MARCH 4, 2009
On the evening of January 22, a few hours after his administration's debut news conference, Barack Obama made a surprise visit to the cramped quarters of the White House press corps. It was meant to be a friendly event, and Obama glad-handed his way through reporters and cameramen, exchanging light banter as he went.
But Politico reporter Jonathan Martin wasn't there to chat. Martin pressed Obama about the president's decision to nominate William J. Lynn III, a former defense lobbyist, to deputy defense secretary and about Obama's pledge to curtail the influence of lobbyists. The exchange turned tense. "See, this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here," a visibly exasperated Obama said. Martin wouldn't relent. "I just wanted to say hello and introduce myself to you guys--that's all I was trying to do," the president added. Within an hour, Martin and Politico writer Carrie Budoff Brown reported the exchange on Politico's website: "OBAMA FLASHES IRRITATION IN PRESS ROOM," the headline read.
It was--as world events go--a small story. But Politico writers and editors are masters of knowing what will make prime time. Within a few hours, both The Huffington Post and Drudge Report linked to the story, and, by that evening, the conservative blogosphere lit up with items detailing the exchange. The next morning, Rush Limbaugh used the exchange to mock the new president ("You're not supposed to ask The Messiah questions unless he's cleared it," he sniffed). By the end of the day, the "affair" had made the rounds on CNN and Fox News.
If the 2004 campaign belonged to the blogs, this year's presidential contest was defined by the rise of the Web-print venture founded by banking scion and emerging media mogul Robert Allbritton and headed by Washington Post veterans John Harris and Jim VandeHei. From the start, their aim with Politico was to combine the Web's rapid-fire capacity with the legitimacy of traditional newspapering. Journalistically, their strategy was to out-report and outpace the newspapers that dominated election coverage, to get links up before readers reached their desks and BlackBerries in the morning, and to keep the news items going all afternoon for the prime-time cable pundits to digest at night.
And it worked. Politico succeeded in muscling its way into the political journalism firmament by the sheer volume of reporting and a shrewd--some might say obsessive--focus on the gossipy Beltway scoops and gaffes that appeal to the tabloid sensibility of Drudge and cable news. Politico's readership spiked during the election, attracting 4.6 million unique readers in September 2008 (that's about one-third of the Post's online readership). The following month, Nielsen ranked Politico the ninth-most-visited newspaper website in the country. Politico broke stories about John McCain forgetting how many homes he owned and Sarah Palin's six-figure wardrobe budget--stories that dominated the news cycle for days and forced establishment papers like The New York Times to follow with front-page stories. On Election Day, Chris Matthews crowed on "Hardball" that Politico was the "hottest political team in town," and wondered "is that still around, The Washington Post?"
That Politico was helped by the collapse of print journalism goes without saying. That it was also helped by cable news' insatiable appetite for the tabloid and the personal is also clear. But, two years into the Politico experiment, there is fascination around Washington with what could be considered the first Internet newspaper, and whether it represents a way to make a business out of political reporting. As traditional newspapers jettison staff, Politico is holding steady. This month, Allbritton told me the venture will turn a profit in six months. "We're way ahead of budget," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if the profit this year would count in the millions of dollars."
Even Allbritton has been surprised at Politico's profile: "I find it exceptionally weird the number of places I go, and people say, 'What do you do?' I say, 'I run some television stations and I run a newspaper.' They ask, 'Which one?' And, when I say 'Politico,' they go, 'Oh, I read that all the time!' I'm thinking, who are these people? It's kind of creepy!"
Some questions about Politico's sustainability remain. For one thing, it is in many ways a punishing place to work. More than a dozen staffers have left since it was launched, and many complain of the burnout pace. Second, the paper's business model is untested over the long haul: Even though the outfit is largely paid for by print advertisers who consider Politico a Washington must-read, the site's web traffic is down more than 50 percent from its pre-election peak. Survive or not, however, the organization has laid out a model for nonstop and unanalyzed reporting that newspapers, at their peril, have been slow to adopt.
The Politico newsroom occupies an open expanse on the ground floor of a sleek glass-and-steel tower among the anonymous offices of Rosslyn, Virginia. About three dozen reporters and editors work in cubicles alongside producers for ABC's Washington affiliate, Channel 7, and News Channel 8, both owned by Allbritton. It is quiet and clean. Televisions tuned silently to cable news hang on the walls, while editors sit in windowed offices looking into the newsroom.
