Last week's news that AOL is buying The Huffington Post for a cool $315 million made me feel a bit wistful, since I too once created an online news enterprise, albeit one worth somewhat less than nine figures. It was called the Gadflyer (it's no longer live on the Web; if you want to read it today, you'll have to visit the Internet Archive). Looking back, The Huffington Post's success sheds some light on why the Gadflyer proved unsustainable while some similar sites survived and flourished.
When we began designing the Gadflyer in 2003, the idea -- not just a blog, but an "online magazine" -- was relatively novel. At the time, the liberal online world was just beginning to take shape. Though TAP's website was created in 2002, many magazines had only the barest of an online presence, and most Americans didn't know a blog from a dog. My co-founders and I thought if we provided a lively mix of commentary and reporting, the readership would follow, and with them, the funds to continue indefinitely.
The Gadflyer was a success in some ways -- we got some press attention, had reasonably good traffic, and produced a great deal of editorial content of which I was extraordinarily proud. I and the other contributing editors wrote opinion columns, and we used a terrific group of freelancers for reported articles. Those freelancers included TAPsters Chris Mooney, Noy Thrupkaew, Matt Yglesias, and a pre-TAP Ezra Klein. We discovered some then-unknown aspiring writers who went on to greater things after we published them, including The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen, Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner, and Alternet's Joshua Holland. We even had an artist, Val Bochkov, who created fantastic illustrations for the site.
But in the end, we couldn't seem to crack 20,000 or so visits a day on our best days. That meant that advertising -- something we resisted at first, which seems ridiculous today -- never generated very much revenue. The decision to organize as a nonprofit made sense at the time, when the idea of a Web magazine making money seemed unrealistic, but that was probably a mistake, since raising contributions turned out to be difficult. And there were other things that seem obvious in retrospect but weren't at the time. For instance, we had a brief debate about whether we should allow comments on our articles and blog posts; one editor argued for it while the person in charge of the site's technical aspects worried that it would require extensive work to manage and police (he says now that if the comment management software currently available had existed then, it would have been much easier). For my own part, I didn't think it was a critical choice. What I didn't realize was that allowing comments gives readers a sense of ownership, and in the best circumstances, can foster a sense of community that builds and sustains an audience. In 2011, one might answer this question with, "Duh!" but that wasn't as clear in 2003.
That isn't to say that many sites weren't busy fostering that sense of community even then. Why, for instance, has DailyKos been the dominant liberal blog for so long? I doubt Markos Moulitsas, its creator, would claim it was because his insights were of so much more value than those of anyone else writing a blog in 2003. Instead, the most important factor was the way he worked to create a community of liberals who felt beaten down during the Bush years. That existed in both the spirit of his site and in practical matters like the use of diaries (where readers can initiate their own topics, as opposed to just commenting on what the site's main bloggers have written) and their promotion on the front page. Once it reached a critical mass, you couldn't feel plugged in to online liberalism without reading DailyKos.
Look at some of the other liberal political sites that succeeded around that time, and you see that apart from talent, many of them offered something unique. Talking Points Memo pioneered a crowd-sourced reporting method involving readers and discovered that covering one story with a comprehensiveness no newspaper or magazine would undertake (as it did with the Bush administration's U.S. attorney firing scandal) would produce tremendous journalistic value. Atrios was tweeting before Twitter existed, offering bite-size posts with personality and lots of links.
I'm obviously biased, but I think the quality of the Gadflyer's content was among the best available, yet we couldn't break out of the second tier of liberal politics sites. If we had begun with the support of a large institution (like the Center for American Progress' ThinkProgress), then we might have had the time and resources to build a larger audience. The most successful news sites have skilled business staffs who get up every day thinking about how to build traffic and generate revenue. But since I was the Gadflyer's only full-time employee, after over a year with no salary, I had no choice but to take a paying job in the spring of 2005. The Gadflyer became just a blog, with no reported articles or formal opinion columns, then shut down in early 2007, a little over three years after it began.
Establishing a new online journalistic venture requires resources and foresight. You have to know what people want now, what they'll want in a few years, and how they'll get it. As for The Huffington Post, it has generated its share of criticism, but it's hard to argue with its success. I'll admit that like many people, I was skeptical when it launched. Does anyone care what some B-list actor has to say about Iraq, I wondered? Apparently, the answer was yes. Today, Technorati lists it as the top blog on the Internet, and according to Alexa, it is the third most-viewed U.S. website, trailing only cnn.com and nytimes.com among news sites. It was originally touted as a liberal alternative to the Drudge Report, a place where breaking reports from a left perspective could drive the news cycle. But Arianna Huffington also decided to be aggressive about getting traffic in any way she could, from celebrity bloggers to search engine optimization strategies that can only be described as shameless, to a steady stream of gossip and photos of comely women in various states of undress. The Page 3-worthy slide shows support a cadre of skilled reporters, and the combination has made HuffPo an engine of profit, which is one of the reasons AOL was so eager to acquire it.
You may criticize some of its editorial decisions, but you have to give credit for the size and reach of what it created. The Internet transformed political debate by enabling anyone with a connection to become a publisher and is constantly creating new ways to get political information. That doesn't mean, however, that it's easy to create something that will sustain itself for more than a short time. To do that, you still need a lot of business acumen. And a little luck doesn't hurt.