Politics Online

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This sounds like another dot-com disaster: Spend a ton of money to produce a slick Internet product with no chance of making money any time soon. For Internet sites gearing up to cover the GOP and Democrats, this is conventional wisdom. The best hope is that a site will generate buzz that will be bankable down the road. Out of this crop of candidates, a few winners will emerge.

But it won't be easy. The conventions are turning into unpaid, staged infomercials, and TV networks are tuning out because the public is tuning out. Political junkies, to be sure, can get convention coverage on cable networks, which will have the clout and resources to get the color, deliver the newsmakers and score some scoops.

More than a dozen sites will offer convention video. That begs the question: Why? Why watch glitchy Web video when you can get the real thing on cable?

To be sure, there is an emerging role for the Web in campaign and election coverage. But sites face a challenge in covering events as overblown and formulaic as the conventions.

A winning politics site needs to offer something distinctive and specific. Those with old-media ties may have the edge; MSNBC.com can nicely fill out what's on MSNBC. The Web also could be the medium to give the local angle: what's up with my state delegation?

Most of the Web efforts will remain ignored, stuck on the fringes with a product that does not resonate, much like marginal presidential candidates in primary season.

But by the end of the summer, one or two sites could break away from the pack -- by delivering focused, innovative coverage that creates a buzz in offline media.

That could position those select sites as serious media players, helping them generate an audience -- and ads. By the end of the first Bush-or-Gore administration, maybe they'll even be making money.

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