Politico sits on the ground floor of the offices of Allbritton Communications, a privately held media concern run by Robert Allbritton, the 39-year-old heir to a broadcasting and banking fortune founded by his father Joe Allbritton. The Allbrittons, who controlled Riggs Bank for decades, have been major players in Washington politics and business since the Reagan administration, managing money for embassies, trusts, and the elite cadre of Beltway society. The senior Allbritton, a Texan who rarely gave press interviews, preferred the private trappings of Beltway power--raising champion thoroughbred horses, collecting art, and hosting lavish functions at his Northwest D.C. mansion. (PNC Financial bought Riggs Bank in 2004.)
An only child, Robert grew up to follow his father into the family business and became CEO of Riggs Bank in 2001. He too steered clear of media attention but was showy in other ways. In 2007, he and his wife Elena, a dermatologist, set a Washington real-estate record when they bought a nineteenth-century Georgetown mansion for $24 million. Affable and confident, Robert was more interested in his family's expanding media company--which in 2006 owned more than half a dozen TV stations--than in banking. In August 2006, Robert announced his plans to launch a congressional newspaper called the Capitol Leader to compete with Roll Call and The Hill.
It was around this time that John Harris, then national politics editor at The Washington Post, and Jim VandeHei, the Post's White House correspondent, were discussing how much the media atmosphere had changed. Watching the coverage of the midterm elections convinced them that the Web's ability to deliver news almost instantly, combined with the ascendance of cable news and of reporters who had become brands unto themselves, had created an opening for an obsessively reported online political media outlet. At first, they tried to get the Post to sign on to their idea, but they quickly decided they wanted to do it on their own.
Harris was a force in the Post's newsroom. A boyish-faced reporter and editor known for crafting lyrical prose, Harris started at the paper in 1985 as an intern and rose through the ranks to run all the Post's political coverage. VandeHei, a former Roll Call and Wall Street Journal reporter, was known at the Post as an ambitious rising star. Beyond reporting, VandeHei harbored grander ambitions. "He's very entrepreneurial," says New York Times White House correspondent and former Post colleague Peter Baker. "He wanted to leave the Post because he wanted to run something."
Privately, Harris and VandeHei also believed traditional journalism was often complacent and self-important, and they wanted to challenge the status quo with brand-name reporter-bloggers who would break news and "explain how Washington really works," as they detailed in one internal memo.
In October 2006, Harris and VandeHei met with Allbritton to outline their plan. Allbritton agreed to bankroll their venture, and, in November, Harris and VandeHei told Post chairman Don Graham and managing editor Phil Bennett what they were doing. The paper had already suffered high-profile defections including style writer Mark Leibovich, Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Coll, and reporter Hanna Rosin. The Post told the pair they could incubate their Web venture at the Post. But the two had made up their minds, and they weren't shy about their ambitions. "I think we'll show that we're better than The New York Times or The Washington Post," VandeHei told The New York Observer at the time.
Politico's model would be a hybrid, its ads coming largely from the print edition at first, with a growing source of revenue from Politico's website, which was to be updated constantly by a stable of well-known bloggers like Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin. Reporters' personalities and proclivities would be considered assets to be promoted, not hidden. And, for brand-name reporters, Politico was willing to pay stratospheric (by journalism standards) salaries. Top writers are rumored to make between $150,000 and $250,000. Last summer, Politico also signed some of their top talent to two-year contracts, according to sources.
In short order, Politico established itself as an outlet that could generate headlines that drove the news cycle, and its reporters and editors appeared regularly on the cable shows. On November 28, hours before the GOP debate in Florida, Smith got Politico's first major scoop, detailing that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had billed city agencies to pay for personal travel to the Hamptons as he was beginning his romantic affair with Judith Nathan. The story was picked up by the Times, the Post, and the three network evening newscasts. (With the news breaking just eight weeks before the Florida primary, Giuliani's campaign never really recovered.)
