For Whom The Bell Tolls? It Tolls For Thee, Washington Bureau Chiefs.
Yesterday I interviewed the editor of Politico.com, John Harris, about the new venture. It is clear to me that the new entity’s heavy investment in Beltway journalists with great reputations among their peers is not just about developing a politics website with a three-times-a-week paper for delivery on the Hill. Rather, as I noted yesterday, I think the Politco will offer its content to newspapers across the country as a substitute for those paper’s own D.C. bureaus. Closing D.C. bureaus will provide substantial cost savings, and given the quality of the Politico’s staff, the actual reporting from the Beltway will improve even as the out-of-town papers see the operations costs fall.
I asked Harris about this, and despite the hesitation in his voice and the ambiguity in his answer, the outlines of Politico’s strategic plan are easy to discern:
HH: Okay, okay. Now the objective here, what fascinated me is the business model. Obviously, there is internet advertising, but this looks very much to me like you’re going to make all of the Washington, D.C. bureau of mid-major papers obsolete if you succeed in syndicating this content out. It’s written by more experienced reporters, it goes much, much deeper, and you’re much better staffed than they are. Shouldn’t everyone be polishing up their resumes in that particular part of the business?
JH: I’m not totally sure I understand the question, polishing up their resumes to apply to Politico, do you mean? Or…
HH: No, no. I mean, because I think, for example, the Los Angeles Times, why have a Washington bureau of a paper like that, or the Minneapolis Star Tribune, when you can just take the content, I’m sure you’ll sell it to them, of all these mid-majors in cities far away.
JH: Well, we do have some partnerships already underway, including with the lead papers in the four early primary states. The Manchester Union Leader, I understand, is running one of our stories on their front page tomorrow by a good young writer named Jonathan Martin. We’ve got a relationship with the Des Moines Register, The State down in South Carolina, and also the Sun in Nevada. At the moment, those are not financial relationships, and we don’t expect them to be. You know, Hugh, you are sort of looking further out on the horizon in terms of our business model right now. At the moment, we are financed through our advertising, we are happy to share our content, for now, free of charge, because we’re trying to build up a brand and get people familiar with Politico. We really think that the advertising model can sustain quality journalism. Lots of the big papers, including the Post where I came from, are worried about the long term viability of their business models. Those are big mass market, general interest news organizations. We are not that. We are specialized, we’ve got a specialized audience, people that share our interest in politics, and I imagine we’ll have a specialized advertising base as well.
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HH: Joined by John Harris, editor of the brand new Politico, at www.politico.com. Warning, highly addictive to those, who like me, love the business of politics, government, public policy, inside the Beltway edition. John Harris, I want to go back to where I was before, because it just seems to me clear that what you’re doing is very innovative, and it will replace the bureaus that these out of town newspapers run at great expense inside of Washington. Do you intend at some point to sell your product to them as a sort of wire service?
JH: You know what? We are so focused on this election cycle, Hugh, up through 2008, that we really feel this is the opportunity to sort of establish a connection with people like you who really care about politics. We have no intention of doing that before 2008 in this cycle. I think you’re right. I do think the traditional regional newspaper bureaus are soon going to be a thing of the past. Most of those papers are retreating. It wouldn’t surprise me if long term, that was a model that we looked at, but I can tell you it’s not something we’re looking at in the near term, or you know, really even in the medium term. 2007, 2008, we are all about getting our brand established, and sort of making the relationships and the connections with the audience.
HH: That I assumed. You build the brand, and then you sell the brand. I’m just telling those guys out there in old media, start polishing up those resumes, because I think it’s going to work.
JH: Yeah, you know, I don’t dispute your point that the traditional Washington bureau might well be a thing of the past five years from now for a lot of people. I also think that the big newspapers are feeling a lot of stress, just like the big networks. They are mass market organizations, and I…because they are under such financial stress, with declining audiences, declining circulations, I think everybody feels that the future…there’s a perception that the future of media generally is grim. I don’t believe that. I think there’s a very optimistic, robust, and I should add profitable future for publications that specialize, that say here is our niche, and we’re going to own that, and that’s what we’ve done at Politico.
A couple of thoughts flow from this.
First, the first major out-of-town paper to cut a content deal with Politico will get the best price. Politico may not intend to roll out syndication until after its brand gets established through the 2008 cycle, but as I have often written, the byline has become the brand in the new media age, and Politico has collected some great bylines. If the management folks struggling to make ends meet across the country are smart, they’ll be in D.C. next week to cut a five or ten year deal with Politico, and stop by to turn out the lights at their Washington bureau before heading home. The price will rise as the model develops.
Second, this is a very good thing for the news consumer. Instead of lots of mediocre reporting by lots of D.C. reporters, the reader will get excellent reporting by the best reporters. It will still be burdened with the MSM bias which Harris of course dismisses, but at least the best know how to hide it better than most.
Finally, if the Politico is smart, it’ll hire Michael Barone away from U.S.News & World Report, and Fred Barnes and Terry Eastland from the Weekly Standard. The new portal lacks any heavyweights from the right, and both Barnes and Barone would bring great reporting and analysis skills that conservatives would trust, and Eastland would provide the crucial Supreme Court analysis that the Politico will need to provide a complete D.C. package.