Media Notes by Howard Kurtz: Politico Tries to Balance Speed and Depth

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

If I were trying to maximize my online hits for this column, the headline might be: "Politico Blamed for Decline of Journalism."

But maybe that's a tad too nuanced to draw the Drudge link that would boost my numbers. Perhaps I should go with "Web Site Addicted to Mini-Scoops." Hmm, too polite. How about "Is Politico Pandering?"

In the digital world, success often turns on a quick-click mentality in which an item, tidbit, morsel, video or sexy image is all the bait that's needed. No one, not even august newspapers, is immune.

Politico, the Web operation and newspaper launched more than two years ago by two Washington Post veterans, is actually a smart and substantive site. But in its relentless pursuit of traffic -- not all that different from the networks' relentless pursuit of ratings -- Politico sometimes plays up the novel, the fleeting, the provocative take that briefly titillates but evaporates within hours. And that has some critics accusing the site of dumbing down the art of reporting.

"We make no apologies for trying to present news in a way that will grab readers by the lapels," says John Harris, Politico's editor-in-chief. "If you're trying to keep a site current, there's a strong incentive to move quickly. . . .

"I totally reject the premise that the only way to prosper on the Web is through quick and ultimately insubstantial bites of news. That is not true, not in my experience."

Not everyone agrees. On sites such as Politico, writes Time's White House correspondent, Michael Scherer, "the news is increasingly reduced to its most elemental form, a series of instantaneous, always new, constantly updated, transient and often superfluous information bites, which preferably jolt emotional reactions."

Politico correspondent Mike Allen dismisses such criticism, saying: "This line comes from people who don't actually read David Rogers's coverage of the budget or David Cloud's coverage of Afghanistan or Josh Gerstein's coverage of arcane legal issues."

But it is other kinds of stories that tend to pop online, drawing links that attract readers who don't come through the publication's home page. And it helps to run such buzzworthy headlines as "Why McCain is getting hosed in the press," "The worst debate ever" and "What Obama said and what he meant."

When some Democrats were urging Hillary Clinton to get out of the presidential race last May, she told South Dakota's Argus Leader that "we all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June." Harris told his reporter to quickly post an item -- which had already been picked up by the New York Post -- , but later wrote that it was a "deflating experience" when he watched a video of the matter-of-fact comments 90 minutes later.

In similar fashion, after Politico reported that candidate John Edwards had gotten a $400 haircut, Harris wrote, "I was not exactly despairing when other Web sites and cable TV networks went way overboard on the story, with citations to Politico."

Politico can score big, as with its newsworthy exclusive last fall that that the Republican National Committee had spent more than $150,000 on clothing and accessories for Sarah Palin and her family. But a few of its scoops have fizzled, including premature reports that Edwards and Fred Thompson would drop out of the presidential race.

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