Interview: John Harris

John Harris made waves late last year when he announced he'd leave his position as national politics editor for The Washington Post to found The Politico, a DC paper and Web site.

John Harris made waves late last year when he announced he'd leave his position as national politics editor for The Washington Post to found The Politico, a DC paper and Web site.

He was with the Post for 21 years and is the author of a book about Bill Clinton titled The Survivor.

PRWeek: Discuss your decision to leave what many people consider the top position in political journalism for a startup venture.

John Harris: It was a difficult decision for me, for precisely the reason you suggest. The Washington Post is obviously a great institution; it's one that had been my home for my whole career. I graduated from college on a Saturday in 1985, and started as a summer intern at the Post on a Monday and haven't been anywhere else since, with the exception of book leave, and I had a position of a lot of responsibility there.

There was a powerful attraction of starting something new, and I thought that joining with Jim VandeHei, my co-editor with this venture, that we had an opportunity to think creatively about political journalism that made this an irresistible opportunity for me. I think regardless of where anybody is-- whether it's at an established place like the Washington Post or the New York Times or at a new venture like if you're going to be in journalism now, you have to be actively engaged with this question of what's next.

The business is obviously changing in dramatic ways. On the editorial side, how we think about news, our relationship with our audience, our work habits are all being transformed. At the same time, that's also putting a new complexity in the business model. Clinging to some past, as comfortable as it was, is not an option, regardless of where you are. The only option is to plunge in and try to contribute to this discussion that's going on throughout the business of ‘what's next, and how do we prosper in this environment, and how do we produce journalism that we're proud of?' I thought that was better to do that here. I thought that although you're right, this was risky in a way like any new venture, I thought the greater risk was looking back with regret at an opportunity not seized.

PRWeek: How does The Politico try to separate from the pack?

Harris: What will make it a success will be whether we can command a loyal audience that shares our interest in politics. And whether we can find advertisers to support that vision, both in our print version, which is up on Capital Hill, circulation of about 25,000 of a very specialized audience, and more broadly on the web, which includes lots of people around the country who have a lot of interest in politics. So in that sense, the standard of success is pretty straightforward.

We're trying to make Politico a brand that is recognized by people who care about politics, and they know that when they go to Politico they will find things they are interested in. In some ways it's a crowded marketplace. In other ways it is not so crowded. We look at our competition in different sorts of ways. If you look at one end of the spectrum-- places like The Hill, Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly-- we think we can be more revelatory, more consistently producing stories that find their way to the top of the stack, if you will. Everybody's desk is crowded with publications that go unread, and only the stuff at the top of the stack gets read. We think we can be there, because the reporters we've assembled are going to produce more revelatory work. We are not organized around the same model as those places who typically get by hiring younger reporters, mid-20s, late-20s, generally people at the start of their career.

What we've done at Politico is we've gone after people who have an established record of producing revelatory, original, must-read stories that really end up driving the conversation in Washington. I'm thinking of people like Mike Allen from Time magazine, who left that job to come with us because he was intrigued by the possibilities of starting something new at Politico. Roger Simon, political columnist at US News, prior to that Bloomberg, highly experienced guy. We've been going for three, four weeks [and] he's had interviews with John McCain, Barack Obama, he's talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger just today, in fact. He has that kind of access because he's an established name. You wouldn't see people like that going to The Hill or Roll Call. They do recognize the vibrancy of what we're trying to do here.

If you want to compare us against the Washington Post or the New York Times, well, we'd welcome that comparison too. We're not trying to emulate what they do, we are trying to establish a distinctive voice. Our style is more conversational. We don't feel we have an obligation to be the paper of record, which both those papers do to some degree. We write about stories when we have something interesting to say about them, and we try to say it in an interesting way.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post, a reporter I admire a great deal. Ben Smith is one of our presidential bloggers here at Politico. He comes from the New York Daily News, prior to that the New York Observer, also a reporter I admire a great deal. Those two guys are going to cover an event in distinctly different ways. In fact they've already been on the trail together, and Dan's take on things is going to be different than Ben's take on things. One is not better than the other, but they're different. We think Ben has a style, and some of our other people, some of our other bloggers and other writers, are going to write in a style that some people will find more congenial. It's a bit edgier, more conversational; our aspirations are always to be more like talking to a reporter than necessarily reading a story. In that sense I don't feel there's lots of people doing what we are aspiring to do. I think the challenge for us is to actually execute what our aspiration is. If we do that there won't be people that say the Politico is just like something else.

