Journalist Q&A: Jim VandeHei, executive editor, Politico

Jim VandeHei, executive editor and cofounder of Politico, talks to Jaimy Lee about the big stories Politico will chase in 2011, the outlet's coverage of the Tea Party, and the difficulties the White House faces communicating on jobs

Name: Jim VandeHei
Title: Executive editor, cofounder
Outlet: Politico
Contact: (703) 647-7999
Website: Politico.com

Jim VandeHei, executive editor and cofounder of Politico, talks to Jaimy Lee about the big stories Politico will chase in 2011, the outlet's coverage of the Tea Party, and the difficulties the White House faces communicating on jobs

How effectively has the Obama administration communicated on the jobs issue?

I don't know if anybody could be effective, from the White House perspective, communicating on jobs now. Unemployment is at 9.6% - there's just no positive way to spin that.

Broadly speaking, the White House has had a huge communications struggle for the past two years, some of its own making, because it has done so much so quickly. It's hard to get the time and the public's attention to explain to them: this is why we did bailouts; this is why we did the stimulus; this is why we did a trillion-dollar healthcare bill; and this is why we tried to do cap and trade.

That's one of the big knocks you hear from Democrats on the Hill about this White House - that there hasn't been a laser-like focus on jobs. Every poll shows it's the only thing people really care about - the economy and jobs.

Post-midterms, what will be next year's big issues?

There's a huge basket of purely political stories. Republicans will undoubtedly pick up a bunch of seats. That will be a huge story for months. How does that work? How does the city work? How will Obama function with Republicans in control? How do Democrats react to that?

The other one is the policy implications. You'll have this commission reporting about different ways to reduce the deficit. You'll have this fight about whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts that must be wrapped up by year's end.

I don't think you'll see the huge sweeping healthcare program or a massive reordering of the energy sector. You're going to see a much bigger focus on deficit reduction. You'll see a bigger focus on education reform and trade - areas where you could see some common ground for Obama and some segment of the GOP.

What's your view on the changes in the DC media landscape, with the National Journal's hires and new digital strategy, as well as the upcoming launch of Bloomberg's BGov. How does it affect what Politico does?

It's an amazing time to be a journalist in Washington. It's been tough for our industry over the past couple of years, in particular, but the DC market and coverage of Washington has been booming. It's one of the media world's untold stories.

We continue to hire and expand. National Journal clearly is doing both. Bloomberg is in the process of a massive expansion that will dwarf anything the rest of us are doing combined as far as its Washington presence. We will be successful if we stay absolutely vital to those in Washington who care about politics and governance.

How do you feel about Joe Scarborough and Michael Kinsley joining as opinion columnists?

Now that we're maturing as a company - we're three years in - we've been thinking more about: should we find a couple of smart opinion writers who are not just out there banging pots and pans. To land the two of them was irresistible for us.

Do you see paywalls in Politico's future?

I don't think we're going to charge for access to our content online. I do think we'll experiment in the relatively near future with some very specific pay products aimed directly at people who care about particular policy areas.

When would you say Politico began covering the Tea Party regularly?

Around late spring or early summer last year. We were onto it pretty early. [Politico's] Ken Vogel has done some of the best reporting out there on the Tea Party movement. We saw it was big and was going to be influential, and we've really done a lot of reporting on it, trying to figure out: What is this movement? Who leads it? Who funds it? What kind of influence does it have on this campaign?

Where does coverage of the PR and public affairs sector fit in?

We don't cover it as much as lobbying, except when it is a component of lobbying. It used to be that a lobbying shop only did traditional, conventional-style lobbying. Now most lobbying firms do it all - they do some advertisements, as well as a lot of the PR and public affairs work for their clients.

Any company or group that's attempting to pressure members of Congress or the White House into being for or against something - they don't just employ lobbyists. They employ people who help them create and shape public perception.

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