Politico: Niche Web Site Isn't Yet A Notch Above

John Harris, left, editor in chief of the Web site for political junkies, and Jim VandeHei, executive editor, are former reporters for The Post.
John Harris, left, editor in chief of the Web site for political junkies, and Jim VandeHei, executive editor, are former reporters for The Post. (Byjacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

For all the pregame hype about voice and attitude and peeling back the curtain of traditional journalism, the Politico debuted last week by relying on an old-fashioned concept: reporting.

The political-junkie Web site, led by two former Washington Post reporters, wasn't as jam-packed as I expected, or as colorful, and is rarely updated during the day. In fact, most of what is on Politico.com -- and the print version, distributed free mainly on the Hill -- could easily have run in an Old Media relic like this newspaper. It strikes me as solid and substantive, but not knocking anyone's socks off.

"I've always envisioned us as a reporting-driven site, not a radical departure in creating a new form of journalism," says John Harris, the former Post editor and reporter who is editor in chief of the new venture. "I don't really want opinionizing, except from our outside editorial contributors."

Since Harris and Jim VandeHei, the Politico's executive editor, left high-profile Post jobs in November to launch the site, there was plenty of bleating in the press about the imminent death of print and the ascendancy of the Web. Well, there's no question that online sites are hot, which is why newspapers are pouring resources into their digital operations (including an expanded politics section on washingtonpost.com that just happened to start up last week).

And newspapers clearly are in trouble, as the demise of Knight Ridder and the Tribune Co.'s difficulties in selling itself make clear. But a metropolitan daily tries to do it all, from local news to entertainment to sports, while a niche site such as the Politico can zero in on the presidential campaign, Congress and lobbying. Directly comparing them is kind of silly. As Harris notes, "There will be a lot of stories that we may not have anything distinctive to say about, so we won't say anything at all."

As a specialized site, the Politico -- launched by Allbritton Communications, which also owns WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 -- benefits from smart hires. The roster includes former U.S. News & World Report columnist Roger Simon, Time correspondent Mike Allen and Ben Smith of the New York Daily News.

Simon obtained an interview with John McCain -- who made news by saying that President Bush had been "badly served" by Vice President Cheney -- and then, in a column, opined: "When it comes to Iraq, you cannot accuse John McCain of political opportunism. In fact, his support for George Bush's downward spiral of a war seems more like political suicide."

Allen and Harris wrote of Hillary Clinton that her challenge was "convincing millions of people that the most famous woman on the planet -- someone who has been astride the national stage for 15 years -- is someone quite different than they think she is." If that sounds like a Post news analysis, maybe it's because they used to be the White House team here.

On Wednesday -- a day before The Post tackled the subject -- Smith wrote of Barack Obama: "Will he pitch himself to African-American voters as the black candidate, or hew to the post-racial line that's helped make him sensationally popular with white Democrats?"

Some items are way inside baseball, and a few stories -- such as "Health Problems Pose Governing Challenge," because the average age of senators has risen from 60 to 62 -- seem a bit of a stretch.

Among the juicier fare in lighter columns such as The Crypt: Rahm Emanuel seen rubbing his forehead against the forehead of his House Democratic colleague, Rosa DeLauro, "in what can only be described as an intimate embrace." Pretty hot, for Washington gossip.

The 25,000-run print edition, which will compete with Roll Call and the Hill, is being published three times a week, and once a week when Congress is not in session. Former House members Tom DeLay and Martin Frost have signed on as columnists. Politico staffers, meanwhile, have been appearing on "Face the Nation," "Early Show" and other CBS television and radio programs under a partnership with the network.

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