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From AJR,   October/November 2006


Online Exclusive An online start-up lures two top political journalists.
Posted Nov. 21, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It may not be a sign of the apocalypse, but it has the feel of a truly significant benchmark.

The defection of Washington Post Political Editor John Harris and ace political reporter Jim VandeHei to an online start-up is not just a crushing loss for the Post. It's a dramatic manifestation of the ongoing shift from old media to new.

It's also a reflection of the angst at the once unshakeable Post, beset by sagging circulation and massive buyouts and the loss of top talent. It comes days after a memo from Executive Editor Len Downie signaling newsroom realignment, ongoing attrition, smaller newsholes and shorter stories.

It's not that long ago that such a jump from the Post would have been unimaginable.

The Post politicos will be anchoring an ambitious "multimedia political news venture," to quote the press release, bankrolled by Allbritton Communications. The venture is not without old-media components. It includes a new Washington, D.C., newspaper, the Capitol Leader, slated to debut in January. And Harris and VandeHei will make regular television appearances on CBS, including on "Face the Nation." But clearly the new politics Web site is the linchpin of the endeavor.

Harris told the New York Times' Kit Seelye, "No one should interpret this as people taking flight from the old media." But one of VandeHei's comments in the Times' piece was telling: He said he got 95 percent of his news online. This from a mainstay of one of the flagships of prime-time print journalism.

Of course, VandeHei is hardly alone. I see it in my own news habits. I've spent my entire career in print, at six newspapers, a news service and a magazine. I subscribe to the Post and the New York Times. Yet it's not unusual for me to read some of the top stories in both papers online the night before the print versions show up outside my condo door. And while I may sample them at breakfast, I read a lot more of the Times and the Post and numerous other news sources--on the computer throughout the day.

While readers and ads continue to migrate online, though, no economic model has yet emerged to support full-scale newsgathering operations there. And there's no guarantee the Allbritton initiative will survive and flourish. The brief history of online journalism has no shortage of flameouts.

But there's little question we're in the midst of a period of profound change, and the moves by Harris and VandeHei are a fascinating reminder of that fact.




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