When Arianna Huffington sneezes, we all catch cold. Perhaps.

Last week the founder of the hefty US new media presence the Huffington Post said, in what may or may not have been a throwaway line, that it would soon open sites to serve several countries, including Australia.

No details are available, and nobody is sure what she meant, or how serious the plans might be. But in a sign of just how vulnerable everyone is feeling in media at the moment, the lack of details hasn’t stopped everyone riffing off Huffington’s few words. The Australian has a piece on it today and so does Mumbrella.

Some of the obvious unanswered questions include whether the HuffPo would hire local journalists, and local advertising staff, or merely open a shopfront with nothing behind it.

Would content be free, or behind a paywall? And given that Fairfax and News Limited are about to erect paywalls for some news content, how would the Huffington Post, aggregator extraordinaire, gather its content?

What does the Huffington Post know about the Australian media scene? Not much, I think.

Google “Australia and Huffington Post” and you will find that so far, we appear to rate as little more than a diversion and a source of jokes on its pages. It is all very “ho ho, aren’t they quaint down under”. Obviously there would have be a big change of attitude if the HufPo really wanted to compete seriously in Australia.

But the underlying issue, and the possible cause for concern, is that the most likely future for commercial mainstream digital news media in Australia at the moment is a handful of outlets, each serving a niche audience with a mix of free and paywalled content.

It works like this. The Australian, when it erects pay walls, can expect at best (and this is an optimistic figure) 30,000 committed subscribers to its digitally available content. Some of these will be new, others will be cannibalised from its print edition.

Fairfax broadsheets can expect similar numbers. Add to this The Australian Financial Review behind its remodelled (and probably lower and more porous) paywall.

And then there is your very own Crikey, which has comparable total audience numbers if you take into account not only the daily email, but also the website with its mix of free and paywalled content. And behind that a host of smaller not-for-profit players, such as New Matilda.

Get the picture? We are talking about perhaps half a dozen outlets measuring their audiences in the tens of thousands, each supporting small numbers of journalists and making, at best, pretty modest profits.

Some will be the products of shrunken legacy media, and will also have some sort of print presence, as well as the benefits of syndication between mastheads. Others will be as yet undreamed-of start-ups. And then there will be Crikey, which is something in between.

Given that in this country commoditised news will always be available for free from the ABC, very quickly all the paywalled sites they will all be looking for points of difference — something to convince people to pay the price of entry.

It will all be about product differentiation, and about convincing the audience that they can get something special behind the paywall that is not available elsewhere. It will be about trying to convince people to be part of  THIS media club, rather than THAT.

We’ll see some interesting innovations. I bet, for one, that someone will start making games out of the news (see my innovation in journalism series that deals with this). There will be wild and woolly experimentation.

So if an established player such as the Huffington Post made a serious stab at acquiring an Australian audience, it would create yet one more powerful source of competition.

Yet, in the absence of any more information, I question whether the business case would stack up. Opening a new website would be cheap and easy to do. Hiring a commentator or two — well, that’s easy too, and opinion is cheap (though I have heard nothing to suggest they are recruiting). But a serious stab at local news in what is about to be a crowded marketplace? I think that is less likely.

Nevertheless, the anxiety Huffington’s remarks have caused show that everyone, Crikey included, is about to be competing on similar turf and everyone is challenged and threatened. And everyone is looking for that crucial point of difference.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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