Health News Surges In Popularity

By: Wayne Robins

On the Line Column

There is certainly no shortage of health news on the Web. Each day’s e-mail brings unsolicited information about breakthroughs that promise to make the most modest of us stars of the XXX-film business, and potions to help us love, if not live, forever.

Such spamola aside, newspaper Web sites are seeking more health-oriented news these days. According to a Nielsen//Net-Ratings study last month, health-and-fitness sites surged in surfer spottings, with one, iVillageHealth (http://www.ivillagehealth.com), showing a 282% bump in traffic between December and January.

The reasons for such interest need hardly be mentioned: war, terrorism, fear, anthrax, and too much of Aunt Bea’s holiday fruitcake will bring mortality to one’s mirror faster than you can say Dorian Gray.

There are plenty of content deals for health information on newspaper Web sites in play. AP Digital is handling the online distribution for HealthScout News, based in Norwalk, Conn. (The New York Times Syndicate handles print-only sales, according to Barry Hoffman, a 40-year newspaper veteran who is HealthScout News’ editor in chief.)

Healthology.com, a “turnkey” health channel, supplies both stories and streaming-video to the E.W. Scripps Co. and Tribune Interactive, about 200 newspapers and sites altogether, according to Rafael Cosentino, director of business development for Healthology.

And Intelihealth (http://www.intelihealth.com), subsidized by Aetna, includes in its network more than 300 newspaper and other media Web sites.

What’s interesting about these operations is that none considers itself a portal or a destination site. “We are a news service — and not interested in being anything else but a news service,” Hoffman said of HealthScout News. His company’s content is written by journalists. “We don’t need people who served five years on a review board at Johns Hopkins,” Hoffman said. “Classic news stories are those of the most interest to the most consumers” — and, right now, health news fills that bill.

In contrast, Intelihealth uses experts as primary sources, from the Harvard Medical School and University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

Healthology operates as something like an independent TV production company with its own studios, collaborates with hospitals, and has a business model similar, in part, to that of the Public Broadcasting Service: ad-free, but funded by unrestricted educational grants. Cosentino said other parts of the model include licensing fees, advertising sold by clients (such as newspaper dot-coms) on their sites, and creating original content such as films or Webcasts for specialized organizations, like local hospitals or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Healthology, on 2,700 sites, was started and run by physicians, not a profession known for practitioners shy about pontificating about their specialties. Healthology is especially appealing for those with high-speed digital connections.

Whether these health-news providers can cure your Web site, it’s hard to say. Health and science writers at any paper that uses these tools should read information before it’s posted. Watch for “impartial” information provided by drug companies. Any questions? Ask your doctor.

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