Interview: James Pindell

James Pindell covered the NH primaries for the Boston Globe before joining Observer Media Group as Managing Editor. Politicker.com is a state-fueled national political Web site due to launch this month.

James Pindell covered the NH primaries for the Boston Globe before joining Observer Media Group as Managing Editor. Politicker.com is a state-fueled national political Web site due to launch this month.

What is the model for politicker.com?
We're writing the model as we speak; there's no existing company out there like this. We're billing ourselves the largest political news operation in the country and how we're doing it is from the bottom up. We're not going to be entirely based in Washington, though we do have a Washington office which we just opened. We're based in the states. We've talked about having up to 100 reporters at the end of two years or so, and they're based in state capitols. My main responsibility of course is…a lot of it's conference calls, a lot if it's e-mails, a lot of it's phone calls, then a lot of traveling out to reporters. There's not a centralized building.

Part of it is niche, part of it is reaching the elite audience in these states for political junkies who want to follow power in their states.

We want to be the collection that, if you go to our site, you know exactly what's happening in politics right now. We're not going to have every single story by any means. And if someone else has it, we want to inform readers about what's happening. Clearly we're very aggressive about trying to own the news cycle, and getting every scoop, but…you know, sometimes you don't. This is a project that is very nimble, flexible, and ambitious. What it could create is such a powerful resource for news and covering power that it's very exciting. We're making it up as it goes along. No one has ever come up with a model to make this work, and we're making this work, and we're being very aggressive about it.

What does it aim to accomplish?
What we hope to accomplish is to celebrate political journalism in the best tradition of political journalism. This is an ambitious project that embraces new media; it is not terrified by new media. You'll find a lot of video, and we're trying to incorporate more video. Where other news rooms seem to be terrified of it. What you'll find, of course, is that we're doing it by the old journalism rules. We're having people on the streets, we have a lot of reporters, this is not people in their pajamas writing for their blog. These are hard nosed journalists going after the scoop. With, yes, a video camera, and a tape recorder, and their own notebook and pen, trying to chase stories. You'll have an aggregate of everything that's happening in the country politically at a level and a depth that has never existed before. And it's a confluence of where a lot of trends are going. We know that major newspapers or general interest magazines have been trying to find out where their relevance is, as their circulations decline. We know that niches are highly successful. And we also know that things are moving more and more online. And we also know on a certain level that particularly the political news cycle has sped up at a very intense rate. When I was at the Boston Globe, where I covered presidential politics, the news cycle, when I would have a great scoop would be about four hours. And we have a mentality now where if it happened four hours ago, it was old news. So to participate and to be relevant you had to constantly find a way to update, constantly go after scoops. What we're finding, or course, is that in many of these states there's still longer news cycles, so what happens in the paper that morning lasts all day. We're speeding up that process, applying very aggressive principals. But they're the hallmarks of journalism to what we're trying to do in our coverage.

Did you always have an interest in political coverage, or is this something you fell into?
I am such a political junkie that I grew up in Indiana but went to college in Des Moines because of the Iowa caucuses. I will admit that I did go to Columbia, but even after Columbia I worked from paper to paper, the Indianapolis Star covering car wrecks, and then I found my way back into politics by working in West Virginia for a small paper covering the state house. But in 2002, Politickernj before it became Politickernj was Politicsnj.com, and they wanted to start up a sister site in New Hampshire and it was called Politicsnh.com, and it basically did the same thing: talk to an inside audience, break a lot of news, hardcore journalism. I ran that site for about four and a half years, and in that process the Washington Post profiled me before the 2004 New Hampshire primary, and they said that when I started I was treated like a freak from cable access television. And it was totally true, because no one knew what to make of me. They knew the local papers and the local channels, but ‘what is this Web site?' But over time we were able to build up that credibility, and we were able to have a lot of fun with it. In New Hampshire we would sponsor the karaoke contest between campaigns, and we even had a contest where we tried to find Dennis Kucinich a date. You know, back in the day. And we got a mention in two Leno monologues, and we announced the winner on CNN. It was a lot of fun, but it was also about building sort of a community of political junkies. So when this opportunity came up to build the largest political news operation in the country with…resources and an intensity to get things done, it was an opportunity I couldn't really pass up.

Did you find it difficult getting access to politicians as a blogger? It's certainly easier now than it was when I was the only guy the block in 2002. But the fact is, it's also a mindset. I mean, I don't blog. I don't know what it means to blog. I do journalism that happens to go on blogging software. And that's what you'll find throughout our site. To give you the analogy, at a ridiculous level, do people TV? Do they newspaper? No. They produce what they produce and it's about the medium. So yes I understand there's some connotation going on with bloggers, but when anyone sees what we do at Politicker, we're just as credible as anyone else, and hopefully we're first and we're accurate. And hopefully a lot more fun.

Do you plan to endorse at Politicker?
We do not plan on endorsing any candidate at Politicker. That's not what we're in this for. We're not in it for pursuing a particular agenda, especially if it hurts the credibility of what our reporters trying to do. Honestly I'm not sure what weight endorsements have anymore. It's just not something that interests us.

