At AOL, It's Politics Daily, Not Hourly

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009

After a quarter-century as a military correspondent, David Wood knew the drill as he reported from Afghanistan last week, in helmet and flak jacket, on the intricacies of the U.S. war effort.

But this time he was writing for a fledgling Web site, one that -- unlike the thousands that specialize in commentary, snark or recycling other people's reporting -- is willing to pony up to send an old-school journalist on a six-week foreign assignment. Wood was picked up by AOL's Politics Daily in May, shortly after the Baltimore Sun laid him off.

"As the newspaper business declined, I felt hemmed in by smaller news pages, demands for tighter copy, growing stinginess with travel money," Wood says. "It just seemed harder and harder to do quality, in-depth journalism on my beat. None of those restrictions exist at Politics Daily."

The three-month-old venture has become a reemployment program for middle-aged journalists who lack the flash and dash of young bloggers -- and that is by design. Melinda Henneberger, the former Newsweek and New York Times reporter who runs the site, says her goal is "to preserve the values of the mainstream media." And in doing so, she is flouting several conventions about what works on the Web.

First, she is slowing things down, rather than posting every traffic-generating tidbit.

Second, she believes Web surfers have the patience to read pieces that run as long as 5,000 words.

Third, she is challenging "the assumption that to get a lot of hits you have to be hyperpartisan."

The result is a text-heavy site, with pieces that range from provocative to pedestrian. On many days Politics Daily seems on top of the news; on others, columns that linger on the home page give it a dated feel. And it may be a tad high-minded: On Friday afternoon, when Politico and other sites rushed to post stories on Jenny Sanford moving out of the South Carolina governor's mansion occupied by her philandering husband, Politics Daily had nothing.

The veteran staffers -- "they have asked me to stop calling them old pros!" Henneberger says -- are being lured by the startup's six-figure salaries. They include former USA Today political writer Jill Lawrence, former Washington Post columnist Donna Britt. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet, a part-timer, writes a column on Michelle Obama.

It is hard to discern an office culture; Henneberger got approval to rent a Washington office but decided to save the money for future hiring. One "advantage to working with grown-ups is that there's no need for me to keep a literal eye on anybody," she says. So everyone works virtually from home, including two Denver editors hired from the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News.

"I don't know what the future of print is -- I hope it survives -- but we're all having to hedge our bets a little bit," says Deputy Editor Carl Cannon, a veteran of six newspapers who was hired after Reader's Digest eliminated the Washington bureau he headed. Cannon, too, talks about maintaining "cherished" values: "Not everything the old media did was right, but some things were right: getting both sides of the story, making sure the quotes are right, and using official documents instead of rumor."

Wood, a veteran of Time and the Los Angeles Times, says he relishes the chance to mix straight reporting with personal observation, such as in this dispatch from Afghanistan: "Civilian-world is casual, easy, a place filled with friends and family and many choices. Maybe I'll amble down to Starbucks. Nah, Caribou this time. War zone is a hard, unforgiving, chaotic place of fewer choices, where friendships have to be earned. Seen from civilian-world, it's daunting. But intriguing."

The site is also making room for opinion. The latest addition is liberal blogger David Corn of Mother Jones magazine; Henneberger says she plans to hire a conservative columnist to balance him.

Says Walter Shapiro, a left-leaning former columnist for USA Today and Salon: "We don't deal in epithets, we don't deal in invective. We really adhere to things that have been proven true, as opposed to jumping on Sarah Palin rumors because some Web site in Alaska is running something."

For AOL, which is being spun off from Time Warner after their disastrous merger nine years ago, launching Politics Daily is part of a larger strategy to regain its lost cachet. The battered company announced plans in March to lay off 10 percent of its staff.

Marty Moe, senior vice president of AOL Media, says his company wants to be "the Toyota of content . . . the largest mainstream content publisher on the globe." He says Politics Daily is designed for a mass audience, not as "an inside-baseball site."

In raw numbers, it is off to a fast start, drawing 3.6 million unique visitors in June, according to comScore. Its busy neighborhood helps; Politics Daily draws nearly half its traffic from users already on AOL.

In the battle against other big portals, AOL drew 106 million unique visitors in June, trailing Yahoo (154 million) and Microsoft Network (127 million). AOL has hired journalists and bloggers for a slew of sites, including TMZ, Moviefone, Fanhouse and Engadget.

Yahoo offers little original content in news -- a "Good Morning Yahoo!" video, for instance, provides a recap of the past 24 hours -- but is boosted by its signature search engine. Jimmy Pitaro, Yahoo's head of media, says that the site has hired nearly 80 staffers to chronicle sports, and that close to 10 percent of its material overall is homegrown.

"It's super-important for us to maintain that balance between content we're creating and content we're licensing," Pitaro says. "It helps establish our voice. . . . We don't just throw stuff up against a wall and hope it sticks. We're much more selective."

So far, Politics Daily rarely breaks through the media static with pieces that are widely linked and debated elsewhere. One exception was Cannon's recent denunciation of the media for their coverage of the former governor of Alaska.

"In the 2008 election," he wrote, "we took sides, straight and simple, particularly with regard to the vice presidential race. . . . We simply didn't hold Joe Biden to the same standard as Sarah Palin, and for me, the real loser in this sordid tale is my chosen profession."

This drew a sharp rebuttal from another contributor, Jeffrey Weiss, who called Cannon's argument "horsepucky. . . . To claim that Sarah Palin is the victim of leftist journalism gone unusually amok is to cherry-pick the record and ignore the circumstances of her candidacy."

That is the kind of attention-grabbing argument that Politics Daily needs if it is to compete with the likes of the Huffington Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Slate, Salon and other sites that offer speed, original writing and higher production values. With Henneberger calling the operation a "preservation society" dedicated to "respectful" arguments, Politics Daily remains defiantly out of step with the online ethos.

"If there isn't a market for this kind of Web site, that takes politics seriously, that is politically eclectic and journalistically conservative," Shapiro says, "we're all in a lot of trouble."

Presidential Endorsement?

The full-page newspaper ad is filled with images of President Obama.

"Who does the man everyone listens to, listen to?" the Financial Times asks. The answer: "If anyone needs a global perspective it's Barack Obama. No wonder he reads the FT."

Isn't it a tad tacky to use the president as an endorsement prop? Financial Times did not respond to several requests for comment. Administration spokesman Bill Burton was diplomatic: "The White House discourages the use of the president's name or likeness for commercial purposes."

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