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Chicago Tribune Phil Rosenthal Media Column: Can HuffPo Be Papers’ Best Friend?

June 22, 2008

By Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune

Jun. 22–Arianna Huffington is planting her flag–or at least a Post–in Chicago this summer.

Reached Friday in London, Huffington said she looks this week to finalize plans for a Chicago version of The Huffington Post Web site, the first of what the writer/Internet entrepreneur hopes will be dozens of localized news sites throughout the United States.

“Chicago seemed a great city in which to test what we wanted to do [with] local around the country,” Huffington said. “It has everything … but wasn’t New York or L.A.”

Initially staffed by a single editor, the Chicago site will aggregate coverage of news, sports, politics, crime, arts and business from a variety of local sources, as well as from bloggers, much as her 3-year-old HuffingtonPost.com site.

Huffington hopes the local HuffPo–HuffPoLo?–will be online before Barack Obama’s late August nomination in Denver.

Earlier, at a Future of Journalism event staged by and for staff of England’s Guardian, Huffington said the local site will be “aspiring to be a newspaper.”

Regular newspapers, meanwhile, simply aspire to survive as revenues decline and readers are liberated by the Internet’s ability to deliver them the world’s content.

Both Chicago Sun-Times parent Sun-Times Media Group and Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co. have indicated of late that continued ad money shortfalls are likely to be met by additional cutbacks.

“The fallout of this forced downsizing of the nation’s newsrooms is not being replaced elsewhere in our society, nor is it likely to be,” Cyrus Freidheim Jr., Sun-Times Media’s CEO, told shareholders Tuesday. “Hence, with our most important asset, the newsroom, we will continue to have little competition. When the economy rebounds 12 to 18 months from now, as we believe it will, the newspapers will not only survive but somehow and in some form thrive again.”

But it’s likely that form will require changed thinking, along with a changed economy, to reflect the new realities of a wired world.

“The old way would be to treat [Huffington] as a competitor,” Jeff Jarvis, the media consultant who writes the BuzzMachine blog, said by e-mail from London, where he attended the Guardian confab. “The new way would be to find ways to work with her in a network.”

Jarvis, on his blog, praised HuffPo’s agility while “big, old newspapers plan and fret instead.”

Asked how a big, old newspaper should respond, he suggested cooperating on ads and sharing resulting revenue, exchanging blog feeds and “start to curate blogs on your own,” including Huffington’s, “so you can deliver the best of the larger network of local content” to readers.

“You no longer own the market,” Jarvis explained. “You are now part of a larger network and the larger that network is–if you’ve put yourself in the right position–the better it is for you.”

Vivek Shah, president of Time Inc.’s Fortune/Money Group, put the idea linking to other outlets’ content in real estate terms.

“Do you want renters or do you want owners?” he said in a recent interview. “Sites that have renters rely on other sites to drive their users into their experience … and then they lose them. … When you have owners, they come in through the front door and check things out. They may go off other places, but they’re always coming back.”

Shah points with pride to the fact that 40 percent of CNNMoney.com’s traffic is to its front page, which includes links to other outlets’ content, because it means his site has become a destination. It’s bookmarked, the equivalent of a car radio preset button.

“We have no qualms about distributing third-party content,” he said. “We don’t write all the good stories. We don’t have all the good information. So that’s a huge shift because now you’re talking about: Do you want to be a distributor for a competitor? The answer is yes, if you end up being the starting point, or a starting point.”

In other words, it’s not a race to the finish Huffington is entering in Chicago. It’s a race to the start.

philrosenthal@tribune.com

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