Politico house ad (Politico)

A bit of smudging, though, shows up starkly on Page 11 of Politico’s Nov. 18 issue. That’s a full-page house ad, titled “POLITICO named top read in Washington.” Well, at least that’s how it reads at first glance. A fit of wincing brings more type into view: “POLITICO named top read in Washington*”

That asterisk is just barely visible against the ad’s dark-blue background and white grid. And the text that’s linked to the asterisk is tough to read as well. It’s not hospitable terrain to the casual reader, and it places the following qualifier on the “top read” contention:

*According to the 2011 Erdos and Morgan Study of Opinion Leaders in D.C. compared to Capitol Hill publications.

Just why is that text so hard to spot? When asked about the faint asterisked wording, a customer service representative at Politico’s printing plant, the Bellmawr, N.J.,-based Evergreen Printing and Publishing Co. Inc., said, “You call the Politico and find out.”

Politico isn’t talking.

Perhaps it’s an issue with Politico’s printing plant. Then again, maybe Politico didn’t want readers to see the asterisk, so that they might come away thinking that it has been named the top read in Washington.

That would be a mistaken impression. The Erdos and Morgan study measures the reach of various “media brands” vis-a-vis “a group of prominent Americans who have been designated Opinion Leaders,” according to the report’s introduction. In keeping with its strong reporting, Politico.com scores well on various Erdos and Morgan metrics. Its standing among opinion leaders inside the Beltway is strong (27.8 percent), though not as strong as Web sites for CNN (34.8), the New York Times (41.8), and The Washington Post (62.4). (Note: The percentages tally in excess of 100 percent because the opinion leaders, being opinion leaders, rely on multiple media outlets). And as the ad states in legible text, the Politico site is a must-read for congressional leaders.

For a broader measure of impact, though, the survey ranks the country’s top Web sites in terms of “Unique Monthly Visitors reaching the most Opinion Leaders.” On this chart, Politico lands in 13th place, in front of the Web sites of such outlets as USA Today, National Geographic and the Journal of the American Medical Association but behind the sites of national outlets like the New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

That muddy picture makes it hard to craft a superlative-strutting house ad. This is where “Capitol Hill publications” enter the picture. It’s not clear how Politico defines this subset. What is clear is that no table in the Erdos and Morgan study accords Politico kingpin status among such a grouping.

“If somebody wants to say that they’re the best economic publication, the best business publication or the best Capitol Hill publication, that’s beyond the scope of the definition that’s provided in our study,” says David March, executive vice president of Erdos and Morgan. March encourages companies in the studies to run their ads by him prior to publication, a step that Politico didn’t take in this instance. “I don’t necessarily have a problem with what they’re saying in the ad, provided that the definitions they’re using and willing to provide are accurate,” says March.

“Willing to provide,” huh? Three Politico managers contacted on this matter declined to respond.

So while we don’t know how Politico’s bosses are defining “Capitol Hill publications,” it’s a safe bet that drawing this particular comparison is just killing them, even if it’s written in faint ink. That’s because Politico fancies itself something far greater, far broader than National Journal, the Hill, CQ/Roll Call, and so on. Its top editors come from The Washington Post; it has set out to build a national network for political news; and an AJR story from last week notes that Politico is “considering expanding [its] coverage beyond Washington.”