As the primary season heated up, Politico broke exclusives such as Obama's visit to the home of former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. During the presidential race, Politico reported that John McCain couldn't recall that he owned at least seven homes, that Obama never vetted Hillary Clinton for vice president, and that the Republican National Committee had spent more than $150, 000 on Sarah Palin's wardrobe. Last year, Politico's Web traffic jumped 219 percent. "I think they're a competitor," says Times Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet. Others around Washington agree. "There's no question they had a singular impact. They came out of nowhere in a matter of months and forced themselves into the conversation," says the Times' Baker. "Politico occupies a space The Washington Post should have occupied. If there is anyone who writes obsessively about politics, it should be the Washington newspaper."
Most metropolitan newsrooms wake up slowly. Not Politico, where speed rules. Reporters are expected to post items by the time congressional aides and White House staffers have their morning meetings. VandeHei has been known to e-mail staffers at 5:30 a.m., and reporters are posting items by 8. Almost all Politico staffers are given laptops and wireless modems so they can work anywhere. (They are also permitted to file news on any subject--including on anyone else's beat--if they have the goods, which has led some staff to complain about the free-for-all.)
Politico's top editors also admonish their staff to tailor their copy for the Web. During one staff meeting this summer, Harris and VandeHei told staffers that no Politico stories should run longer than 1,500 words. "There are no R.W. Apples anymore, and, if R.W. Apple wrote at Politico, all his stuff would be cut in half," one Politico reporter told me in July. (Politico does occasionally run long pieces, such as Roger Simon's nearly 20,000-word reconstruction of the Democratic race.) Politico reporters also file whenever news breaks. Shortly after 8 a.m. on November 10, while commuting to work, media reporter Michael Calderone learned that msnbc's Joe Scarborough had just said "fuck" on air. Calderone, who often blogs from the back of taxis and buses, leapt off the crowded Mount Pleasant bus and blogged the YouTube clip from a park bench.
No one at Politico represents this new archetype more than Mike Allen, who joined Politico in December 2006. A former Post reporter and White House correspondent for Time, Allen is legendary around Washington for his marathon work hours. Allen broke a spate of exclusives during the campaign, including scoring the first interview with President Bush for an online outlet and breaking McCain's seven-houses gaffe. Every morning, he compiles "Playbook," a roundup of his own reporting, notable articles from major papers, and source-greasing shout-outs and birthday wishes to flacks and political aides. There is a manic quality to "Playbook": Allen capitalizes entire sentences for emphasis and formats each paragraph break so that copy can be read easily on a BlackBerry. (Times executive editor Bill Keller likened the e-mails to "a political junky's fraternity newsletter.") Ben Smith, who covered the Democratic presidential contest, recalls flying with Allen to Manchester, New Hampshire, on Hillary Clinton's plane the night of the Iowa caucus. Around dawn, as campaign reporters shuffled off to bed, Allen whipped out his laptop and began banging out that morning's "Playbook." "I'm ready to die, and Mike sits down in the lobby and starts writing," Smith tells me.
This pace has its drawbacks. Other D.C. journalists point out that Politico sometimes floats stories that haven't been confirmed, such as Smith's March 2007 report that John Edwards would drop out of the Democratic race to care for his cancer-stricken wife; or the January 2, 2008, report that Fred Thompson would drop out of the Republican primary (Thompson didn't give up his run for three more weeks). "The flip side is they get things wrong," says a veteran political reporter. "It's a desire to put something out that they've just learned."
For the most part, Politico staffers thrive on this high metabolism, but the stress boiled over last July, after Harris sent a terse e-mail to the staff telling them not to succumb to the summer "doldrums," according to multiple staffers. "It was not received in a very nice manner," one Politico staffer tells me. Harris says he never thought people at Politico were "goofing off." But he says he wanted his staff to realize that "we can't organize our thinking around the institutional rhythms of a newspaper. It's not OK to sprint for three days and then coast."
On July 21, Harris assembled the newsroom staff to discuss the matter. At the meeting, staffers received a memo written by Allen explaining Politico's journalism philosophy. "We are not the AP or The New York Times. ... If we ONLY do what those two great organizations do, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE AND WE WON'T HAVE JOBS," the memo read, according to a copy provided to The New Republic. "THE REWARD for cracking this code," the memo concluded, "is that you're part of an enterprise ... that is one of a tiny handful of news organizations in the WORLD that is actually GROWING."
