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From AJR,   August/September 2008

Politico Animal   

A year and a half after launch, Politico lives up to the hype.

By Lindsey McPherson

When veteran Washington Post political reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei urged their bosses to create a Web site strictly dedicated to politics, management didn't jump at the idea.

Less than two years later, Politico, the venture they envisioned and left the Post to take on is a success, and a politics-only site is "under study" at the Post, according to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

"The proof is in the figures," says Harris, Politico's editor in chief. In May, it had 3.5 million unique visitors and 25.1 million page views, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. Editor & Publisher ranked Politico the 10th-most-visited newspaper site that month.

Although Harris would not reveal revenue or advertising numbers, he says Politico's operations are already self-sustaining and the Allbritton Communications-owned publication should be profitable next year. Print advertising provides about 60 percent of its revenue, VandeHei says.

In addition to operating the site, Politico publishes a 27,000-circulation newspaper three days per week. Its staffers appear on Washington's WJLA, News Channel 8 and WTOP and are frequent guests on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Politico debuted January 23, 2007, a day after Hillary Clinton announced her White House bid, and received nearly as much buzz inside the world of political journalism.

"When Politico first launched, it struck me as a solid product that didn't quite live up to all the hype," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. "These days, I would describe it as a remarkable success, a Web site that quickly found its niche and has become a must-read for anyone who follows politics."

The reporting has more depth now because the publication has made smart hires, Kurtz says. These include congressional reporter David Rogers, who came from the Wall Street Journal, and congressional editor Tim Grieve, formerly of Salon.

"It is updated more continuously, so there is a reason to keep checking back, and it has broken a number of good stories," Kurtz says. Politico has been first with stories about Republican presidential candidate John McCain's promise to balance the budget and the Clinton campaign's failure to pay some of its bills, among other scoops.

Kurtz bats down questions a liberal watchdog group raised last spring about right-wing bias. "I never bought into that for a second," he says. "Politico strikes me as a fair-minded publication whose staffers are steeped in reporting as opposed to being ideological warriors. They have very few columnists. And while no publication is perfect, I don't buy into the notion that it tilts one way or the other."

Politico often sets the agenda for coverage among its Beltway peers. Lee Horwich, the senior assignments editor for Washington coverage at USA Today, says he uses Politico to tell him where the story is and how it's being covered. "It has established itself in a significant way in the year or so they've been around," he says.

Horwich thinks Politico has made itself stand out among other news publications. "What I like about it is that at a time when many local papers are pulling back on Washington coverage, they've taken a journalistic, substantive approach to Washington coverage in a very entrepreneurial way and demonstrated there's an avid readership for it," he says.

George Condon, Washington bureau chief for the San Diego Union-Tribune, calls it a "superb addition to political coverage. It's complete. It's got real professionals who know what they are talking about working for them. They're fast, accurate and thorough."

Sasha Issenberg, a Washington bureau reporter who covers national politics for the Boston Globe, says he constantly feels compelled to read Politico. "I am not sure there is any individual thing they do that wasn't done in some form before, but they have incredibly talented reporters and writers who are very smart about taking a unique approach to stories," he says. Issenberg says the site's campaign bloggers are excellent, citing Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith as his favorite reads.

"They come up with more keen insights in a day than most of us do in a month," he says.

As Politico's insights keep the publication at the top of the political journalism world, the competition will continue to grow. Harris' hopes for Politico's future are simple. "We want to continue to be essential reading in Washington."

McPherson is an AJR editorial assistant.