The media's candidate
In less than two years, The Politico has emerged as a serious player in the political journalism arena. Now, as the presidential election draws closer, it stands to have an even greater impact.
In summer 2006, when Politico was still just a thought, Jim VandeHei, John F. Harris, and Mike Allen had a question on their minds: “What would Google do if it wanted to dominate national political journalism?”
The answer, says VandeHei, now Politico's executive editor, was that the Internet search giant could become a major player in political journalism – not by spending an enormous sum of money, but rather by hiring a handful of the country's top-tier political editors and reporters.
“The conclusion was that it would not cost [Google] that much to, almost overnight, become not a, but the player in Washington journalism if [it]... spent the money, and hired the six to 10 top political reporters [in] the [US] and put them at one place at one time,” recalls VandeHei in his office at the Rosslyn, VA, newsroom Politico shares with WJLA-TV, which is also owned by Allbritton Communications.
“I had worked at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and Harris had worked at The Washington Post for 20 years, and Mike Allen had worked at The New York Times, Time, and the Post, and they all had the same observation – that reporters are not created equally,” he adds. “There are a handful of reporters who, day in and day out, tell you something you did not know and are absolutely must-reads for political enthusiasts.”
At the time, Allbritton Communications CEO Robert Allbritton was planning to launch the Capitol Leader, a newspaper to challenge Roll Call and The Hill. Soon Harris and VandeHei began discussions with Allbritton (now Politico publisher) and Frederick Ryan Jr. (now CEO), and the group decided instead to launch The Politico, a multimedia venture that would challenge traditional political coverage.
Within months, the nascent news organization had hired a number of prominent journalists, including Ben Smith from the New York Daily News and Roger Simon from Bloomberg News. The idea was that although not part of an established media brand, these journalists could, by breaking stories in the run-up to the 2008 election, grow the readership of The Politico, the thrice-weekly print product, and its companion Web site Politico.com, VandeHei says.
“Really it was love at first sight. The four of us... we really knew what needed to be done and the economics of it, and the idea was that the paper would bring in the revenue in the short term and [the journalists] would bring all of the attention we needed on the Web,” he adds. “[Our thought was that] those together will be a pretty powerful combination and we can be a pretty serious player that can produce great journalism with a great business model attached to it.”
Politico's staff decided to embrace blogging – or as VandeHei calls it, “news-based blogging with speed” – to take advantage of a changing media environment.
“You can be very quick with breaking news and smart analysis and strategic in how you work with other media companies,” he says. “You can get a huge audience almost overnight even if you don't have The New York Times or The Washington Post next to your name.”
Leveling the playing field
Ask what the major differences are in journalism now as compared to just a few years ago, and Harris, Politico's editor-in-chief, opines that a new group of publications, bloggers, and journalists – many in their 20s and 30s – are influencing the 2008 campaign and national discussion of the issues in ways that the traditional media once did.
“There used to be a relatively small circle of people who would set the agenda for what the national press narrative was. [Many people would wonder], ‘What does Dan [Rather] think about this? What does [Times reporter] Adam Nagourney think about this?,'” he says. “We have this whole new group of people who are younger... who by their virtue and ability to understand politics and what sort of topics move the conversation, are becoming important national political reporters years before they would have been able to do so under the old system.”
Blogging is playing a much more important role than it did even during the 2004 election because of the increasing speed of information, says VandeHei. And publications are, to some extent, tossing aside media rivalries to cooperate with news aggregation Web sites to ensure that their stories – especially breaking news – reach the widest audience possible, he adds.
“If we get a great story, and we can make sure that the Drudge Report, Huffington Post, and Yahoo know it's there and they can link to it, you have a huge audience of eyeballs looking at the story. And then [staff members] make sure that MSNBC and CNN and everyone else knows about it, and we have a reporter on standby right hear ready to talk about it,” VandeHei says. “Blogging, we thought, was such a crucial piece of [starting Politico] because bloggers, by their mentality, are churning out information quickly and they're used to the game of being smart and speedy. That's why someone like Allen or [senior political writers] Ben Smith or Jonathan Martin are totally indispensible to this place because they get this mentality, which is a much different mentality than the one that dominated political journalism even five years ago.”
However, in March 2007, just two months after its launch, that strategy had an adverse effect when Smith reported on his Politico.com blog that former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) would drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination after his wife, Elizabeth, suffered a recurrence of cancer. Smith's report was ultimately proven wrong as Edwards told the press that he would stay in the race. Smith then updated his blog to explain to readers that he had relied on one trusted source, not the usual two.
Politico has also not escaped the pointed fingers of critics, accusing the Web site of political bias. Simon Maloy, senior researcher at liberal-leaning press watchdog Media Matters for America, accused the site in March of last year of favoring Republicans in its coverage. Allen, Smith, Harris, and VandeHei all answered the charge by e-mail and on politico.com with varying opinions.
“My own sense is that... fundamentally, they don't seem to me to have a dog in the fight,” says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “We are in a highly politicized environment in which the media are viewed in that way.”
