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At AOL, It's Politics Daily, Not Hourly

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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.

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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."


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