Sat, Jan 17, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Web news is the future, but how to make it pay?

The idea may be fine, but the Web news prodigies have just the same difficulty as boring old print: They can’t turn what they have into money in the bank account

By Peter Preston  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It must be the future — the most feted, most dynamically charged news Web site of the lot. More than 8 million unique users, a 448 percent annual growth rate and awards showering down. Want to raise another US$25 million, even in these straitened times? Certainly, madam. Venture capitalists duly oblige. Your Huffington Post, just four years old, is already worth US$100 million. Here’s one sort of journalism that can shrug off recession, surely? Tina Brown with her ultra-competitive, somewhat derivative, Daily Beast is already turning a wheeze into a formula.

And that formula — from Arianna Huffington to Lady Harry Evans (aka Tina Brown) — seems suitably promising. No more tonnes of paper newspapers and heavy lorries; no more futile costs. Here’s the Web standing proud and unencumbered, giving you the basic news you need in a neat, edited package that moves swiftly into blogged opinion. Huffington calls this her search for truth. Jaundiced readers of US newspapers would call it a long overdue reaction to too many po-faced balancing acts in monopoly papers afraid to express any opinion.

At any rate, on the Internet you can indeed mix the elements afresh. Heavyweight political pieces, featherweight Britney bits, gossip the grandes dames might be proud to hawk around cocktail parties.

But pause a little. Participation may be absolutely astronomical (20,000 or so mostly unreadable blog responses on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s grandson, for instance), but the requisite cash doesn’t always follow in train. A TNS Media Intelligence analysis quoted in Advertising Age last week puts Huffington Post revenue between January and August last year at a mere US$302,000 or so. It’s no secret that, at best, Huffington’s enterprise was only occasionally profitable, in an election year during which US liberals flocked to the site. Ad Age takes that US$100 million valuation, sometimes doubled for stunning effect, and guffaws. Maybe US$2 million would be a better guess.

Web-only news and opinion sites, such as the decade-old and once similarly feted Salon, could already be watching US$1.28 million a year going west, it says. The idea may be fine, the readership may seem OK. But the Web news prodigies have just the same difficulty as boring old print: They can’t turn what they have into worthwhile money. And the deeper the recession goes, the worse their predicament will become.

Take a closer look at where the lifeblood news on which they comment comes from. Huffington Post provides a long source list, including an impressive roll call of bloggers, but the basic facts and developments animadverted on arrive far more conventionally: from 40-plus newspapers and broadcasting station newsrooms catalogued as providers (including the Guardian, Times and Independent in the UK). Dig a little deeper among individual strands, moreover, and you wonder how on earth either Huff or Beast could get by without the Associated Press and New York Times.

And there’s the rub. The Huffington Post has about 50 staff, most of them technical and production hands. It would like more reporters of its own, of course, but (unlike Brown’s Beast) doesn’t attempt to pay its big bloggers a cent. Honor and glory stand in for a check. As the founder of the Guardian CP Scott never said (in schoolboy parody): Comment is free, but facts are expensive.

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