Politico Tries To Mix Steak And Sizzle

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.

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.

Tilting Left?

MSNBC's David Shuster is an aggressive career reporter who has never been positioned as one of the channel's left-leaning commentators. But in his "Hypocrisy Watch" segments this year, the conservative Media Research Center points out, 34 of the targets have been Republicans or conservatives -- including Rush Limbaugh twice and Karl Rove five times -- and only four have been Democrats or liberals.

Shuster says the group "is funded and run by die-hard conservatives with a clear partisan agenda" and that his work on the now-defunct program "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" "was hard hitting on both parties."

Family Matter

When the New York Times published a March 21 op-ed column sympathetic to a "quintessential nice guy" -- stock swindler Bernie Madoff -- contributing writer Daphne Merkin noted that she had "a sibling who did business with him."

That turned out to be J. Ezra Merkin, former chairman of GMAC, now accused by New York authorities of defrauding clients by funneling more than $2 billion of their money to Madoff. Was the vague "sibling" reference really enough?

Ombudsman Clark Hoyt wrote yesterday that many readers thought "the disclosure was so limited as to be disingenuous," but Op-Ed Editor David Shipley defended it, saying that the paper approached Merkin "in some respect because of her brother."

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