The Beast That Roared (for a While!)

otrgraph otr The Beast That Roared (for a While!)One week after Tina Brown launched the Daily Beast back in October, Michael Wolff, the Vanity Fair columnist and the founder of Newser, gave a typically tart assessment of his new competitor.

“She’s not a news aggregator, although that is her pretense for doing something Web-like,” he said to The Observer at the time. “In fact, she’s just an old magazine hack.”

He was right, partly: In the 110 days since it launched, we’ve watched Ms. Brown sign up writers for $300 to $500 a pop for blog posts, and nabbing usual suspects like Ana Marie Cox and Tucker Carlson to contracts. The aggregation is there, but the Web site looked something more like Radar Online than it did Mr. Wolff’s Web site, a pretty pure version of the hand-curated “ag” site. 

Even with tag lines that sound similar—READ THIS SKIP THAT and READ LESS KNOW MORE for the Beast and Newser, respectively—there were differences.

It seemed early on Ms. Brown had figured it out: In its first month, as reported first by Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici, the Daily Beast surpassed Mr. Wolff’s Newser site in the number of unique visitors it was drawing in.

The publicity machine started spinning: Barry Diller told The Washington Post in December how impressed he was with the lighting-fast start.

“I thought we would take six months to get to the point where you could actually even say, ‘Look at us,’” he said. “I thought there would be a very long incubation period. What I discounted, stupidly, is that I’m dealing with a pitch-perfect editor who knew exactly what she was doing.”

But the beast is roaring a little more faintly of late. It seems the early curiosity and endless pitching on television that gave the site its big start aren’t enough to keep numbers up: they had fallen 17 percent by the end of December from their November heights, according to compete.com, a Web analytics research site—dropping beneath Mr. Wolff’s numbers.

They seem to be picking back up a bit for January; Caroline Marks, the general manager of the Daily Beast, said that she wouldn’t release the numbers for unique visitors, but that a Web site like Quantcast, while undercounting, gives an accurate reflection of how the site is doing. And it’s turning into a close contest. (Newser does not publish its numbers to Quantcast.)

“I’ve been aware of this and according to these sites, we are [ahead],” said Mr. Wolff in an interview.

Is Tina Brown a victim of her own buzz machine?

“Oddly, she’s more heavily dependent on media spikes in the news than we are,” Mr. Wolff said. He’s right.

“We launched in a very, very news frenetic period and we had launch buzz,” said Ms. Marks. “The following month and a half is the slowest time for the Internet online as you go into Christmas season. We’ve seen our numbers climb back up in January.”

But even this is surprising for several reasons: Mr. Wolff hardly has the star power of Ms. Brown, who hasn’t been shy about getting her name out. Ms. Brown reportedly has $18 million to burn through for three years, and a lot of it has already been spent. Mr. Wolff, on the other hand, has had operating costs of $1.5 million since the site launched in October of 2007.

Mr. Wolff’s traffic numbers are solid. In October, the site had 1.33 million unique visitors; in November that went to 1.34, and by January it was up to 1.42.

“We’ve built something that is ‘This is your daily news’ rather than something where you come to us on a purely event basis,” he said. “Her thing is much more something that you go to because Chris Buckley has said something audacious. From my understanding, she shoehorned herself into this business by being an aggregator, but she really wants to run things like how she would run a magazine.”

Newser has almost no original content, other than a daily column that Mr. Wolff himself contributes. The Daily Beast “is 60-40 aggregation versus original content,” said the general manager Ms. Marks.

Mr. Wolff said he has no PR team, and no ad-sales team. “Mr. Google is our salesperson,” he said. “As I said, we use only ad networks, which we find are significantly more economical than maintaining a sales force.” He said the Web site should be turning over a profit by the end of this year, or “just after.”

He said there are about eight full-time people, and when you include freelancers and add them up to full-time equivalences, it works out to be about 15 people.

Ms. Brown, on the other hand, has 25 staffers working for her at the Beast’s office off the West Side Highway. There is no ad-sales team in-house, but the Beast has a PR team led by Freud’s Lisa Dallos, and it recently hired former New Yorker publicist Chelsie Gosk to become an “audience engagement manager.”

“We’ve had more than 8,000 inbound blog links, and our original stories and news breaks are mentioned in broadcast media some 4 times a week,” said Ms. Marks in an e-mail.

But will it bring in the traffic numbers? Mr. Diller told The Washington Post that he doesn’t expect the Daily Beast to make any profit for two or three years, and added, “if then.”

The team, however, is scheming up a plan. Ms. Marks said that the Web site is in the process of pulling together a media kit for potential advertisers.

She said that once the audience is “well-established,” they’ll be reaching out to advertisers. The only internal numbers she would release were for January when the Daily Beast recorded 3.8 million visits, and 11.9 million page views.

“Every business that’s online is a business,” she said. “We’re in the earliest formative stages. We’re focused on what start-ups do.”

jkoblin@observer.com