Online News Leads a Precarious Life ; Some Web Sites Win Awards While Laying People Off

Article excerpt

When it comes to the Internet, if it's election news you want, there's plenty of it - but don't get too attached to any quirky news sites unless they have deep pockets.

While some online outlets are reveling in all-time high traffic, nervous investors are pulling away from others, even as they receive critical praise. This has left journalists looking for jobs and Internet users deleting bookmarks.

"In this dotcom environment, it's hard to tell where we'll be in 60 days," says Hoag Levins, executive editor of crime site APBnews.com, which watched its funds dry up earlier this year and laid off dozens of staffers before finding a new owner.

Sites like APBnews, Salon, and Thestreet have all had problems this year - which some industry-watchers attribute to trying to do too much too fast, and to the elusive formula for bringing advertisers and Web surfers together.

But even as sites are downsizing and disappearing, others are cropping up, suggesting that what is happening may be as much natural media turnover as it is Wall Street misgivings.

"To some extent what we're seeing is not just retrenchment, it's churn," says Janice Castro, a veteran of media Web sites and now an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Indeed, many in the online news industry are optimistic about its prospects.

"For those of us who can claim financial security, the climate has never been better," says Merrill Brown, editor of MSNBC.com, which along with Slate.com is backed by Microsoft.

Thanks to the never-ending election, news sites MSNBC.com and CNN.com had record traffic in November, according to Web-site tracker Media Metrics. Major events, like the death of JFK Jr. or the Monica Lewinsky debacle, bring new Web users on board and keep them coming back, Web sites say.

In 2000, about 1 in 5 Americans went online for news about the election, according to a study released this month by the Pew Internet Project. In 1996, only 4 percent of people got their election news off the Internet.

Mr. Brown points out that the Internet has allowed news media into a place it wasn't before - the workplace - even though online media are still trying to make inroads into households.

"The eyeballs are there, they just haven't found a way to translate that into something advertisers are willing to buy into," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia's graduate school of journalism, and the administrator of this month's first ever Online Journalism Awards.

Ironically, that ceremony highlighted some of the industry's problems, as several winners were products of struggling Web sites. APBnews and Salon were winners (see list, right), as was writer Emily Prager, whose column was cancelled after eight months when Oxygen.com let her and other freelancers go. …