If you’re an online publisher in the tech space, you probably have reason to envy Gawker Media. After all, one of its properties, popular tech gadget blog Gizmodo, recently broke what Gawker Media owner Nick Denton himself has billed “pretty much the biggest tech scoop ever.

That scoop, of course, is the ‘lost‘ next-generation iPhone. As the story goes, Denton purchased it for $5,000 from the man who found it in a bar after an Apple employee left it behind.

The product of Denton’s check book journalism would, on the surface, seem like a good thing. In revealing the next iPhone months before Apple is expected to officially unveil it, Gizmodo reportedly reaped ~2m pageviews per hour as the story spread around the web. Some believe that all of those pageviews could have — in theory — added up to as much as $150,000 in extra revenue.

But according to Denton, that’s far from the case. At a State of Gadget Media roundtable this week, Denton claimed that “there were no immediate revenue benefits whatsoever.” Instead, he says, the biggest tech scoop in recent memory has actually cost Gawker money. There’s $7,000 in extra bandwidth costs, and Denton seems resigned to the possibility that he may wind up paying legal bills if Apple decides to pursue Gawker in court.

While it’s plausible that Denton is being coy and trying to play down any benefit his company received from the iPhone scoop in case Apple does sue, it’s wouldn’t be entirely surprising that Gawker didn’t rake in the dough. After all, as most online publishers know, it’s easy to rack up pageviews; it’s much harder to turn those pageviews into ad inventory that monetizes. That’s especially true when a lot of pageviews are generated in a very short amount of time.

Which raises an interesting point: online publishers are likely to face just as much trouble turning a big scoop into revenue as their offline counterparts. The $5,000 Denton paid for “pretty much the biggest tech scoop ever“, is by any reasonable standard, a small price to pay for a story of this magnitude. Yet even so, Denton, who is as savvy an online publisher as they come, by his own admission wasn’t able to turn it into the type of money casual observers might have imagined he could.

For those who hope that online publishers will eventually fill the void being left by the decline of mainstream journalism outfits, this is not the best of news. After all, if Denton claims that Gawker might lose money on the iPhone story, what hope do other online publishers have in monetizing other big stories that will likely cost more than $5,000 to develop? In my opinion, little to none. That’s because the simple fact is that publishers who rely on ad revenue will always earn far more from their baseline traffic than they will from traffic spikes generated by these big stories. And as just about everyone knows, building solid baseline traffic doesn’t require an investment in the type of journalism — check book or otherwise — that produces big stories.

I doubt Denton will regret his decision to buy the next-generation iPhone. But given the tricky task of monetizing even this story, don’t be surprised if publishers don’t go out of their way to develop scoops of this magnitude very often.