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Huffington Post.com, the political blog community, is considering raising more money
and has seen traffic triple since last year, but the big question now is how popular the site will be when the 2008 presidential campaign is over.
Founded in 2005 by author Arianna Huffington, the site was intended to provide a left-of-center audience with political commentary and analysis in the form of constantly updated blogs, penned by various talking heads and celebrities, and other members of Huffington's extensive social network.
In recent months the site has reaped the benefits of its strong partisan political tone and content, as a nail-biter of an election season nudged traffic from half a million visitors per month last August to a high of over 3 million in March (back down to 2 million by April), according to Compete.com, an internet analytics website.
In a common new-media discrepancy, the site's internal numbers, obtained via Google analytics, are even more impressive. "We're averaging 11 million to 12 million uniques a month and 100 million pageviews," says Betsy Morgan, HuffPo's C.E.O.
But a rising tide lifts all boats, and Huffington Post isn't the only website with a political bent to enjoy increased traffic in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Sites such as Slate.com, Politico.com, and, to a lesser extent, TalkingPointsMemo.com and DailyKos.com, have all enjoyed steady increases in traffic between last April and this, the most recent period for which Compete.com has data.
While Huffington Post's growth has certainly been dramatic, detractors wonder if the site's political focus might become a liability next fall when the election is over and the nation settles back into business as usual.
Morgan doesn’t think so.
"We believe that there's no longer a historical political cycle. People are interested in politics 365 days of the year," she says.
Nevertheless, Huffington Post is making a conspicuous effort to expand its reach beyond the confines of Washington D.C. Last summer it rolled out several new vertical sites, including non-political topics such as media, business, and entertainment. Just last week the site introduced another new channel, green, which will focus on eco-news and trends. And Morgan says there are more on the way.
Also new? The site's tagline, "the internet newspaper," introduced in 2008. The line de-emphasizes politics in favor of a more neutral, newsy tone. According to Morgan, over half of the site's traffic is now for non-political stories.
Barry Parr, a media analyst at JupiterResearch, says Huffington Post is better positioned than most political websites to weather the transition to a post-election U.S., although he adds that a slight drop-off in the site's traffic after election fever subsides wouldn't be surprising.
A bigger concern, especially as the site navigates the wider waters of general news coverage—placing itself in the same category as newspapers and news sites that already exist—is the vulnerability of its advertising-driven business model
"The challenge for anybody in the news business is that a general news audience is not a very desirable one to advertisers," says Parr. That's because news audiences, unlike those for beauty or sports sites, don't come packaged into convenient demographic bundles—18-to-34-year-old males, for example. And for Huffington Post, which isn't attracting the volume of visitors that sites like Yahoo or AOL do, the appeal for advertisers may be limited.
The answer to sustainability might lie in the site’s staking out more niche areas of credible coverage, as it has so successfully done with politics.
Parr thinks an obvious place to start is media, where HuffingtonPost has published relatively strong, although less prominent, content. "That's an area their audience is going to be interested in," he says. And with a dearth of mainstream publications focusing explicitly on the media business, and Huffington Post's roster of plugged-in contributors, the site stands a good shot of owning this area.
For now, however, the Huffington Post homepage is dominated by half-inch-tall red block letters, "…152 Days And Counting…" until November 4, 2008. That's the day of the U.S. presidential election, and quite possibly, the day the game changes for HuffingtonPost.
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