If skinny, 37-year-old Robert Allbritton is looming as a bigger hero in the journalistic pantheon than First Amendment author James Madison these days, no wonder: While most other media moguls seem to be laying off reporters, he's hiring.
Adding to his contrarian aura: Allbritton is underwriting an ambitious Internet news venture by starting up a--get this--dead tree publication.
The Politico, his newspaper cum Web site (www.politico.com), launched January 23, just in time for President Bush's State of the Union address. As the name suggests, it is based Inside the Beltway, covering Congress, and everybody else who wants to run for president.
Allbritton already has generated some buzz by plucking off big-name talent, most notably John Harris, the new publication's editor in chief, and Jim VandeHei, his executive editor. Both left plummy jobs at the Washington Post, where Harris was national political editor and VandeHei a national political correspondent, to join the upstart hybrid. They in turn raided Time magazine to get Mike Allen and snared Roger Simon, a veteran political columnist.
All told, the Politico has recruited 19 writers and 11 editors. Among the prize catches are well-connected congressional reporters John Bresnahan, late of Roll Call, and Josephine Hearn and Patrick O'Connor, both veterans of the Hill newspaper. Bill Nichols, who has covered foreign policy and the Clinton administration during his 23 years at USA Today, will be the Politico's deputy managing editor and editor for special projects. Another "critical hire," says Harris, is Kim Kingsley, who spent the last two years helping to get Washington Post correspondents on radio and TV. She'll be instrumental in building the Politico's street cred by getting its stories and reporters noticed in more established media.
Synergy is a big part of Allbritton's formula. The Politico's founder already has cut a deal to give his reporters and editors high-profile exposure with regular appearances on CBS. In addition to the Internet site, the Politico's team will produce a daily television show for Webcast and potential syndication.
But the foundation for Allbritton's multimedia buzz machine will be, at least initially, good old-fashioned newsprint. Three days a week, when Congress is in session, Allbritton plans to paper Capitol Hill and the K Street lobbyists' corridor with 24,000 copies of a tabloid, also called the Politico. As the name suggests, it will chronicle the doings of DC's political-industrial complex.
And profit from it as well, according to Allbritton's plan. He hopes to tap into a lucrative, only-in-Washington market of advertisers: government contractors and lobbyists who are trying to shape the opinions of opinion leaders. Their "issue advertising" dollars already keep two Capitol Hill-based publications afloat--Roll Call and the Hill. Allbritton thinks there's more than enough money to support a third, and it's easy to see why he thinks so. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, corporations and special interest groups spent $2.28 billion lobbying Congress and federal agencies in 2005. Further evidence of the market's strength: Allbritton says he started making ad sales for his new publication before it even had a name. "It was the ultimate in vaporware," he says.
Allbritton sees the paper version of the Politico as the key to the overall venture's success. "You can get infinitely more advertising money if you have a print product," he says. Publishing strictly on the Internet is "the future," he adds. "It's not here yet."
Allbritton has been studying the Washington media market from his perch as head of Allbritton Communications, a family-owned string of TV stations that includes Washington's ABC affiliate, WJLA. The initials stand for Joseph L. Allbritton, the current CEO's dad and former owner of the late, lamented Washington Star.
The younger Allbritton, who vividly remembers "getting allergy shots from the nurse at the Star" when he was in grade school, says he's been yearning to expand the family media footprint in Washington for years. Roll Call or the Hill seemed appealing buys because, he says, a non-daily paper with limited circulation doesn't violate the FCC's cross-ownership ban. But after crunching the numbers, Allbritton concluded "we can start our own more cheaply."
He sought advice from two veterans of Capitol Hill's newspaper wars: Martin Tolchin, a former New York Timesman who helped found the Hill, and Andrew Glass, who wrote a column for the Hill after retiring as the Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers. He hired Bruce Drake, formerly of NPR and New York's Daily News, to serve as managing editor.
