Politico, Act II
An overnight success with its saturation coverage and "win the morning" approach, the political junkies' bible reloads for a future packed with new and emerging competitors. Wed., November 30, 2011
By Jodi Enda
Perhaps it was fitting that the tip about Herman Cain went to someone known as "J-Mart."
Senior contributing writer Jodi Enda (firstname.lastname@example.org) has written about Politico, changes in campaign coverage in the age of Twitter and Bloomberg News in recent issues of AJR.
After all, Politico prides itself on being fast, fresh and forward-looking, yet informal enough to appeal to a wide swath of Americans--the perfect perch for someone whose nickname blends the sexiness of JLo with the mass allure of Kmart.
But Jonathan Martin and his editors didn't respond to the October tipster in the high-speed, put-it-out-there manner for which Politico is renowned. Instead, they devoted a few weeks and three additional reporters to the task of nailing down the story that Cain, a leading Republican presidential candidate, had been accused of sexual harassment by at least two women during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association. And they gave the candidate and his operatives a remarkable 10 days to respond.
What? Is this the same Politico that, in its infancy in 2007, rushed to publish an erroneous one-source tip that John Edwards was suspending his presidential campaign because of his wife's cancer prognosis?
The answer is no...and yes.
It's been five years since John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei left the national desk at the Washington Post to found a news outlet that would compete in what many viewed as a saturated political news market. As newspapers withered and lost influence, as their friends and former colleagues grabbed buyouts and suffered layoffs, Harris and VandeHei hired a handful of premiere Washington reporters and a bunch of up-and-comers; built a fresh product that included a newspaper and a Web site; broke news time and again; promoted the hell out of their work; made missteps; fine-tuned, fine-tuned, fine-tuned; launched a subscription-only offshoot; hired more big names and produced others until their creation became one of the leading sources of political news in the country.
Consider that in little more than a week this fall, Politico stories shook up the Republican presidential contest, brought about the ouster of a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and appeared to play a role in the diminution of duties of the White House chief of staff.
"I'd say that Politico has become pretty indispensable for political professionals and journalists and people who are fascinated by how politics works," says David Folkenflik, the media correspondent for NPR.
Even as they sneer that Politico's writing is not always first-rate and that many of its stories are turn-of-the-screw tidbits, the Washington powers that be, wannabes and journalists gobble it up. So do people outside the Beltway. Politico.com receives nearly 60 million pageviews per month from between 8 million and 11 million unique visitors, only 11 percent of whom live in the Washington area, according to internal tracking. Mike Allen's Playbook alone, considered a must read for political insiders, is e-mailed to 75,000 people every morning, and thousands more read it online and on mobile devices. Readership has grown steadily since 2008, when Politico reported an average of 6 million unique visitors a month.
And it's making money.
Not a small feat for a journalism startup created in an era of retrenchment.
But less than five years after it launched in January 2007, and only three after it broke through the pack with cutting edge coverage of the 2008 election, Politico is facing intense competition that either didn't exist or wasn't especially menacing in its early years.
Some of the new challenges are, in an odd twist, tributes to its early success. In the face of naysayers--and there were many--Politico demonstrated that people in and outside Washington would read fast and snappy reports about politics, that they were interested in short, incremental stories as well as longer reads, that they would follow politics even when no election was nigh. The result: copycats.
Now, even legacy outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are posting quickly, updating when necessary, using social media to engage readers, sending out e-mail alerts about breaking news and employing bloggers to write in a more conversational tone. Why wait for the morning paper when you can get it online now? (See "Campaign Coverage in the Time of Twitter," Fall.)
Meanwhile, political and general news Web sites that once served primarily as aggregators of other people's stories have hired reporters of their own. The Huffington Post, now owned by AOL, has grown exponentially. RealClearPolitics and Talking Points Memo have enlarged their small reporting staffs. Yahoo! is covering a presidential campaign for the first time. The Daily Beast and the Daily Caller didn't exist during the last presidential race, but have a significant Washington presence now.
Then there's Twitter. Once dismissed as frivolous, Twitter now is the way millions of people get news.
