City Paper is not for tourists
With the possible exception of the fun-filled Michelle Rhee hearing that we’re live-blogging, PostKiller.com remains the No. 1 local news story in the Washington market. Two days ago, TNR reported that Allbritton Communications Co., publisher of Politico and owner of WJLA-TV and News Channel 8, would be launching a Web site—-complete with Politico sensibilities—-on the D.C. region.
Jim Brady, former washingtonpost.com executive editor, will be Gee-Emming the new enterprise and announced he’d be swinging for the fences, with a staff of 50-plus and an aggressive approach to newsgathering. “To win big, you gotta bet big,” Brady told City Desk yesterday.
Brady noted that other competitors in local online news are bogged down with legacy platforms. The Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, the Washington Examiner, et alia——they all have an enormously burdensome print product to put out. TV stations—-even WJLA and NC8—-have enormously burdensome TV stations to put out.
OK, so that all makes sense: Do it better.
Yet there’s one part of this whole deal that strains credulity, and that’s the part about actually making money off of news on the Web. To take an example close at hand, look at the Washington City Paper. In recent years, we’ve done nothing but orient our product toward the Web.
Reporters charged with producing content for the Web above and beyond all other responsibilities? Check. Sales staff beating the bushes for every digital ad dollar out there? SEO discussions flying in the hallways? Check. In-house webinars? Check.
There’ve been enormous psychic rewards for all the effort. We’ve gotten more hits on the site. We’ve wormed into the civic conversation in new ways. We occasionally get linked!
Fair to say, however, that the financial rewards haven’t been commensurate. According to a sales honcho here, our annual Web advertising revenues constitute somewhere between 2 and 4 percent of overall revenues. So if PostKiller.com somehow managed to come in and commandeer 100 percent of our Web ad revenue, well, it could use the proceeds for a group lunch at the Baja Fresh outside of the Allbritton offices.
So it’s heartening to hear that Robert Allbritton, the mogul behind all this activity, believes so strongly in the value of local news. “Robert is pretty darn optimistic,” says a company source. “The sweet spot is that there still is money in local advertising.” Really?
Finding the honey pot of local Web advertising dollars may take some doing. That’s where the Allbritton model comes into play. This is a company that has shown the patience and the pockets to hatch loss leaders. Following its launch in the early ’90s, News Channel 8 spewed red ink before turning the corner. Politico appears to be following a similar trajectory.
Even so. What Allbritton is doing with PostKiller.com is a high-wire act with few actual parallels to NC8 and Politico. It’s one thing to gin up a TV station and make a profit—-that’s been done thousands of times. It’s also one thing to put together a political publication in a city with an endless supply of advocacy-group advertising dollars—-that’s been done, well, several times.
But a local news operation with loads of staffing, no philanthropic funding, no paper edition, and a complete reliance on Web-generated revenues? That’s another thing.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery/File