What would you like to do differently for Politicker.com, as opposed to what you did for the Boston Globe?
We want to capture the great characters, and the great stories, and the fun of politics at every level. I couldn't really cover county leadership battles [at the Globe]. We had a moment in Colorado a couple weeks ago, where there was a new member of the legislature who was about to be sworn in, and they were doing the invocation, and the local photographer was taking his picture, apparently making so much noise, that, and I loved him for it, but the legislator decided the way to resolve the situation was by kicking the photographer before the session started. Then there's that whole conversation of whether or not he should actually be sworn in, if he's fit for the job. So there's these great stories that you could be a guy who just loves a good story or just loves politics, you could be living in Boston, or Miami, or anywhere, but you're going to love the story about the guy in Colorado, and I was in Washington last week, and people would constantly refer to him as the “kicker guy” absolutely. It's these kinds of stories that I'm really excited about capturing.

How has political coverage changed since, let's say the 2004 election?
It has. What we found that in the four years there are a lot more people covering it. You can go through all the phrases you want, the most expensive race, the most diverse group of candidates, the longest campaign, the most confusing in terms of the primary calendar, but one of the things that's not talked about as much is that it's also the most written about presidential election in US history. And that creates an interesting dynamic. There are two breeds of successful political journalism that's always sort of been there, but now because of this heightened competition it's really sort of come more into play. One, you can either be the great journalist by being the person who can constantly break the news, constantly be on top of it, being known as the guy who has the scoops. And then on the other end, you can write the monthly piece, the magazine piece, the big think piece, the big investigative piece, that basically can set or change a narrative in an entire campaign. But what we found is that, while few people understand, most political journalism happens somewhere in the middle. This middle of: ‘I covered the local event, this is what the person said,' then continue on with the story line. That is almost irrelevant. You're either going to be at the beginning of breaking a story, or helping explain a story at the end. And you've also seen along with that is the invention of the Google alert. Google alert has really redefined journalism at every level. If you put in the name of Rudy Giuliani, you're going to pick up not only what the New York Times says about him, but you're going to pick up what some guy in pajamas in Idaho wrote about him as well. And it really creates what I believe is sort of a meritocracy. If the guy in his pajamas is writing more interesting stuff than the guy at the New Yorker, or the Atlantic Monthly, than he's going to bring an audience to him. So it's rewarding good journalism, and rewarding good writing, and if you're lazy and you add all this competition, you're not going to succeed. You can't just rely on reputation anymore.

How has it stayed the same?
As many new mediums have come about, the principals are still very much the same. The principles of accuracy, of being fast, of telling stories in a way that people can understand it. Those who practice those principals better in this environment are much more rewarded. There is an explosion of the amount of outlets that do carry these events, and that's probably a good thing but at the same time, trying to stand out when so many people are covering the same event has become a challenge and that forces people to become more creative, and it forces them to really adhere to those very same principals that professionals hold up so high.

What are reporters missing in their political coverage that you think should be addressed?There is a huge pack journalism mentality that people said was new now is not true. You can read books like Boys on the Bus, which covers the 1972 campaign; it talks a lot about pack journalism mentality. While we have a lot more people covering the races, it doesn't mean we have a lot more diverse stories coming out. They're often repeating each other; they often contribute to what we refer to as the echo chamber. The echo chamber largely is based in Washington. You just say one thing, and the next person echoes it, and you just keep hearing the same thing over and over again. What we're also trying to do is get out of that echo chamber. Part of it is, it's not a political agenda; we're just trying to offer something original.

When covering primaries, are you more interested in the crowds at primary events, or the candidates?
Absolutely. I would show up to everything, first of all. And what I would do is while the cameras were basically looking one way at the candidate, I would go on the side and watch how the lines were playing in the crowd. I would watch their faces: are they bored, are they yawning? Are they really captured in the moment? There's no way you can really translate it, but you definitely get a feel for how the candidate was resonating with them. I wasn't surprised when one candidate would drop out, because you'd go to these events, and you'd see the look on [the audience's] face. That reporting does get lost a lot.

What is your experience with PR practitioners?
I deal with PR people every day in terms of press secretaries. Or people who are trying to change messages or control messages, or influence the news cycle, and I deal with the same people every day and I develop relationships with people. In that sense of course I find them immensely helpful. We can't really do our jobs without them. Do I get pitches for authors who have written about South American politics? Yes, and that is annoying. So it's always helpful to understand and most PR pros understand: go back to basics. Who are the reporters covering my beat? Who exactly do I need to pitch and how can I best facilitate this sort of reporter and for my client? In terms of timing it well, looking at our news cycle, and how to be helpful. If it's a person who is trying to push a product that is totally unrelated to what I'm doing, than it really is annoying. But if you include PR pros in political consulting shops, I deal with PR people all day, and I value those relationships, because they're in a position to know things, and they're very helpful.

Name: James Pindell
Title: Managing Editor
Outlet: Politicker.com
Preferred contact method: james.pindell@politicker.com

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