Harris and VandeHei--or VandeHarris, as they are known at Politico--seem unperturbed.
"Competition is only a threat if you get complacent," VandeHei ("Vandy") says as we sit in his office with Harris. "We're just as hungry today as we’ve ever been. You have to be in a constant state of sharpening yourself, of rediscovering yourself."
He ticks off a list of new things Politico is doing: expanding the 10-month-old, subscription-only Politico Pro site that focuses on policy; publishing four e-books intended to pull the veil off the presidential campaign while it's happening; generating more original video; building a new TV set in the middle of the newsroom; producing more deep-dive stories and delving into the intersection of politics and media.
"This place is electric with ideas," he says.
Still, with other Web sites and blogs and Twitter and live streaming and whatever comes next breathing down their necks, VandeHei and Harris make clear they are not relaxing.
"You'd be a fool to be complacent in this arena. Probably to a fault, John and I don’t go around high-fiving," VandeHei says. "The arms race of experimentation is going to continue for years."
They began with 12 reporters, half of them Washington hotshots like Mike Allen and Roger Simon, the other half potential hotshots like J-Mart and New York-based blogger Ben Smith. They moved into the back corner of a football field of a newsroom located, incongruously, in a swank high-rise in Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington's Georgetown neighborhood. Dominating the newsroom were TV cameras, sets and the staff of Washington's ABC affiliate, WJLA, and a smaller cable channel.
They call these their "garage band" days.
At the time, Allbritton Communications owned a string of television stations. But it had a newspaper in its history: Founder Joe L. Allbritton (source of the initials used in WJLA) once owned the now-defunct Washington Star. His son and successor, Robert Allbritton, was intrigued by the notion of linking a newspaper to a Web site in a new way. The plan was counterintuitive. It banked on the newspaper turning a profit--enough of one to pay for the journalism that would be distributed to a national audience on the Web.
Even before it debuted in January 2007, The Politico, as it was then called, was a venture that many established journalists loved to hate. It didn't help that in late 2006, VandeHei told the New York Observer that well-known journalists were "begging for jobs." He continued: "I think we’ll show that we're better than The New York Times or The Washington Post." After suffering a verbal shellacking, VandeHei acknowledged that he should have chosen his words more carefully.
But it wasn't only VandeHei's hubris that made people wonder what in the world he and Harris were thinking. After all, the country was littered with failed newspapers and even some short-lived journalism Web sites. Americans didn't seem to be looking for more news; they were beguiled by schlock, by reality shows, by Paris Hilton. There was no demand for anything wonky.
Here's what AJR wrote at the time: "Allbritton is underwriting an ambitious Internet news venture by starting up a--get this--dead tree publication." (See "Politico Mojo," February/March 2007.)
Harris and VandeHei were not discouraged. "We knew there was a huge appetite," Harris says, grinning as he adds, "Some people thought we were out of our damn minds."
The business goal was to make a profit. The journalism goal was to "win the morning." Every morning.
Often, they did. They started early and worked late, creating a go-go environment assailed (especially by outsiders) as a sweatshop. They developed sources, pounded the pavement and posted early and often. They put out the small, free tabloid newspaper primarily when Congress was in town, which was all they needed to garner the advertising dollars that flow readily from government contractors and K Street lobbying firms.
They embraced new technology, hiring a sizable staff to build Web pages and, later, smartphone and iPad apps, a significant investment that increased their agility and gave them a competitive edge. They created blogs and tip sheets, and pushed their work through e-mail alerts that, ultimately, were distributed to hundreds of thousands of subscribers each day. They placed a premium on TV and radio appearances that would draw greater attention to their stories.
Now that the dust has settled, Harris, Politico's editor-in-chief, and VandeHei, the executive editor, credit their success to the people they hired (competitive, ambitious) and to the single-mindedness of their focus (politics and government). Harris likes to say Politico is to politics what ESPN is to sports: Neither tries to do everything like a general interest newspaper or TV network; each concentrates on doing one thing very well. He calls it the "niche model."
