AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 2003

Politics of Competition   

Newspapers covering federal goings-on square off in Washington

By Michael Duck
Michael Duck is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

Washington politics can be intense and fickle. So too, the capital's newsstands.

Big changes are underway in the world of publications that cover federal happenings. Readers of Roll Call and The Hill will find that their Congress-oriented papers are not only publishing more often, but establishing more individual personalities. And readers who sought tidbits on the executive branch in the Federal Paper will find only disappointment, as the startup folded in January after just four months.

Late last year both Roll Call and The Hill announced they would expand to three issues a week, upping the ante in their eight-and-a-half-year rivalry. And while Roll Call aims to continue as the classy elder statesman of Capitol coverage, The Hill wants to be the colorful, fun one.

"I think we're a much livelier looking paper than they are," says Hugo Gurdon, The Hill's editor in chief since January. Roll Call Editor Tim Curran, on the other hand, says his paper emphasizes "hard news and investigative journalism" and gets "behind the scenes more than some other publications."

Articles in both papers range from investigations into ethics violations to reports on committee appointments to briefs on who's moving into which office. According to BPA International, Roll Call's circulation is 18,123, less than The Hill's 22,403.

Roll Call and The Hill are the only newspapers on this turf, though there are similarly themed magazines including weeklies like National Journal and Congressional Quarterly's CQ Weekly. Media Specialist Larry Grimes told the Associated Press in January, "[I]n the long term, there's not room for both papers unless one of them were to start taking one political side."

The Hill's Gurdon says that both papers could coexist "forever."

Each competitor will say the decision to publish more often had nothing to do with the other guy. But Roll Call did opt for a third issue on Wednesdays--the day The Hill has come out since its 1994 debut.

Gurdon says a Tuesday edition of The Hill, owned by News Communications, will appear this spring, followed by a third edition by the end of 2003. Roll Call, owned by the London-based Economist Group, started as a weekly in 1955, publishing on Mondays. It expanded to Thursdays in 1989 and added the Wednesday edition in January. When Congress is not in session, it reverts to Monday-only publication.

While those papers battled for Capitol Hill, the executive branch-oriented Federal Paper succumbed to a weak market in January after 10 issues. Target readers were senior officials and high-level bureaucrats, though the paper was also widely distributed on the Hill.

"Our worst fears came to pass," Federal Paper Editor Mark Willen says. "We did not get the advertising support as quickly as we had hoped."

Publisher Dan Leeds says he could tell after four months that prospects weren't good. "To me, it was clear," Leeds says. "I've launched lots of publications--many of them successful. And I could see that moving forward didn't make business sense."