Reporting, though, is only part of the equation: The motto around the Politico newsroom is to "win the morning, win the afternoon"--by which editors mean that Politico's stories need to be the most talked-about and cited in that day's news cycle. One measure of winning is getting stories linked on sites like Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, which leads to appearances on the cable shows. Politico employs three publicists who routinely send out links to bloggers and producers. "We're pretty damn methodical about making sure anybody who cares about a story we wrote knows about it," VandeHei says. Allbritton tells me that, for too long, journalists have been overly squeamish at the idea of promoting their own work. "I think a lot journalists say there's something ethically and morally wrong about [p.r.]," he says. "I'm like, wait a minute, if you wrote a great story that's factually accurate, why would you be ashamed of that?"
Politico's pace and self-promotion has irritated some in the Washington press corps. "It's maddening. Everyone has to chase them," one Washington reporter complains. "You wind up running down these gotcha moments that are painful. ... [I]t's the New York Post approach to generating news." After Martin's confrontation with Obama last month, Wonkette called Politico a "vulgar asshole of a publication" and announced the blog would cease linking to the site. "We will stop linking to these particularly retarded, trollish articles Politico front-pages just to get a crappy two-minute panel slot on [Anderson Cooper] 360 later in the night."
The Times' Bill Keller dismisses Politico's scooplets as an insubstantial foundation on which to build a sustainable news organization. "If you hadn't reminded me, I couldn't have told you who broke the seven houses and the six-figure wardrobe budget. ... Politico has focused on an inside game. I'm not sure if it translates to an outside game. I'm not sure how they get scale, and, if they don't, I'm not sure what the business model is."
On Election Day, the staff of Politico gathered in the newsroom for cupcakes to celebrate reaching the finish line of a bruising two-year presidential campaign. The previous day, Harris and VandeHei had sent out a 2,600-word memo about Politico's unfolding plans. The memo, clearly designed for public consumption, was a witty recap of Politico's achievements and provided details of their plans to expand. "There is probably no one in the business more bullish than the two of us and [CEO] Fred [Ryan] and Robert [Allbritton]," the editors wrote, "optimism based not on hope but on concrete evidence to date about how our editorial model and business model are working."
Politico's staff is growing--the newsroom totals more than 60 staffers, and recent hires include former Times Pentagon correspondent David Cloud and former New York Sun reporter Josh Gerstein. Shortly after the election, Politico announced it would increase the frequency of its print edition from three to five days per week when Congress is in session and that it would reassign reporters to cover the White House; it also set up a blog, Politico 44, to chronicle the Obama administration. At least 68 newspapers and some 36 TV outlets have signed on to carry Politico's content for free in exchange for a share of its advertising revenue.
Politico's advertising base so far has been insulated from the economic meltdown. One reason is that Politico's advertisers are mainly lobbyists who need to sway Congress in good times and in bad. Politico also vastly undercuts the big dailies with lower ad rates (a full-page color ad costs $11,000, according to the rate card; a full-page ad in the Times runs more than $100, 000). But Allbritton adds that he's not wedded to his print outlet: When the day comes that virtually all readers migrate online, he's happy to scrap the paper copy: "I said from the very beginning, I could care less if the revenue is on the print side or the Web side. As long as the revenue is there." Allbritton says Politico could conceivably be Web-only within five years. (Allbritton does concede that "a certain generation up there on the Hill" wants paper. "From their point of view, if you don't have a physical paper, you're not a player. I once joked, 'Why don't we take the website and print it out for them?'")
Allbritton is dismissive of one of the things print papers did well--long-term, long-form investigative journalism--and tells me Politico is unlikely to field an investigative reporting squad. "I think we have to acknowledge that the money is spent for reputational benefits and a public service play," he says of the Times' and the Post's investment in enterprise journalism. "Why does someone have to go off and write their thesis paper while they do it?" More than that, Allbritton worries that the newspaper model itself is collapsing. "I don't know if [the Times is] going to be around in a few years," he says. "I love the Times, but I'm worried."
Politico's challenge in the months ahead is to prove that its hyper-caffeinated approach, well-tailored to campaign coverage, will survive the slog of chronicling the Obama White House, Congress, and the debates over the economy and foreign policy. But it has one thing going for it, and that's success. As one Washington reporter puts it: "If that's the thing that makes money, I'm sure we'll all be doing it."
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.