March 27, 2013

Fourth in an on-again, off-again, off-again series of posts on Capitol Hill publications.

When Politico launched six years ago, its competitors weren’t prepared for its rat-a-tat-tat approach to news and journalism.

Nor were they prepared for a couple of other Politico trademarks:

1) Self-promotion: Politico branded itself in all-cap letters, the better to stick out everywhere. Some news outlets, in violation of every stylebook rule in the land, actually swallow the branding gimmick. The publication also got itself distribution in Starbucks outlets, a fabulous coup. And let’s not forget about the favorable long-form pieces about the outlet.

2) Embrace of television: Politico took grew up in the offices of Allbritton Communications Co., the Rosslyn shop that also houses WJLA-TV (ABC 7) and NewsChannel8. (Disclosure: I previously worked for a now-closed Allbritton entity that shall not be named here). That means it germinated among television cameras, a culture that it has ridden to prominence.

Over the entire lifespan of Politico, says a source at the publication, it hasn’t spent more than $100,000 for promotional campaigns. What it has paid for is a department of media bookers responsible for colonizing the airwaves with Politico commentators. The team’s grand achievement is apparent to regular viewers of the MSNBC program “Morning Joe,” hosted by former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida, whom Executive Editor Jim VandeHei had known from his years reporting on Capitol Hill.

A commentator on Twitter over the summer delivered this assessment: “If you’re playing the drink game every time you spot a Politico reporter on MSNBC, you must be drunk by 8 a.m. daily.”

Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris raves about the early push for TV time: “It was an imperative. If you’re building a publication from scratch, you don’t want to be laboring in total obscurity,” he says, noting that the pursuit starts with journalism. “We were pretty much from Day One getting news breaks,” he says. “If you’ve got that, that’s what bookers were looking for.”

These two strains — PR expertise and TV/video DNA — come together in the fresh video below, a three-minute beaut featuring a monologue by VandeHei against a soundtrack of string instruments. “Because our journalism echoes, because people have to reckon with it, because policy makers have to read it, because the president has to read it, it puts us at the top of the stack,” says VandeHei, who stresses that the publication is not focused on the masses, but on the influentials.

Asked about the slick footage, VandeHei responds that it’s “part of a new site for advertisers who want to know about politico and the politico story,” writes VandeHei in an e-mail non-compliant with Politico capitalization standards.

A market observer steeped in the contemporary mood among issue advertisers says that Capitol Hill publications are struggling amid a dropoff in business this year. “It’s dead,” says the source. “This is market-wide,” a “slowdown” connected to the lack of meaningful and money-laden bills promulgated by Congress.

That dynamic, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with this timely, wonderfully produced VandeHei video.

The Series So Far:

One: Troubles ahead for Capitol Hill publications?

Two: What’s the real leader among Capitol Hill publications?

Three: Roll Call’s six-year strategic response to Politico

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.