Allbritton's original vision morphed considerably after Harris and VandeHei came aboard. The two ex-Posties say they had been having some pie-in-the-sky conversations about starting a political Web site, and had even gone as far as talking to some contacts in the business world. They had just concluded that they didn't have the business know-how or infrastructure to make a go of it ("We can't even do our expense accounts," says Harris) when Allbritton approached VandeHei about a job at what was then to be a newspaper called the Capitol Leader.
The rest is history in the making.
Harris, 43, is a 21-year veteran of the Post and author of two political books, "The Survivor," a well-reviewed memoir of Bill Clinton's White House--which Harris covered--and "The Way to Win," a handbook for '08 presidential candidates, co-authored with ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin. VandeHei, 35, is such a political junkie that he moved to Washington after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and worked for a bricklayer before catching on at Roll Call. From there he headed to the Wall Street Journal and then the Post.
In an interview, Harris and VandeHei had only good things to say about their former employer. But the chance to start "something genuinely new," Harris says, was irresistible.
The two ex-Posties' vision, heavy on the Internet and national political reporting, "dovetailed with what we were thinking we wanted to be," Allbritton says, and inspired him to accelerate his plans. Those call for big-time coverage of the presidential race, including staffing the astronomically expensive campaign planes.
Counting photographers, a cartoonist and advertising salespeople, Allbritton had nearly 50 people working for the Politico on launch day. He says he's prepared to lose money at first--though he's vague when it comes to how long he'll tolerate red ink. "Anybody who expects to make money in a media venture in year one isn't realistic," he says. "What you're talking about is changing people's habits. It takes a little while for people to discover a reason to change."
Some political journalists, meanwhile, seem to have already discovered a reason to change.
Harris and VandeHei aren't the only big journalism names to abandon high-profile jobs in the mainstream media for a startup Internet venture. Ron Fournier, 43, recently walked away from his post as the Associated Press' top political writer to join HotSoup.com, a politically oriented social networking site launched by an unusual combination of former Clinton and Bush staffers. Fournier says it's no surprise that some reporters are getting ahead of their corporate bosses. "We're all curious people who are always looking around the next corner," he says. While some in the business see the Web as a threat, Fournier argues it's a tremendous opening. "The Internet has created so many opportunities for journalists," he says. "We no longer have to work at the big paper in town. The buffet has gotten a whole lot bigger."
The Politico's new editors see that kind of risk-taking attitude and willingness to change as critical components for success in 21st-century journalism. Asked what he's seeking as he recruits new hires for his newspaper/Internet site/broadcast operation, Harris doesn't mention software skills or camera-ready presence. Instead, he says, he wants a certain mind-set.
He's not looking for people who want jobs like the one he had at the Post for two decades, "almost like a 1950s career model," Harris says. "People who want that kind of stability and that kind of career are not going to find journalism an attractive profession." To succeed in today's media market, he adds, journalists need "a more entrepreneurial ethic."
Harris is also seeking a new style of writing. "The austere, voice-of-God detachment which is the classic newspaper style can be an impediment to engagement with the reader and a genuine understanding of what's going on with a story," he says. VandeHei says he wants "provocative content" and "reporters to be comfortable with letting readers know more about them."
Are they ahead of the curve? Maybe, but to some Internet veterans, the Politico sounds a lot like PoliticsNow.com and AllPolitics.com, two competing ventures that started up during the 1996 presidential election campaign. Neither lasted much past it.
Evans Witt, a former AP reporter who was the editor of PoliticsNow, says his site and others demonstrated that there are people interested in a Web site that covers the business of politics. "The question we still don't have an answer to is 'How many of them are there, and who is going to pay the bill?'
"I still don't know if there are enough people who will go to a politically focused Web site day in and day out and year in and year out and whether advertisers will want to advertise to them," Witt says.
But Witt, now CEO of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, also acknowledges that "times have changed" from the days his team was hand-coding Internet pages. "In '96, the focus was getting the Web site put together every day," says Witt. With more advanced technology and the luxury of being able to focus on breaking stories, Witt thinks the Allbritton venture might have more staying power.
"I really hope they are successful," he says. "I can't tell you how happy I would be."