or a kidnapping case? Go to APB Online.

Looking for the latest stats on corporate computer hacking or phone fraud? Curious about whether that new guy in Accounting is among the nation's most-sought fugitives? Go to APB Online.

The site also plays to the Web's strengths. Visitors can read up-to-the- minute headlines or investigative reports from APBNEWS.com, APB's national news service, download government documents on celebrities, view photos of missing children or wanted criminals, scan a registry of convicted sex offenders or search a tip database with advice on everything from preventing carjacking to strengthening business security. Hard-core crime junkies can monitor police scanners in 10 major cities or use analytical tools developed by former FBI profiler John Douglas (the inspiration for Jodie Foster's boss in Silence of the Lambs) to examine evidence in an unsolved serial-killer case. On APB Media Patrol, they'll even find reviews of the latest crime-related books, movies and TV shows.

The target audience? Everyone. As traditional journalists have always known, crime stories attract attention. Lawyers and police officers follow crime news because they have to. Others are simply fascinated by mystery, violence or the courts. But most people pay attention to crime news about where they live and work, people they know and-whether or not they'll admit it-celebrities.

In fact, one of the century's highest-profile crimes planted the seed for APB Online. Davidson, then an investment banker on Wall Street, was working on a bank restructuring in Los Angeles in 1995 when O.J. Simpson's double-murder trial was the topic of conversation. "I was struck by how many people I met who had had their own experience with the criminal justice system," recalls Davidson.

He initially considered creating a single-genre cable TV network but recognised that that concept faced significant competition from crime-related programming such as prime-time newsmagazines. Then, as Davidson learned about the Internet, he realised his idea would have more room to grow in an environment unlimited by linear scheduling, allowing him to run many different programs or types of content simultaneously.

Davidson hooked up with two partners (veteran journalist Sauter, now executive VP for content, and fellow banker Matthew L. Cohen, now executive VP for administration and finance). He convinced a slew of venture capitalists to supplement his own investments. Then he wrote a business plan detailing everything down to the delivery date for the office water cooler.

Davidson recalls the precision necessary to staff, equip, promote and launch a hit-the-ground-running business in just 91 days. He and his partners used no recruiters: "We went straight to the people we wanted to hire," conducting interviews in coffee shops while seeking a headquarters. When the telephone company ran weeks behind schedule in installing necessary wiring, Davidson bought cell phones for everyone in the company. APB Online launched on schedule in November 1998.

The company lured journalists from other media: Sauter from Inside Edition, Managing Editor Hoag Levins from a top spot at Editor & Publisher magazine, News Editors Ed Levine and Alan Wieder from, respectively, New Jersey's Bergen Record and Fox News Online. "It's been interesting for us to see the [competitive] culture of the old journalism meeting the Silicon Valley culture of teamwork and collaboration." News organisations aren't renowned for generosity-most offer unremarkable salaries and benefits-so most incoming journalists were unused to new-media perks such as APB's hiring bonuses and investment opportunities. "We had some journalists who didn't even know what stock options were," Davidson recalls.

APB also signed up more than 70 correspondents and contributors nationwide, including luminaries like George Lardner Jr. of The Washington Post, who won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for his heartbreaking investigation into his daughter's murder by an ex-boyfriend.

In his banking days Davidson worked in spacious, well-appointed private offices with his own secretary. These days, he's still in the Wall Street area, but his fledgling company, invisible from the street, is crammed into a few rooms over a delicatessen. When interviewed, Davidson shared office space with two other employees in what, in most companies, would be a lobby ("we're getting bedsores, we're so close to each other," he jokes). They hold staff meetings at the deli downstairs. The newsroom, packed with reporters glued to telephones, TVs and computer terminals, is otherwise spare. No carpet. No plants. No paintings. An APB investor who visited last fall remarked wryly to Davidson: "Well, I see you haven't wasted any money on facilities." Good thing, because in keeping with the demands of staffing a nationwide, around-the-clock news operation, the staff had swelled to 35 full-time people by mid-March, forcing Davidson to scour the city for bigger quarters.

APB Online scored its first news coup within weeks of its launch. In December, it became the first Web site to post Frank Sinatra's FBI file immediately after its release by the bureau. Staffers used a high-speed scanner to quickly transform the 1,275-page document from hard copy to Web pages. Fifteen times the normal amount of traffic that resulted temporarily crashed the site.

While many journalists have praised APB Online, others have been critical. In December APB Online also posted files the FBI kept on writer Mike Royko, angering executives at The Chicago Tribune, where the famously acerbic columnist worked until his death in 1997. The Tribune refused to let APB advertise its scoop on the Tribune's Web site, calling the banner ad linking to Royko's file "in poor taste." APB Online's staff publicly dismissed the snub as sour grapes over being scooped.

Davidson initially financed APB Online from his own savings, then raised US$ 3.5 million from investors to launch the site. Another round of financing will help APB expand to 90 employees and create about three dozen more programs or content areas.

APB's long-term business plan calls for making money on ads (the site recently sold its first sponsorship), spinoffs and partnerships such as the content deal with the Snap portal site. Right now, Davidson says in his native Texan drawl, "We aren't making any money yet." For an ex-banker, he's oddly cheerful about that fact. Like many Web businesses, he expected little or no profit for at least the first year; like many Web businesses, he's confident that because he's built it, people will come. Down the line, APB Online is considering business-to-business ventures, such as a call-centre service that alerts corporate clients about the latest credit card scams. APB also expects to cover Internet fraud and other areas but will try to avoid content that glorifies or exaggerates crime or that causes pain to crime victims. "The primary purpose of every piece has to be to inform and serve, not to frighten or titillate," Davidson says.

Meanwhile, the ex-banker says he's having a blast. He finds that when he introduces himself socially, people already know about him and his venture (validating his basic premise that everybody cares about crime). That's perhaps the biggest difference from his days on Wall Street: "I've never been to a party in the investment banking business where anyone says, 'Gosh, are you the guy that closed that bond offering?'"(Senior Editor Anne Stuart can be reached at astuart@cio.com.)

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