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Real-Time Reporting, Politico-Style

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009 9:39 AM

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 top 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.

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 paper approached Merkin "in some respect because of her brother."

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."

Throwing The Post a Bone

What's been the reaction now that The Washington Post has revealed that it negotiated with the White House for an exclusive on the dog story after being told that the vegetable garden scoop had been promised to the New York Times? The deal fell apart when the story, inevitably, leaked online.

Says TMZ, which disclosed many of the details Friday night: "So, we didn't break Watergate, but Puppygate -- we're all over it!"

And Gawker: "The internet ruined everything! The Post whiffs on the chronology of the story, blaming firstdogcharlie.com for breaking it yesterday morning when TMZ actually broke it on Friday night. But either way, the paper is pissed that it screwed the pooch on its exclusive.

"And yes, you read that right: Washington Post and New York Times reporters who cover the White House are horsetrading stories about gardens and puppies."

Defending Gay Marriage

Andrew Sullivan continues the debate:

"As one of the first and longest campaigners for marriage equality, my own commitment to religious freedom in America is as ferocious and as impassioned as any Christianist's . . .

"I've been prepared to back the Boy Scouts and the St Patrick's Day parade against my gay brothers and sisters on this score; I've opposed hate crime laws protecting gays; I've even defended the right of Christianists to fire employees because they are gay. I went through an extended form of ostracism in the gay world for a long time because of my refusal to countenance anti-religious bigotry, just as I refused to countenance anti-gay bigotry. This was not the easiest path but it remains for me the only principled one. In so far as intolerance of people of faith exists, I will join any movement to protect their rights and defend their dignity.

"But if there's a social stigma attached to the public expression of homophobia, that is just a function of living in a free society.

"So deal with it, guys. And take one small moment, if you can, to think how gay people have lived in a society that, until very recently, assumed that the very heart of our lives was evil and wrong and unmentionable."

Jabbing Jeb

The former governor of Florida defends his brother in a sitdown with Sean Hannity, and Washington Monthly's Steve Benen objects:

"According to Jeb Bush, President Obama is supposed to leave George W. Bush aloooooone . . .

"If I had one humble criticism of President Obama, it would be to stop this notion of somehow framing everything in the context of 'Everything was bad before I got here' and focus on his duties, which we all want him to succeed. But constantly pushing down the previous president to make yourself look good I think is a bad thing.

"I feel like we hear this a lot, both from the president's Republican detractors and from political reporters. Obama is supposed to address the multitude of crises on his desk, but he isn't supposed to talk about how those crises began. He should, the argument goes, fix the problems, not address how they became problems in the first place.

"The argument is already pretty tiresome. Obama really did inherit an economic crisis, an abysmal job market, a budget mess, a failing financial industry, a collapsing U.S. auto industry, global warming, an absurd health care system, an equally absurd national energy framework, two costly wars, a pessimistic electorate, and a nation that had lost much of its global prestige. It's hardly unusual to think the White House would want Americans to realize that Obama and his team are not to blame for these crises, and should be judged on their ability to make improvements on this baseline.

"To hear the former president's brother tell it, the important thing is that George W. Bush be freed of accountability and responsibility for his devastating failures."

Missing the Boat

Here is how newspapers blew it, in one quick anecdote:

"Months before The Boston Globe launched its own website in 1995, a brash young entrepreneur named Jeff Taylor visited the newspaper's headquarters in Dorchester to offer its executives another foothold in the emerging digital world . . .

"He described Monster Board, his fledgling venture in Maynard that sold help-wanted ads online. Jeff Taylor [a Globe owner] proposed the Globe put up $1 million for an ownership stake that would give the paper a chance to put its lucrative classified advertising business on the Web -- a step that might have cut into its revenue in the short term, but offered a chance to take the franchise national.

"The answer was no. Sharing the newspaper's nearly $100 million a year in help-wanted advertising didn't make sense. "Our grandfathers would roll over in their graves," Jeff Taylor recalled being told. Soon after, he sold his business to the advertising giant TMP Worldwide. It expanded into Monster.com, a website that in 2000 generated more than $500 million, marking the beginning of the end of newspapers' near-monopoly on classified ads."

Palin Family Feud

Levi's week on the tube prompts some harsh observations from RedState boss Erick Erickson:

"The left, when it decided Bristol Palin was fair game, went after Levi Johnston for being a thug and redneck. He was not interested in college -- only in scoring with the Governor's daughter. The classic tale of the high school jock who is, in essence, a low life loser in it for a good time. The left and media regaled the rest of us with tales of what a loser the Palin kid slept with.

"The left was right. Now, though, they can't be bothered by it. Below [the photo is on the site] is the actual Levi -- no preppy clothes. No polish. Just good old boy who knocked up the governor's daughter. Not exactly the image Tyra Banks and he would like you to think about.

"What's even more creepy is that the other person in the picture is his sister. And, as if lifted from the pages of Deliverance, she has his name tattooed on her back finger. Think about that one for a minute."

Hold on: Isn't Erickson clearly implying that . . . something untoward is going on?

In the New Republic, Jason Zengerle sees both sides behaving badly:

"Palin critics . . . are relishing the Johnston-Palin brouhaha as an example of Republican class politics backfiring. But I think this whole situation is a lot more basic than that. If you watch Levi's interviews with Tyra Banks and CBS, what you'll see is a kid who had a baby and then had a falling out with the baby's mother (and her mother) and is now desperate to still play a role in his son's life -- which is something his son's mom and her family don't seem very eager for him to do.

"I realize that the prominence of the people involved makes this a very tabloid-ish tale, but I think it's a human one, too. And I wish the left and the right would remember that as they turn this family feud into spectator sport."

Hot Air's Ed Morrissey takes a mild swipe at Erickson's criticism:

"Maybe we should just let the Palins and the Johnstons work out this family feud, and both sides should refrain from calling Levi a redneck and Bristol a slut. They're neither; they're just two young adults who are obviously in over their heads. Maybe the families should stop feeding the media and let the two work this out quietly, and maybe we can help by tuning out Tyra and the rest of the gossip-mongers."

Pepperoni Politics

The Obamas may have held a seder this week, but it hasn't all been gefilte fish and bitter herbs, the Daily Mail reports:

"When you're the president of the United States, only the best pizza will do -- even if that means flying a chef 860 miles.

"Chris Sommers, 33, jetted into Washington from St Louis, Missouri, on Thursday with a suitcase of dough, cheese and pans to prepare food for the Obamas and their staff."

The Times Investigates

"DD is becoming the new C"--the NYT on bra sizes.

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