Networks strive to sustain political clout

On the evening of Nov. 4, Americans were glued to the TV. The next afternoon, they were glued to the Internet.

So it has been throughout 2008, as surging TV news ratings have been matched and even outpaced by the clicks on politics-oriented sites.

But websites that have benefited from the boom in political interest are in an even riskier position than the cable news networks. There are a limited number of TV channels, but an infinite number of websites.

When Arianna Huffington declared the Internet the biggest winner of the 2008 campaign, she may have been self-interested, but she may also have been dead right.

This past year, online news hubs like Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, major newspapers and the network news sites have seen their traffic grow by double-digit rates. And a newer breed of politics-focused sites, many with partisan leanings, have exploded.

Though they’ve started from much smaller bases, sites like the Huffington Post, Politico, Talking Points Memo and RedState.com have seen their traffic grow exponentially, with growth rates well into the triple digits and even exceeding 1,000%. Even the 14 year-old Drudge Report got a solid 70% boost this year.

The smallest political websites also have benefited. Six Apart Media, which runs the widely used Typepad blogging platform, reports that traffic on its political blogs has grown between 150% and 250% for each of the last four months.

Clicks have particularly spiked around major events, like the debates, the conventions, the financial crisis and anything involving the hottest two-word phrase on Google this year: “Sarah Palin.”

The rise of politics online was mirrored in the campaign, as Barack Obama harnessed its power as a fund-raising and grassroots-organizing tool, and he is widely expected to try to bring that Internet prowess to his new administration. He has already promised to appoint the federal government’s first ever Chief Technology Officer and use the Web to make the federal government more transparent than it has ever been.

The president-elect’s campaign also is estimated to be the biggest Web advertiser. According to one estimate, it put $8 million into Web marketing through October, accounting for half of all political ad spending this year.

Largely thanks to Obama, political ad spending was up an estimated 152% from four years ago according to PQ Media, but it’s still just 1.6% of all political campaign marketing this year. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the coin many TV networks have received, particularly stations in swing states.

Not that websites are in great shape, with ad spending slowing amid the economic slump. Indeed, many of the biggest political websites still haven’t found their way to consistent profitability, even during an election year. At they’re focused on keeping as much of the audience growth they attracted this year as possible. There’s likely to be a post-election shakeout, they figure, with some keeping their place in the top tier of websites and others fading into niche sites for political junkies.

“We’re going to see a drop in traffic,” grants Neeraj Khemlani, veep and general manager of Yahoo News. “But the overall base continues to increase and we can keep the long-term graph moving up if people discover the experience is really good.”

Nearly every political site is now focused on that goal of maintaining and even building on the success they achieved this year. But they have different approaches to solving that problem.

The Huffington Post, which started three years ago as a liberal blog hub, has turned into the top stand-alone political news site as of September, according to comScore, with more than 4.5 million monthly visitors, up nearly 500% from last year. Co-founder Arianna Huffington says the site is looking to expand its aud, and keep political junkies engaged, with new sections it has added this year in categories like living, entertainment and green.

“Our plans have been to expand Huffington Post to a full-scale Internet newspaper so we can service other interests for our political readers beyond politics and also draw in more readers who are not primarily interested in politics,” she explains.

Other sites aren’t planning to branch out. They’re doubling down, betting that they can translate at least some of the interest in the election into interest in an Obama administration.

Politico.com, which launched last year, is assigning a dozen reporters to the White House beat as part of what it calls “the big 44.”

Executive editor Jim VandeHei says he’s particularly hopeful his site can grow its traffic from overseas. “There is so much fascination, international as well as national, with Obama, at a level we’ve never seen before in this country even with John F. Kennedy,” he explains.

Politico still gets a big share of its revenue from government-related advertising that runs in a print edition.

WashingtonPost.com is planning a similar approach with its “44: Transition to Power” initiative and a focus on the inner workings of the federal government. Exec editor Jim Brady says that keeping up the rapid pace his site established during the election will be key to retaining readers.

“A couple of years ago, people had different habits for following an election or politics, but they are very much interested in what happens now, what happens next,” he notes.

From the transition to the first 100 days to the policy changes promised by Obama, news sites won’t have any shortage of topics to cover. And they could be in a better position to cover them, since readers can search and browse for the exact news in which they’re interested, whereas TV news has to begin prioritizing a broader range of possibilities.

“We have an electorate that has been mobilized and we’ve seen a huge explosion of interest in the issues,” Khemlani notes.

The question is: Will that interest last without the drama of an election? Or will most Web surfers be back to clicking on TMZ?

(William Triplett in Washington contributed to this report.)

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