An Old-Fashioned Web Site

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009 9:52 AM

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 and Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet, a part-timer who 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, an Internet marketing research company. 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." Weiss wrote, "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."

Media and the Mobs

Why are some town-hall folks so ticked off, not just at the health plan but at the president and Congress? Peggy Noonan has a theory:

"The passions of the protesters, on the other hand, are not a surprise. They hired a man to represent them in Washington. They give him a big office, a huge staff and the power to tell people what to do. They give him a car and a driver, sometimes a security detail, and a special pin showing he's a congressman. And all they ask in return is that he see to their interests and not terrify them too much. Really, that's all people ask. Expectations are very low. What the protesters are saying is, 'You are terrifying us.'

"What has been most unsettling is not the congressmen's surprise but a hard new tone that emerged this week. The leftosphere and the liberal commentariat charged that the town hall meetings weren't authentic, the crowds were ginned up by insurance companies, lobbyists and the Republican National Committee. But you can't get people to leave their homes and go to a meeting with a congressman (of all people) unless they are engaged to the point of passion. And what tends to agitate people most is the idea of loss--loss of money hard earned, loss of autonomy, loss of the few things that work in a great sweeping away of those that don't.

"People are not automatons. They show up only if they care."

Pouncing on Peggy, Andrew Sullivan objects to the notion that this huge bill is a monstrosity:

"Where is there an entitlement? There is an effort to subsidize private insurance for the working poor who now increase healthcare costs with emergency room care. The cost of all this is around $1 trillion over ten years and the struggle is finding ways to pay for it. The reason for the price-tag and its future is that healthcare costs keep sky-rocketing -- something that is killing U.S. companies as well who have to compete with international rivals who have to pay for no healthcare for their employees. Noonan makes no reference to this, as if the most pressing issue of future fiscal sanity is something we should put off . . . because of fiscal conservatism. Excuse me?

"Now recall the Republicans' last major initiative on healthcare -- the prescription drug benefit. That cost $32 trillion over the long run, and there was not even a gesture toward actually financing it. Much of the right was silent -- as they were over all the other fiscally reckless policies of the past eight years. But only now is Peggy 'terrified.' "

National Review's Jonah Goldberg pounds Nancy Pelosi and her party over the issue:

"The Democratic party is panicking, lashing out like a cornered animal, all because its effort to take over the health-care industry is coming apart like so much wet toilet paper.

"Nancy Pelosi, who will get her own bound volume in the annals of asininity, has outdone herself. When asked by a reporter whether the protests at various town-hall meetings represented legitimate grassroots opposition or were manufactured 'AstroTurf' stunts, she replied, 'I think they're AstroTurf. You be the judge. They're carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on health care.'

"Now this is a pas de trois of dishonesty, slander, and idiocy. Not only is Pelosi lying when she says protesters are bringing swastikas to these town halls, not only is she suggesting that American citizens are Nazis for having the effrontery to get in the way of Obamacare, but she's also saying that the alleged swastikas are obvious proof that these protests are manufactured by slick P.R. gurus.

"How does that work? What public-relations genius says: 'Okay, we need these protests to seem like an authentic backlash of real Americans. Make sure everyone has enough Nazi paraphernalia!' "

If Obama supporters are being outhustled at health-care town meetings, says the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, that's their fault:

"I wrote earlier this week that progressives need to get their act together -- to start creating a push for reform that can meet, and overwhelm, the push against. The proliferation of these right-wing demonstrations only makes this more urgent. . . . Nobody is suggesting progressives should adopt the tactics of right-wingers and start shutting down discussions. But progressives need to show themselves in large numbers, to make their voices heard.

"Progressives also have to start playing offense as well as defense. It's great, and essential, to show solidarity with members of Congress who favor ambitious reform plans. But progressives must also pressure those on the other side. Mike Enzi and Orrin Hatch are going home over recess. So is John Boehner. Are reform activists making appearances there? The chances of changing their votes may be slim. (In Boehner's case, nonexistent.) But such vivid examples of grassroots energy can help shape media perceptions and, ultimately, the political discussion.

"And what about other sorts of demonstrations? How about rallies where physicians and doctors dump insurance forms? Marches where patients with chronic disease protest in front of drug companies?"

And I think it's a sign that journalists are accustomed to Sarah Palin going off that this Facebook posting of hers got scant attention:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

Death panels? I know there are concerns about end-of-life counseling sessions, but death panels? Wasn't Palin just scolding journalists to "quit makin' things up?"

Bashing the Birthers

In New York's Daily News, James Kirchick suggests there is a reason that liberal cable shows are devoting so much time to the Obama's-not-a-citizen folks:

"It is not Obama's right-wing opponents, however, who are devoting the most attention to this obscure, Internet-driven 'movement,' if one can even use that label to describe such a paranoid groupuscule. Rather, it's liberals, bent on portraying their conservative opponents as extremists -- and changing the subject to help a President under increasing scrutiny for the substance of his policies -- who are driving this story. . . .

"Nor does the fact that 10 Republican congressmen are sponsoring a bill requiring candidates for President to supply their birth certificates to the Federal Election Commission prove anything about the depths of 'birtherism.' The test wouldn't apply until 2012, and even then, Obama would pass with flying colors. . . .

"Far from seeing these charges as any sort of real threat to Obama's legitimacy, liberals report every outburst of the birther brigades with glee -- because they derive maximum political benefit from stirring up the story as long as possible. Why debate the intricacies of a massive overhaul of the nation's health care system when you can conflate principled conservative critics of the program with a bunch of nutty conspiracy theorists?"

The response from Atlantic's Conor Clarke: So what?

"I don't quite get the logic here. Even if we grant the assumption that the left is pushing the story more than the right -- debatable, since the birthers had both the literal and figurative heft of Lou Dobbs behind them, but probably not worth debating -- that doesn't disprove the claim that there is a 'serious campaign afoot' to question Obama's birth certificate.

"Why? Because there's no reason why the two claims are mutually exclusive! It can be true that lots of idiots on the right are questioning Obama's birth certificate. And it can also be true that the liberal media is devoting the bulk of the attention to what is undoubtedly a pretty embarrassing fact for the right."

Too Busy for the Toilet?

The New York Times declares: "This is morning in America in the Internet age. After six to eight hours of network deprivation -- also known as sleep -- people are increasingly waking up and lunging for cellphones and laptops, sometimes even before swinging their legs to the floor and tending to more biologically urgent activities."

How silly! I always go to the bathroom first, with my BlackBerry.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company