Harris, soft-spoken and contemplative, downplays the maxim about winning the morning. "We've enjoyed having fun with that phrase," he says. "It was always said with a wink. To me, the signature of Politico was not speed, it was assembling a roster of journalistic talent that understands this stuff and enjoys it more than the competition."
The core vision, Harris says, was to hire six big-name reporters and six "that nobody's ever heard of" and let them loose to "put points on the board--put stories out that matter and get noticed."
Today, with an editorial staff nearing 150 and a newsroom that spread well beyond those first desks behind the television sets, Harris says the vision remains the same as it did when Politico was conceived: "To constantly write stories that people would talk about."
That, of course, is one measure of winning. Wink or not, winning the morning is part of Politico's culture. Except that it is no longer enough. As several people tell me, as competition intensified, winning the morning gave way to winning the hour, winning the quarter hour and, eventually, winning the minute. In other words, at Politico, you have to stay on top all the time.
Every Politico reporter and editor I speak to says virtually the same thing: The directive is to "drive the conversation" about politics and government each and every day. They want to get scoops, sure. But it's more than that. When you get scoops, you win by beating the competition. That's the time-honored approach to newspapering, which is to say, yesterday's way of committing journalism. When you drive the conversation, you not only beat the competition, you influence what powerful people are talking about, responding to, acting on.
You become a player.
And when you are a player, people have to pay attention to you. Which brings us back to the goal at the beginning--and now.
"The mission hasn't changed. We want to be absolutely essential to people who do this all the time," VandeHei says, referring to the political class. “We wake up each and every day asking, 'How do we dominate coverage of politics and government?' We have total clarity of purpose."
Not only do Politico's honchos know what they want day in and day out, they know where they want to be down the line.
"We both try to obsess about what do we want to be five years from now," Harris says. The answer: "The dominant Washington news organization."
Plenty of Washington journalists look down their noses at Politico. It's small-bore, they say, cluttered with so much unimportant news that it's hard to discern what matters. It sacrifices quality for speed. Its reporters are adept at breaking news, but only a few of them are capable of stepping back, putting developments in a larger context and providing insightful analysis. Its stories often lack altitude and are inelegantly written. They are one dimensional.
Plenty of Washington journalists look down their noses at Politico--but they are reluctant to speak about it openly. Why? As more than one person told me: "I might need a job there someday."
Media critics give the enterprise mixed but largely positive reviews. They appreciate Politico for jumping on stories quickly--and deride it for the same thing.
"They are obviously terribly, terribly focused," says Erik Wemple, who writes a blog about the media for washingtonpost.com and is a former editor of the Allbritton-owned local news Web site TBD. "They know what's news, they're on it around the clock, and if it's not on that Web site, there's a good chance it didn't happen. So it is wonderfully reliable that way.
"That's an enormous strength--and on the same continuum with their weaknesses. Sometimes they put stuff out there that is just from one of their sources and it's not fully vetted or balanced."
The problem, he says, is that Politico's reporters rush to write whatever they know as soon as they know it. The result is that news can dribble out in tidbits, with one side of a story showing up first and the other side later. But, he adds, the other side does, eventually, come out.
"Sometimes it's a little bit hard to put the whole picture together," Wemple says. "For example, if someone is announcing their candidacy, they'll have like nine posts on it before the guy or the gal gets to the podium. And yet one of the more slow-footed news outlets might have something a little more readable."
Nevertheless, Wemple says Politico is a "breathtaking and fascinating thing to see." He attributes that to the blend of people who work there, a conglomeration of newspaper veterans with old-media sensibilities and young reporters who cut their teeth on new media.
"So they have sort of the credibility that comes from old media, with the speed and the social media and the TV that come with new media," he says. "It's neither a legacy site nor does it have just the startup feel."
Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, marvels at how quickly Politico made its mark. "It's been a significant player since it emerged on the scene," he says. "I don't think there's any doubt for folks in the Beltway and in politics in Washington that Politico has clearly elbowed its way into the middle of the conversation and debate.
