Political Content Web Sites Ride the Surge

NEW YORK The saga of Hillary, Obama, Palin and McCain has been a boon to news and political Web sites, which have seen audience numbers balloon as the 2008 presidential election has unfolded. What happens after America’s favorite obsession is satisfied on Nov. 4?

While a drop-off is expected, many publishers say this period of intense interest has accelerated a shift in the way people receive news and has likely converted many to online-news-junkie status for good. Still, some are taking steps to stave off a decline in traffic.

Since last September, MSNBC.com has added over 13 million unique users, pushing the site to 43.2 million total users. Rivals Yahoo News (up nearly 5.7 million uniques to 38 million) and CNN (up 6.4 million users to 37 million) also have enjoyed robust growth. Even former also-rans have made strides — among them, ABCNews.com (up 8 million uniques to 17.2 million) and FoxNews.com (with 14.9 million, nearly double compared to a year ago). (Related: “Famine May Follow Cable News Feast.”)

Growth is even more exponential for pure political sites. The left-leaning HuffingtonPost.com saw its user base soar a whopping 457 percent to 7.5 million uniques. Similarly, junkie-aimed sites Politico and Real Clear Politics enjoyed massive growth, albeit off considerably smaller bases. But are all these players looking down the barrel of a serious hangover in 2009? Not necessarily. “You will probably see some drop-off in the category,” said Charlie Tillinghast, president of MSNBC.com. “But it should stay at a much higher level.” Added Mitch Gelman, senior vp, senior executive producer of CNN.com: “Traditionally our growth has been a pattern of stair steps.”

Publishers across the board say that while they’re attracting many newbies in this closely followed election, few are “light users” — the kind that might come on board during events such as natural disasters.

“I’m not all that concerned about postelection,” said Jeremy Steinberg, vp, digital sales and business development at FoxNews.com, adding that engagement metrics like visits per user, pages per user and average time spent were all up this year. “If we had seen a drop-off in engagement, I might be concerned.”

Given the stories this election cycle has produced, which have kept consumers rapt, many predict users simply won’t be able to walk away. “Because this campaign has had such captivating characters, I don’t think [the drop-off] will be huge,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s co-founder and executive editor. “People are realizing that Washington is central to their lives.”

Then, there’s the shaky economy that will be with Web readers well into ’09. “Things will not be miraculously getting better all of a sudden,” said Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post. Still, her team has prepared for postelection life, adding multiple vertical channels like Living and Green over the past several years. Those now account for half of the site’s traffic. “Those [channels] bring users who don’t particularly care about politics,” said Huffington. “That’s how you build audience.”

Maintaining traffic will be the task going forward. To that end, CNN.com recently unveiled theForum, where users can create profiles, link to Facebook friends and debate current events. Meanwhile, MSNBC.com plans to repurpose many of its nifty election-coverage tools — such as allowing users to jump to a specific spot in debate video coverage using keywords — for use in nonpolitical news stories.

For its part, Yahoo News has begun to roll out a more user-friendly redesign. But Scott Moore, Yahoo’s senior vp, head of U.S. audience, said that the move is more about capitalizing on what he predicts will be a prolonged surge in news interest. “We are in the midst of a very powerful news cycle