Someday, when they look back at the war between the Web and the world that preceded it, last week's coverage of the
takeout should be noted.
I was sitting at my desk just after the close Friday when the news flashed across the wire that
was buying paging company SkyTel for $1.3 billion in stock and debt. Didn't I read in
The Wall Street Journal
that MCI WorldCom denied those rumors? I turned to the tube to watch
Joe Kernan express similar surprise. "Didn't I just read in
The Wall Street Journal
..." said Kernan, his voice trailing off.
have read was Tuesday's scoop from the
. The site, which sifts through the Internet for tidbits of corporate info, reported that MCI WorldCom had registered the domain "skytel.worldcom.com." This followed media speculation that MCI could be one of the likely acquirers of SkyTel.
Investors drove up shares of SkyTel Tuesday after the Company Sleuth report, as volume tripled. In a story the next day in the
, MCI WorldCom skillfully issued a bogus excuse, chalking it up to an overzealous employee. "From time to time, MCI WorldCom employees, sometimes acting on their own initiative, register domain names they believe may be potential targets of domain-name squatters," the company said in a release. "The action is not an indication of any official company intention." It's the old nondenial denial. ("Senator, were you with the cheerleader last night?" "Sir, that's an
, meanwhile, dismissed Company Sleuth's findings as one of the "scoops" -- patronizing quotation marks included -- garnered by "a new breed of Internet sleuth."
For Company Sleuth and its parent company
, it was a rare moment in the limelight. "We've been flooded with congratulatory emails and phone calls," says CEO Van Morris. "After you get mentioned in the
, well, traffic to the server and registrations were up quite significantly."
Last year, Infonautics did $14.9 million in revenue, but Company Sleuth represented less than 10% of that. Infonautics' main business is a database product called
, which is sold to schools and universities. The Web business is a little tougher. Infonautics has been laboring hard to bring users to its site, even paying its "affiliates" 50 cents for every new registered user to Company Sleuth.
Shares of Infonautics have struggled under 10 for most of the past two years. Last November, as the company's net tangible assets evaporated, the company was on the verge of being removed from the
before winning a delisting hearing. But then the stock got a welcome boost. On April 12, the company announced that it had hired
to sell ads for its sites. Investors were thrilled with the notion that Company Sleuth was shifting to an advertising-supported model, and they bid the stock up from 4 1/8 to 10 1/4. Since then, the shares have sunk, closing Tuesday at 6 13/32.
Company Sleuth was developed from an in-house tool used to keep track of competitive products. "We set up intelligent agents to go out across the Web to track our competitors," says Morris. "We started tracking patents, when
Infonautics co-founder Josh Kopelman was playing around with
and he noticed that
the powerful law firm
. We figured people would like to know about things like that."
Infonautics is hoping that what was once an internal tool will become popular among consumers rabid for information -- much as the fact checker's "500" list at
magazine became an institution of its own. Says Morris: "This is just another valuable note proving that that tracking the digital paper trail is valuable in and of itself."
But it also proves that the dead-tree press is dying on the vine. The
offered little clarity on this story -- some kind words for Company Sleuth and credence to the obfuscation from MCI WorldCom. But for the Internet investors researching their investments on the Web, Company Sleuth provided a powerful, profitable service.
Company Sleuth, for its part, is slow to criticize coverage of the story. "Let's put it this way: The old media is rapidly being forced to recognize the new media," says Morris. "Whether or not they get
the Web shows."
"The world in general is divided by people that get it and those that don't," he adds. "Like anywhere, the
is a collection of individuals -- some truly get the Web."
You wonder if the dead-tree guys are reading between the lines of that compliment.