"Its metabolism is probably the most significant decision they made," Jurkowitz says. "From Day One, this has been a news organization that has basically attuned itself to the instantaneous production of politically related news. If you're really hooked on politics, it might be a place you go several times a day."
Like Wemple, he says speed can be a double-edged sword if it prevents reporters from getting the whole story before making it public. But he defends Politico against the charge of bias that some politicians have lobbed. "Politico plays it pretty much down the middle," Jurkowitz says.
NPR's Folkenflik also defends Politico, and points out the effect it has had on other news outlets. They have had to speed up to keep up. His only criticism is that Politico focuses so much on politics that it ignores the impact that Washington has on the lives of regular Americans.
"They can say, 'It's Politico, for crying out loud. This is for junkies, for fanatics,' Folkenflik says. "But it's divorced from the notion of how people's lives work in Akron or Austin."
In fact, VandeHei mentions that the editors are considering expanding Politico's coverage beyond Washington.
If Politico is for junkies, Politico Pro is for insiders.
The subscription-only product, which launched in February, covers the nitty-gritty of policy for the most wonkish among us. It's like a super-duper trade publication, but faster, more relevant, better written and easier to comprehend, says Pro's editor-in-chief, Tim Grieve. "We're aimed at an audience that knows a lot."
Knows a lot, and will pay--thousands of dollars a year--to know more. Politico Pro is aimed at lobbyists, activists, members of Congress and their staffs, agency officials, government contractors and other Washington movers and shakers. It concentrates on just a handful of subjects, including health care, technology, energy and, most recently, transportation, and provides breaking news, enterprise stories and analysis intended to keep insiders abreast of everything, big and small, that is happening in their fields.
"We are in the arena that used to be dominated by trade publications with white papers and 10-page reports that were boring," says Miki King, executive director of business development for the new endeavor. "The goal of Pro is to revolutionize that in the same way that Politico revolutionized reporting in Washington."
Politico is not the first news organization to come up with the idea of providing inside information to people with money. It's an obvious revenue stream. National Journal, CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg all offer pricey subscriptions for government-obsessed readers. Each one has a slightly different twist or focus. Bloomberg Government, or BGOV, provides white papers written by journalists and analysts and a wide array of data that users can crunch to their hearts' desire (see "The Bloomberg Juggernaut," Spring). CQ Roll Call focuses on the doings of Capitol Hill. National Journal, the pioneer in high-priced Washington journalism, covers the inner workings of legislation and policy (see "The 40-Year-Old Startup," Spring).
What makes Pro different?
Just like Politico, Pro has to be fast and smart and contain an element of fun, Grieve says. It delivers information in bursts through morning and afternoon newsletters and one-paragraph "white-board alerts," and at length in stories sent to readers instantly and posted on a password-protected Web site. The news is ready before Washington goes to work, with the first e-mail blasts going out by 6 a.m.
"I hope what we're providing is not journalism that people have to read because that's their job, but something they actually enjoy reading," Grieve says.
The more you pay, the more you get. The least expensive Pro subscription--for one person who wants information on one of the topics covered--costs $2,495 a year. After that, pricing gets complicated and can be quite steep, with rates based on the number of readers in an organization and the number of topics each of them subscribes to, King explains.
Pro, like Politico itself, is intended to make a profit. But Allbritton is a privately held company, and the revenue picture is a closely guarded secret. Pretty much all King and others will say about Pro and Politico itself is that they're exceeding expectations.
"No," he says, "it's not a damn toy."
The day after the Herman Cain story broke on October 30, Politico reporters and editors did more than 50 TV and radio "hits," according to Sara Olson, who oversees publicity. Typically, they clock 400 TV and radio appearances a month. This is no accident. Harris and VandeHei view marketing as crucial to their goal of news domination. Four employees market the Politico brand, particularly to television stations. Both top editors are familiar faces on cable and network news programs, as are many of their reporters
"You have to worry about and think about how a piece will find its audience," Harris explains just after completing a radio interview from his office. "It's almost incumbent upon reporters these days to promote their stories. In the old days, stories spoke for themselves."
Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, e-mail alerts--all are tools used by Politico to gain visibility.
