AMEInfo on the block

EMAP Middle East is hunting for a buyer for AMEInfo, the business news portal it bought in 2006. The reason, according to EME chief executive Lara Boro, comes down to the old advertising-vs-subscriptions debate about the best way to monetize online content.

EMAP's main business in the region is MEED, the 53-year-old Middle East business intelligence brand, which has expanded over the years into a network that includes a print magazine, web properties, event organisation and, most recently, increasingly specialised research units. All of this targets high-level decision makers who are willing to pay a premium for access to information that will help them make business decisions. ?

AMEInfo, by contrast, is a free. Although it, too, bills itself as a business-to-business site, in reality it acts more like a free newswire -- always the first to get press releases up, and usually the first hit on any Google search in the region. It's built a substantial audience over the last few years, up to 2 million unique users per month, according to its latest audit, but its only source of revenue is ads. While lately there has been some research to suggest that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the region's chronically supressed online advertising market (Booz predicts a tripling of market share by 2013), it's still a fundamentally different kind of business than MEED, which accounts for three quarter of EMAP's revenue in the region.

As Boro put it, it's not a matter of which one is better, but simply a matter of needing to focus on core business during tight financial times. (After all Yahoo bought Maktoob, a primarily advertising driven site, during arguably even bleaker times a few months ago.)

"It's very hard to do both successfully at the same time, with finite resources," she said. "I've got two very different and increasingly diverging businesses, and in times like this, its about focus and core. The vast majority of our business is a subscription, premium type of business."

So in the great battle of free vs paid, is this essentially chalking one up for paid? I guess that will depend on how much a buyer ponies up for AMEInfo. (Note to that prospective buyer: AMEInfo has been one of the top online business sites in the MIddle East for years, and it only has 19 employees. 19. That's a lot of bang for your, um, dirham.)