In his column in today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz painted Politics Daily as a fantastic wonderland of six-figure salaries, 5000-word articles, foreign correspondents who actually go overseas, and a distaste for the “hyperpartisan.” All of which sounds great, but could it ever turn a profit in an environment where traffic for articles like “Strippers Compete in Palin Look-alike Contest” is likely to dwarf Afghanistan coverage for the foreseeable future? If not, what is AOL trying to pull?
A while back, Mediaite wrote about AOL’s new political blog, Politics Daily, as a case study of AOL’s plans to focus on “the content business” by hiring top reporters away from print publications. Among others, Politics Daily has bagged The Baltimore Sun‘s David Wood, CQPolitics’ David Corn, and USA Today’s Jill Lawrence, all media vets with impressive resumes. And though Kurtz seemed impressed — he pointed to the “high-minded” site that “slows things down, rather than posting every traffic-generating tidbit,” skeptics of the site — and this particular content strategy — remain.
Politics Daily pissed off a lot of political bloggers when TechCrunch ran this piece claiming that Politics Daily had bigger traffic than Politico. As one blogger told Mediaite, “They’re claiming to be the #1 politics site based on visitor count. While technically true, I would guess about 80% of those are from places like the AOL welcome screen. This would be akin to Wal Mart running a news show at their registers and claiming to be the #1 newscast.”
According to Kurtz, the site gets roughly half of its startling 3.6 million monthly unique visitors from its parent portal AOL; it doesn’t yet have big pickup from without. Kurtz cites two of the site’s popular dueling opinion pieces about Sarah Palin as the sort of thing it needs more of, yet is reluctant to ratchet up:
That is the kind of attention-grabbing argument that Politics Daily needs if it is to compete with the likes of the Huffington Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Slate, Salon and other sites that offer speed, original writing and higher production values. With [Daily Politics EIC] Henneberger calling the operation a “preservation society” dedicated to “respectful” arguments, Politics Daily remains defiantly out of step with the online ethos.
“If there isn’t a market for this kind of Web site, that takes politics seriously, that is politically eclectic and journalistically conservative,” [Walter] Shapiro says, “we’re all in a lot of trouble.”
Is there such a market online? And if so, who’s buying? The answer may not be readers or advertisers, but AOL itself.
Politics Daily’s high-mindedness is admirable, but it raises the question of whether AOL is using the site to buy prestige. AOL and Time Warner will finally split at the end of 2009, after which the newly-created AOL Inc. will be a publicly-traded company. AOL has announced that it’s reinventing itself as a content (i.e. blog) provider. Though the site may never make money, AOL could be betting that having one “serious” site to pad out a portfolio rife with fluffy, slideshow-happy sites like Asylum and TMZ is worth the loss. If you’re a five billion dollar company nervous about getting and keeping investors, subsidizing a few great reporters to do solid but unmarketable work may be a price worth paying for good press from the likes of Kurtz.
Politics Daily currently has one Doubleclick banner up top and one sponsored sidebar on the right. Even with 3.6 million uniques, this is hardly the stuff on which to feed a full-time staff of more than twenty-five, many of whom are making six figures. And as Nick Denton wrote in his manifesto “A 2009 Internet Plan,” “Get out of categories such as politics to which advertisers are averse:” It’s unlikely that you’ll see wall-to-wall 90210 ads on Politics Daily anytime soon.
As of publication, several e-mails to AOL Senior Producer Michael Kraskin, who is listed as the contact for Politics Daily, went unanswered.
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]