Perhaps as a result, a number of Politico reporters and editors now are members of the elite Washington chattering class that often is maligned outside the Beltway but
Harris insists this is not the celebritization of news, but a growing public familiarity with experts. "Reporters are the franchise. They build up public identities for themselves or for their work," he says. "If you're a sports nut, you know who the great sportswriters are. If not, you don't give a damn...I don't view this as a negative. There are journalists who build up a big following for their work who don't need the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal to do that. It's not driven by celebrities like Kim Kardashian. It's driven by distinctive talents."
In the old days, newspaper reporters did their jobs, developed expertise and kept their heads down. They didn't promote or opine; they certainly didn't bloviate. They weren't made up and glamorized for the airwaves, and they didn't talk in sound bites. Cable TV, with its constant need to fill the hours, changed that. And so it is that Harris and VandeHei and Mike Allen and J-Mart and the rest of the Politico gang are recognizable faces on news programs and in the Washington power circuit.
Politico has its own style and personality. Though its top editors and reporters--not only Harris and VandeHei, but just about everyone in leadership--emanated from mainstream newspapers, they decided to liven things up a bit. The stories are provocative, edgy, written for impact.
"There are a lot of stories that we write that work perfectly for Politico that would look downright strange if they were on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post," Harris acknowledges. "I say that as someone who wrote for the Post."
Harris, who covered politics and the White House at the Post before becoming an editor there, says Politico did away with the "austere, granite, Sermon-on-the-Mount voice" favored for decades by mainstream newspapers. Instead, Politico invokes a more conversational tone--and a fair amount of humor. "We're having fun with it," he says.
The editors like to assign stories that everyone is talking about (the old water cooler standard), but that nobody else will touch. So, in August, with the country ruminating on the Texas governor's presidential potential, they headlined one piece "Is Rick Perry dumb?"
It's the kind of question you might expect comedians and radio talk show hosts to pose (and they did), followed by guffaws but few facts. Politico wasn't kidding around. The piece, by Jonathan Martin, was heavily reported and written at considerable length. Martin quoted a number of Perry's supporters and detractors before concluding that the Republican governor was no "ideas man," but that he was "ferociously single-minded."
"Perry may not be a wonk, but that doesn't mean he's a rube--a costly mistake many of his foes have made," Martin wrote.
When Perry stumbled in debate after debate (his most noted utterance was "Oops!"), Martin's piece appeared prescient.
On other things, Politico is more conventional. It divides beats the same way most newspapers do, assigning reporters to cover the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and political campaigns. Except that Politico, freed from writing about sports, business, health, entertainment, weddings and all the other topics newspapers embrace, assigns more reporters to many of the beats that are central to its mission. On politics and Congress, its reporters outnumber those of even the largest newspapers.
Politico also maintains reporting and ethics standards that hearken back to the days when reporters took the time to confirm information from multiple sources or documents before putting it in the public sphere, Harris says. He is clearly sensitive on this topic. The stereotype of Web sites in general and of Politico in particular is that they are fast but not necessarily careful, that they value winning over accuracy. It is perhaps the harshest criticism confronting Politico. Harris counters that Politico wants to be first, but that it has to be right. He offers the Cain story as proof.
Harris, Managing Editor Bill Nichols and National Politics Editor Charles Mahtesian walk me through the events leading up to the big scoop. First, Martin got a tip during the second week of October. He spent many days trying to substantiate the information, but didn't quite get it firm enough to publish. The editors--and there were several involved--pulled in reporters Maggie Haberman, Anna Palmer and Kenneth Vogel to help Martin pursue the facts. They conducted dozens of interviews over three weeks' time. For days, they thought they were close, but not quite there. Then, on October 20, they contacted the Cain campaign.
The campaign's response to the allegations, which included the name of one accuser, was "murky," Harris says. "We went round and round."
The four reporters continued to work on the story and to push for a substantive response from the Cain campaign, which didn't seem to be taking the allegations seriously, the editors say.
