U.S. News chases health-care dollars

October 3, 2013

U.S. News & World Report is doubling down on its profitable online consumer health-care business, hiring an experienced Web executive and expanding its coverage in hopes it can ride Obamacare’s economic coattails.

President Obama recently compared buying health insurance to buying an airplane ticket, a kayak or a television on Amazon.com. And the Georgetown-based online media company, known for its “news you can use” and its “best of” lists on colleges, hospitals and professional schools, has formed a new health-care products team designed to help consumers get information on health exchanges and private insurers crucial to the health-care law.

The 80-year-old U.S. News is hoping to use the expanded health section to build on revenue streams such as its “best of” badges, which the company licenses to hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes and other institutions. Hospitals, colleges and financial institutions pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $20,000 to license the “best of” badge, which accounts for 15 percent of the media company’s estimated total revenue of $40 million.

U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly is betting that the company’s health Web site, which he says gets 3 million visitors a month, can more than triple its monthly visitors to 10 million — and bring advertising revenue with it.

“It’s all about the growing need for people to have good information about their own health care,” Kelly said. “Like it or not, folks will have to become educated health consumers.”

Kelly said he plans to expand the online magazine’s Medicare Advantage site this month. Its insurance information site has a state-by-state guide to Obamacare.

“Our health coverage, which is profitable, is so big that it is almost like a separate company,” he said. With its various federal agencies and growing array of private companies, Washington is becoming the center for health-care information.

The company, under the ownership of real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, scraps for new revenue sources as the traditional business-advertising model is being decimated by the digital revolution.

The company appointed Dan Wilmer to the new role of vice president and general manager of Healthcare Products. He was at the health media company Everyday Health for three years, where he oversaw a portfolio of diet and fitness sites and mobile apps.

Wilmer will work with U.S. News journalists to expand its health-care advice section, which covers hospitals, health insurance, nursing homes and physicians. U.S. News has 26 lists on nursing homes alone.

“I am charged with building out features and functionality, building traffic and building revenue,” Wilmer said. “What we’re going to do is marry up a bunch of the stuff that U.S. News has been doing for the past 25 years with their best hospital rankings and some of the newer rankings and analysis products, like the best health insurance plans.”

Wilmer said in recent years that the government is making more health-care information available from private and public companies. That new data help people make better health care decisions, Wilmer said.

The company is also expanding its events business, beginning with an annual STEM Solutions conference in 2012. U.S. News will add the Hospital of Tomorrow conference next month.

U.S. News, which ceased its print edition in December 2010, began its lists in 1983 with its ranking of the nation’s best colleges. The magazine followed it up with lists of the best law schools, business schools and hospitals. The company has been able to stay alive while other print publications have fallen by the wayside. Newsweek, for example, once owned by The Washington Post Co., has been sold twice since 2010 and is now owned by IBT Media.

This week, The Washington Post flagship completed the sale of its newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. And earlier this year, locally owned media empire Allbritton Communications sold its eight broadcasting properties for nearly $1 billion. Allbritton is investing heavily in digital media, including the political Web site Politico.

U.S. News employs 150 journalists, staffers and producers at its Georgetown offices. There are an additional 40 or so employees on the business side.

The company is believed to turn a profit of between $5 million to $10 million, according to sources.

There’s still the subscriber-only U.S. News & World Report weekly magazine, which is heavy on Washington news, gossip and political analysis, as well as offering health and financial policy and “news you can use.” The edition includes a weekly quiz, pro and con debates on issues, and a commentary by Zuckerman.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.
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