While here in Philadelphia we continue to debate which journalism does or doesn't go online right away, a horde of Internet Mongolians may be poised to topple us from outside of our walled city. That would be the Huffington Post, which this week launched a new Web site devoted strictly to local news in the city of Chicago. You can see it here. They plan to bring this to other cities, and although I honestly have no inside information, I would imagine that Philadelphia is high on its to-do list, because of the large population here, the day-to-day struggles of the local newspapers, and the high blogging quotient around these parts.
On the surface, the Huffington Post Chicago isn't radically different in look or impact from local newspaper Web sites like Philly.com. But there are three critical differences: 1) HPC highlights the best local news from a variety of sources, including not just Chicago's two daily papers but also its magazines, weeklies, business journals and TV and radio stations and 2) it does that with just one -- count 'im, one! -- staff employee and 3) the staffer's work is augmented by bloggers willing to come to the site and post for free.
Now that's a business plan! In contrast, the work that you read on a Philly.com was collected by a large staff of paid journalists, many making at least $65,000 a year or more. Is that really fair that HPC then posts the same kind of local news for free? Not really, but these are the rules of the Internet as society has allowed them to unfold, and rules are meant to be exploited. Now, there's a lot of controversy about how HP doesn't pay its bloggers, but the bottom line again isn't what you or I think about that, but whether such people exist. Trust me, they do. There are plenty of people who want free exposure, sometimes for a cause, often for themselves (one example: A writer promoting a new book.) I predict there'll be no shortage of free bloggers at HPC.
There is one huge problem with the model, however. With all its unfair built-in advantages, Huffington Post Chicago could actually help push one or even both of Chicago's daily newspapers -- both struggling mightily for different reasons -- right to the brink of extinction. And if that happened, HPC would ultimately be shooting itself in the foot. If the Chicago Tribune disappeared, so would half of the actual news the Huffington Post now highlights.
In other words, the Huffington Post and the newspapers need each other. I can understand why there's an initial wait-and-see attitude, and I have no idea what the specifics of cooperation might be. But if HPC does well, I think either Sam Zell or Arianna Huffington needs to pick up the phone and say, "We need to talk."