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This green Web site really rocks

A Rolling Stones keyboardist and veteran ad man team up to launch the Mother Nature Network, a different breed of environmental-news outlet. A Fortune interview.

By Barney Gimbel, writer
Last Updated: January 14, 2009: 2:58 PM ET

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Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and veteran of the Allman Brothers, is trying to make 'green' news cool.
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Joel Babbit, the ad man behind the Mother Nature Network.

(Fortune) -- With stories on hybrid convertibles and Brad Pitt rebuilding New Orleans, not to mention headlines like "There's a bear in my begonias," the Mother Nature Network aims to put some pizzazz into green news.

Let's face it, environmental coverage can be wonky, boring, and hard to find. But an unlikely team headed by an Atlanta ad man and an international rock star is on a mission to change all of that.

Joel Babbit, a longtime Atlanta advertising and public relations executive, and Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and veteran of the Allman Brothers, transformed their frustration in trying to find accurate, non-geeky environmental news into a for-profit Web site.

Fortune's Barney Gimbel talked with Babbit and Leavell to hear about their new site, Mother Nature Network (mnn.com), which launched this week.

Q: Where this idea came from? How did you two get connected?

Babbit: Well, I had been working in the advertising business most of my career and I started getting involved a couple years ago in environmental marketing for my clients like Dell and Georgia Pacific. And not being the most sophisticated environmentalist in the world, I started going to the Web to try and get information. Either it was way over my head or it was very primitive.

And at the same time, I saw this tremendous increase in the number of average, everyday people who were interested in the environment and they were going to the Web in tremendously increasing numbers and I was sure they were just like me and there was an opportunity to do something that was comprehensive in scope and also understandable for the average person.

So I really started thinking about it. And Chuck and I had known each other for a number of years. Besides playing with the Rolling Stones, he is also one of the most respected environmentalists in the country and he has been on the board of many NGOs and non-profits and has written books on the subject. So I went to Chuck and I said "I want to show you something and tell me what you think." He said "I'll tell you what, not only do I think this is a great idea, I'd invest in it and I'd like to actually be very involved in it."

Within 48 hours we had raised almost $10 million from a group of pretty influential Atlanta businesspeople, including Thomas Bell, who is chairman of Cousins Properties and was the former CEO of Young & Rubicam, and Pete Correll, who was the CEO of Georgia Pacific Corp. for many years.

Q: What was original pitch to investors?

Babbit: I showed just a few charts. One was the increase in the number of Americans who have become interested in the environment. Second was the fact that the majority of those newcomers were not scientists or experts. And third was the proliferation of environmental efforts on the part of corporations.

Q: Well the environment is such a broad topic. How do you tackle that? Where do you begin?

Leavell: In our research, one of the things we saw were actually some pretty good sites but they were narrow in their scope, whether it be River Keepers, Al Gore, Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, you name it -- everybody has a Web site. And they are totally focused on that one thing. And that's good and fine if you're just after that one thing. But we want to be comprehensive.

Yes, you're right, the environment covers an incredibly wide scope of things --everything from pollution and oil spills, to energy usage and conservation, to electric cars, to water usage, carbon sequestration.

There is just such a wide array of subjects that are very serious subjects that need to be addressed. We just didn't find anything that was well-vetted, up-to-the-minute, up-to-date, and that covers all these issues in a non-biased way.

Q: Besides some original content, I also saw a bunch of wire-service stories. How much will be original content and how much will be pickup?

Babbit: About 60% will be original reports. And it's not just text, we have our own original video series. Chuck has two shows, one called "Love of the Land," and one called "In the Green Room."

We have a fellow named Farmer D who is a gardener for people like Richard Branson and Jennifer Garner. We have a green party planner in New York, Danielle V, who does a show. And then we have the rights to 24 episodes of Captain Planet cartoon series that Ted Turner started.

Q: So on to the more serious things about running a Web site: how do you actually make money off of it? I noticed that there are almost no banner advertisements.

Leavell: Isn't that great? Let me just say that before he tells you how and why, that it's so distracting to me to go to a site, and you're trying to get some serious information, but on the right you've got something blinking at you. It's the same on the left and on top. Joel called that model the NASCAR jacket look. There are so many patches and badges and things staring at you that you don't know where to look.

Babbit: Once again, having been in the advertising business, I witnessed firsthand, constantly the money that was wasted by banner ads and traditional advertising. So we really set out to establish a different model and the model is to have a single sponsor for categories of information.

To give an example, let's go to technology; one of the categories is computers. Computers will have one single sponsor 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Only the sponsor of that category will be featured. Not just on the landing pages but on all video pages related to that category, and on all story pages related to that category.

Let me be clear, there is no mixing of church and state. The news on the site is totally unbiased. But in the sponsored areas, companies can post their own video segments. They get six different video boxes.

Let me give you an example: one sponsor is using one of the boxes for the CEO of that company to talk about their commitment to sustainability. They are using another one of the videos to feature what they are doing with key customers of theirs. They are using another box to feature their involvement with an NGO partner. They are using another one to introduce new green products.

Q: Who are your advertisers so far?

Babbit: We have commitments from AT&T, Dell, MillerCoors, Premiere Global, Norfolk Southern, Southern Company.

Q: So this is definitely a for-profit venture?

Babbit: Well, we sure hope so. We actually will be profitable going into the launch, which is just incredible in today's environment. It has been beyond our expectations.

Q: I was just looking at the comScore numbers about the unique visitors at top environmental Web sites. The numbers are surprisingly small. The EPA has less than a million in the No. 1 slot. The numbers aren't large.

Babbit: That's what we realized. And I think the reason they're not large is because I don't think they get it. I don't think they understand what people are looking for. I think they don't really get the comprehensiveness of what needs to be there.

I think their look, and in some cases their names, are not very memorable or very recognizable or don't really stick with you. I think the numbers are small because people haven't found what they're looking for.

Q: What is the best comparison on the Web in terms of what you want this to be?

Babbit: WebMD is a perfect example. WebMD is a comprehensive site that covers the subject of health and wellness in a very complete, accurate, up-to-date, unbiased way. They have grown significantly. They have become a well-known brand. They have been good for all parties concerned. But I don't think there is a comparison to our sponsorship model.

Q: Chuck, how do you explain this to your fellow rockers?

Leavell: Most of the folks I've worked with, the Stones included, Eric Clapton, have heard me talk about these issues for the past 30 years. So when we're backstage, when we're in rehearsal and have a break, or just having general dinner conversation, I tend to go there.

Q: So do your rock 'n' roll buddies make fun of you having an office in downtown Atlanta?

Leavell: Yeah, they can't get enough of it. They say, "You're an executive now." I get some ribbing about it. But it's all friendly and been fun. I just don't tell them I actually kind of like it. To top of page

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