"We knew it was a huge story, and we wanted to be as careful as possible and exercise enough due diligence as possible," Nichols says. "It was difficult to gauge what Cain's response really was. It changed over time. But in fairness to him and his staff, we wanted to understand what they were saying."
Meanwhile, the editors were getting nervous that another outlet would break the story. Politico reporters had contacted numerous sources, any one of whom might have tipped off another publication. On Saturday, October 29, Harris, Martin and Craig Gordon, the chief deputy managing editor, stayed in the office until well after midnight. They wanted to post the story Sunday morning, just in case any of the papers had it. But, after some debate, they opted to hold off. Harris says there were two considerations: They didn't want to edit the piece after midnight, when they were tired, and they wanted to confront Cain himself rather than rely on his staff. They would have the opportunity the following morning, when he emerged from the studios of CBS' "Face the Nation."
Martin caught Cain on his way out. The candidate did not answer any of his questions directly. But at that point, Politico had enough to go on. The story went up that night.
It unsettled the political world, threatening to knock Cain out of serious contention. And it was the topic of conversation for some time as other news outlets chased the story; as Cain's campaign blamed the media, then other Republicans, then Democrats; as some of his accusers went public with their allegations and were scrutinized as a result; and as Republican operatives and voters tried to sift through the evolving information.
For a young news organization, this is about as good as it gets.
I am in the newsroom in the days after the story breaks. There is a constant buzz as new details come to light.
"It's been a really important moment for the publication to show the kind of reporting depth and editorial judgment about an important, difficult story in real time," Harris reflects. "I've always said our DNA has one strand New York Times and one strand New York Post. We like politics and we think it ought to be interesting. On this story, we were dominated by the part of our brain that comes from traditional news media."
Around the time Charlie Mahtesian is going to bed--after he and his political reporting team map out the next day during online confabs that last until 2 a.m.--other Politico employees are getting up. After all, someone has to put together all the e-mail blasts that greet official Washington before dawn.
For all the talk of deep dives and substance and taking the time to do things right, this remains an institution built on adrenaline. People work hard, long hours. They say that is by choice. "I don't really have an off switch," Haberman tells me when I note her proclivity for late night-early morning blog posts.
No matter how many other things they try to do, including investigative and enterprise stories, Politico's reporters and editors are not abandoning their roots, their drive to win every morning--not to mention every other part
of the day.
"We always want to operate in the moment," says Nichols, a 20-year veteran of USA Today. "We work in the world in which journalism is played out in real time." As if to respond to detractors, he adds, "You can like that, you can not like it, you can wish for the good old days. It doesn't matter. The world has changed."
And continues to change. Politico's leaders are determined to keep up with it.
What to do, for instance, about the diminishing influence of blogs?
Create the "post-blog blog," of course. As blogger Ben Smith elucidates in his online note in early November, "Twitter has replaced any individual blog as the place the political conversation plays out..." Rather than rush to post events that people can watch online as they unfold, Smith says he will work to break and analyze news.
"The most interesting political stories can't be communicated in 140 characters," he tells me in an interview.
Despite the unquestionable financial and journalistic success of Politico, editors and reporters continue to look over their shoulders. They don't want to remain static. They don't dare lose sight of the competition, which they see as coming from every direction.
"We always run scared," Mahtesian says.
Every day, the editors say, they are thinking about how they will grow and evolve so as not to fall victim to the same fate as old media.
"Complacency is our greatest enemy," Nichols says. "We all saw what complacency did to newspapers. We don't want to have a day where we don't feel the wolf howling at the door. Or to have anyone say, 'We can't do that because we haven't done that before.'
"That is the antithesis of who we are."
In my conversations with him, VandeHei displays little of the arrogance that got him into hot water five years ago. He ballyhoos, almost to a fault, the editors who he says now run Politico day to day. He talks about the big picture, about staying a step ahead, about going "deeper and wider" with stories and new products like e-books.
"Only a fool would stand still or self-satisfied in a hyper-competitive market like this one," he says. "We think we are better positioned than anyone to dominate this space, but only if we continue to invest, innovate, experiment and sharpen our journalism.
"That's the plan."