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

Harris and Jim VandeHei, who left high-profile jobs at The Post to create the site for Allbritton Communications, which owns WJLA-TV, have hired 33 reporters, some of them veterans of such publications as Time, Business Week, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Politico's online readership nearly doubled during the campaign, from 2.4 million unique visitors in January 2008 to 4.6 million in October. Last month, according to Nielsen Net Ratings, it dipped to just over 3 million. By comparison, nytimes.com has bounced back almost to its October level of more than 20 million, while washingtonpost.com declined during that period from 12.4 million to 9.4 million.

The line between intriguing blog post and pointless chatter can be a thin one -- but Politico's 10 White House reporters certainly keep busy. On a recent Friday, Politico's items included "Bob Schieffer and an entourage just arrived at the White House for the taping of POTUS's interview on Face the Nation." And: "Valerie Jarrett walked her daughter to the northwest gate of the White House after giving her and a few of her friends a tour." Plus, a post about how an activist had persuaded Joe the Plumber and other conservatives to wear the Snuggie.

But the site also floods the zone on big stories. Less than three hours after President Obama laid out tough terms for General Motors and Chrysler, Politico had put up 12 news reports, including an analysis by VandeHei and Allen that said: "Based on conversations with White House officials and advisers, the president has a much more jaundiced view of the automakers -- and sees limited upside for bailing them out."

Allen's morning Playbook of items, gossip and birthdays is a popular tip sheet, but his pieces sometimes turn on inside chatter. His story last week on Obama's agenda quoted "one administration official," "a top White House official," "a West Wing official," a congressional "official" and two "aides," but not one named source.

"We would never have gotten such candid and informative guidance on the record," Allen says. "Unnamed sources can serve the reader if they are imparting frank data or genuine insight, as opposed to spin."

As the New Republic reported, Harris distributed an Allen memo last summer that said the site had to outthink the New York Times and Associated Press: "If we ONLY do what those two great organizations do, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE AND WE WON'T HAVE JOBS."

Harris sees Politico as a "niche publication" with a workable business model, which is more than can be said for many newspapers these days. In fact, he says Politico is already turning a profit, two years earlier than expected.

Its readers gobble up the "high-fiber stuff," he says, and enjoy the site's conversational tone -- such as VandeHei's swipe at "the knuckleheads who screwed up American International Group."

On Wednesday, Politico's lead story -- and its most-read -- was a lighthearted look at what Obama watches on television. But there was also a serious analysis, co-authored by Harris, on the president's "rationalist" approach to foreign policy.

"Is it tempting to be fast with saying something interesting? I definitely agree that it is," he says. "Is there a disincentive to being wrong and looking silly by taking something out of proportion? There is . . . I don't think it would work as an editorial proposition if that's all we had."

On that point, he is right. Politico has done a shrewdly effective job of turning itself into a must-read for news junkies. And if churning out eye-catching items at warp speed is, well, warped, a whole lot of news outlets in this Twitter age are playing the game.


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