Different world than 2004
Another Politico blogger who highlights the differences in political journalism during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns is James Kotecki, who was still a student at Georgetown University during the 2006 mid-term elections. Now the site's resident video blogger, Kotecki gained notoriety when he hosted Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) in the first-ever dorm-room interview with a presidential candidate.
“My job didn't exist in the last election cycle. [In] some places, it doesn't even exist now,” he says. “I'm creating video content that goes on the Web... and the attitude with which I can approach it is different.”
However, those changes have created many challenges for political reporters. Adjusting to a changing media landscape, candidates have altered their messaging strategies to deliver statements, position papers, and even replies to rivals' attacks on their campaign Web sites. Subsequently, there is a more pressing need for timely, “tell me something I don't know” analysis than in 2004, say Politico reporters and editors.
“[The biggest change] is the speed and the volume of information,” says Allen, Politico's chief political writer. “It's so easy now for people to have all the fixings, whether it's the candidates' speeches or video. So our mission is clearly to go behind the scenes of events that [consumers] would not be able to get on their own, and to be a place that is not just informative, but exciting and interesting.”
And the larger number of information sources – including Politico itself – means consumers can get the who, what, when, and where of the daily campaign grind from a number of print and online sources. That makes explaining the fifth “W” from an insider's point of view more important than in the past, says Martin.
“I think that people come to us not just for the news of the day, but... to get the context and the ‘why,' and... the motivation behind [Sen. John] McCain (R-AZ) seizing the race issue or airing the celebrity ad with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears,” he adds. “[Readers want to know] the story behind the story there, and they want to get an explanation beyond the what; they want to know the why.”
Of course, journalists still take pride in being the first to break an important story. Yet that contest has moved from print to the Web, to the point where the concept of breaking a story in ink has largely disappeared, says Jeanne Cummings, chief lobbying and influence writer, who previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Back in 2004, you didn't want to put too much up on a Web site early because you might get beat in the paper the next day,” she says. “The paper was where the real race took place. Now you don't even worry about the paper because the race is on the Web; it's not in print form.”
According to Nielsen, the site had 2,317,000 unique visitors in July 2008, up 34% from July 2007.
Web-based communications – and an electoral map with more competitive states than in recent elections – have also created situations where readers in the US act as sources, a very rare occurrence during past elections, says Martin, adding that readers in various regions will occasionally e-mail Politico staffers to notify them of new campaign ads or issues happening in their towns.
“We have readers…who live outside of DC and say, ‘Hey, I just saw this advertisement on my affiliate in Youngstown, OH, or Kalamazoo, MI,' or, ‘Have [the campaigns] released this spot yet – this is what it looks like,'” he notes. For example, ‘I got a piece of mail just now whacking [Sen. Barack] Obama on guns. It's from the [National Rifle Association]. Have you heard about this yet?' That's the wonderful thing about e-mail is that you can have relationships with some readers that provide on-the-ground insights on what's happening during the caucuses and primaries, especially the people who would scan mail and send it to you via e-mail. That's just a huge addition.”
An optimistic workplace
At a time when job cuts at traditional media titans, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, are commonplace, Allen is hopeful about Politico's outlook.
“We're looking for ways to grow,” he says. “We're constantly asking who we should hire, what the new opportunities [are], and what [will] be the next channel. That's possible because of the technology and the [way] people consume information.”
For Harris, Allen, and other journalism veterans, an expanding workplace can be a welcome change of pace after working in more pessimistic environments. And for younger journalists, there is also the opportunity for greater influence than in the past, says Harris.
“I'm excited to be here at Politico. When I was at the Post, people would say, ‘Did you see these circulation numbers or these revenue numbers?' It was at best anxious and for others it is just plain bad,” he says.
Yet outlets like Politico have created a situation where reporters can have more influence and make more money than they would have “under the old rules,” adds Harris. “So at a time when most people write about media in terms of the setting sun and a climate of almost despair, for [young journalists], there are huge amounts of opportunity.”
Sites to watch this election season
Run by Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight.com (the number of total electoral votes) has taken poll watching to a level not seen before. The site simulates the election 10,000 times to predict a likely outcome based on polls and other developments.
The Huffington Post
Launched by one-time California gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington in 2005 as a combination news aggregator and blog, the Huffington Post has since expanded its coverage from politics to business, media, entertainment, and green. In August, the site launched a Chicago-specific section.
Launched in 2000 by John McIntyre and Tom Bevan, the Chicago-based, poll-heavy site links to prominent political stories throughout the day and features a morning collection of links to news coverage and Op-Eds. The site's format has now extended to sister Web sites RealClearSports and RealClearMarkets.
Talking Points Memo
Founded by Josh Marshall during the 2000 Florida recount, Talking Points Memo expanded to include TPMCafe.com in 2005 and TPMuckraker.com and TPM Election Central in 2006. Marshall won a Polk Award in 2008 for his stories on the alleged politically motivated firings of eight US attorneys.