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Dems' convention will be online media's party

Barack Obama won't be the only one making history in Denver.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large
Last Updated: August 22, 2008: 3:45 PM EDT

The Huffington Post, founded by Arianna Huffington, will treat bloggers covering the Democratic National Convention next week to smoothies and mini-facials.

(Fortune) -- The Democratic National Convention that kicks off Monday in Denver will be a transforming moment in politics. But it could be almost as big an event in the annals of American media, the moment when the new kids on the block eclipse or at least grab equal footing with the establishment.

At a time when mainstream news organizations are grappling with shrinking budgets, shuttered bureaus and all manner of identity crises, the disruptors will be in plain view.

Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) - which owns the Web site as well as YouTube - is opening an 8,000 square-foot facility called The Big Tent. For just $100, reporters and bloggers get food, beer and Wi-Fi for four days, and it has set up a kiosk for folks to upload videos to YouTube.

MySpace, a year-old startup at the time of the last convention, now claims roughly one in four Americans as registered users. It plans a series of convention events at MySpace Cafés, where people can update their sites, spy celebrities and other VIPs, and even peruse an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Having recently built up a political channel on MySpace called Impact, the News Corp (NWS, Fortune 500).-owned social network also held a contest with MSNBC (GE, Fortune 500) to select a "citizen journalist" to cover the event. In his video entry, the winner, a 23-year-old from Michigan, joked: "I don't know, maybe I'll interview the janitor at the convention." Watch your back Brian Williams. Or Jon Stewart.

MySpace is, of course, hosting an obligatory concert or two, one featuring the rapper Nelly. But like MTV before it, MySpace is determined to show that it is a potent cultural and political force. Indeed, Barack Obama has 454,000 "friends" on MySpace, only 30,000 or so fewer than the band Coldplay (and a whole lot more than John McCain's 64,000).

"We're trying to democratize democracy," says Lee Brenner, MySpace's 31-year-old producer of political programming and a former CNN producer. "We're not trying to just give information." In all, some 15,000 reporters, columnists, bloggers, etc. will have credentials to partake in the Obamamedia frenzy.

The digital-age news

Among them will be those toiling for Huffington Post and Politico, two digital-age news outlets that have found niches in a very short time, using very different approaches.

John Harris, Politico's editor-in-chief, said that most of the service's 40 or so journalists would be deployed at the convention. Politico, which is backed by TV and newspaper owner Albritton Communications, launched last year after luring Harris and his colleague Jim Vandehei away from long careers at the Washington Post.

"Our readers are like us and they have a political screw loose," said Harris. "Quite un-self-consciously, we write for junkies."

According to Nielsen, Politico's 2.3 million unique visitors in July - up from 1.7 million a year earlier - put it ahead of the sites of some of the country's biggest newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. (In an interesting side note, the company is publishing its convention stories on the pages of The Denver Post, with which it will share advertising revenue.)

The Huffington Post has a different model, presenting a daily stew of opinion from unpaid bloggers, links to breaking news stories and original reporting by a small staff of journalists - led by founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington.

According to Nielsen, the HuffPo's nearly four million unique users in July ranked it ahead of all but 11 newspaper Web sites. Huffington might be something of the belle of the ball among media attendees, given her three-year-old site's conception as a kind of liberal antidote to the powerful and conservative-leaning Drudge Report. She'll be making the rounds doing political panels and signing copies of her latest book, Why Right is Wrong, but she will also be using the venue to promote the softer side of her site.

Perhaps envisioning a post-election time when people will be interested in matters beside politics, Huffington is using the occasion to play up HuffPo's new "living" channel. She's setting up an "oasis" lounge next to Google's Big Tent where attendees can treat themselves to yoga sessions, smoothies, massages and mini-facials. But Huffington says there will be plenty of hardcore political intrigue to write about, including the back story behind Obama's pick of a running mate and, of course, "how the Clintons will behave."

Come to think of it, aside from the VP nod for Hillary, a massage and a smoothie might be just the ticket for bringing the Obama and Clinton camps together. To top of page

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