PRWeek: And yet, at the same time, this is a fair, down-the-middle publication?

Harris: In that sense we're traditional, in that we don't define ourselves by ideology and we do think it's important to have journalism that's detached from the fight for power. So much of what goes up on the web these days--and a lot of it's superb-but [it] really tends to view every political fact as either a weapon or a shield in this daily ideological war, and I think a lot of times that environment is bad for civil discourse. There ends up being no agreed upon set of facts. People end up in echo chambers with each other rather than achieving what I think is the goal of journalism, which is to actually illuminate some sort of picture of the world that everybody can agree on. Even if they can't agree on the implications, they can agree if it's sunny or raining.

I do think that other ways that we have more latitude than a mainstream media outlet, I feel we can interact with our audience more. We plan to do a lot more of that. We're hosting a debate at Politico. A presidential debate. It'll be with the Republican candidates out at the Reagan library in May. We're doing that in conjunction with MSNBC. The questions will come from our Politico audience, and that's not some transformative experiment but it reflects our values that we want the audience to be sort of participating in the journalism as much as possible.

PRWeek: How will you handle the upcoming presidential campaign that might be different from the way a traditional broadsheet will cover it? You've said before that you intend to demystify political news. How will you do that in the age of the billion dollar presidential campaign?

Harris: We're making a significant commitment to be out on the road with these candidates--to be where they are-- and we're putting people out there who have been around the track a few times. That's the investment we're going to make.

In terms of how we animate that coverage so that it's different than what others do, my injunction to people who work here is to tell me things that you observe. Tell me what you know, and look for things that would interest and surprise me beyond what I already know about these candidates. That's a work in progress. I do sometimes fear that there's a default to cover things in a traditional way, and that's one of the challenges that Jim VandeHei and I have.

To encourage our reporters to push against that, find ways to be revelatory, make your stories as interesting as is talking with you. And virtually everyone here is interesting to talk to. When they're out on the road they come back with lots of interesting things they've observed. That's the challenge, to do that. We are not trying to match the Associated Press in terms of comprehensive coverage. But we are trying to maximize the impact of the cumulative expertise we've assembled here.

PRWeek: One of The Politico's interesting features is that it encourages reader involvement. Is that something that journalism in general needs to consider?

Harris: Well it's important. This represents our first pass at the challenge. We've only been going about four weeks, and only got going on the website about three or four weeks before the launch. It is important for us as we evolve on the site and look for new features. That is a core value: what can we do to be a place that sustains a conversation, that people who care about our subjects feel like they can come to and find an interesting conversation?That conversation with our readers is more important than speaking with some sort of editorial "We," [or] "Here's what we think."

The idea not to have an editorial page was a very easy one because it seems contradictory to say we believe in such a thing [as] journalism that can be ideologically neutral, and at the same time, we pop off with whatever our opinion is on X, Y, or Z.

PRWeek: Do you have any tips or advice for PR people?

Harris: I think the best public relations people, in my experience, are people who are realistic and engage with reporters rather than retreat behind "no comments" or carefully crafted statements filled with buzz phrases or what have you. I think public relations is a profession like anything else and there are people who really bring professional values to it. Those people in my experience are informed, they are not defensive, they are not afraid of reporters, they understand our business. Those who can do that and actually engage and make a case [are] generally representing their clients a lot better than those who take refuge behind bogus talking points.


Name: John Harris

Outlet: The Politico

Title: Editor-in-chief

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