Politico Editor-In-Chief John Harris On The Washington Post Sale To Jeff Bezos
HH: Joining me now is John Harris, founding editor of Politico.com. Hello, John, hard to find you this afternoon.
JH: I’m sorry about that, Hugh. I’m at the PGA championship up in Rochester, New York, and cell service has not been great.
HH: Somebody has to do this, right? Somebody’s got to go off and do the PGA. They had a 63 up there today, didn’t they?
JH: Course record, just shredding it.
HH: That’s remarkable. Can I be part of Politico’s PGA coverage team? Do you need a stringer?
JH: (laughing) There’s only one job that gets to do that, Hugh, and it’s mine. It’s called editor in chief prerogative.
HH: All right, now I’m going to try and keep you over the break, because we found you late. But I want to make sure, the reason I called you today is because Jake Tapper told me I had to. Give a listen to what Jake told me on the show two days ago.
JH: All right.
JT: But there’s been such an exodus of talent. There’s still some very, very talented people there. You named a bunch of them. There are others as well. But there’s been such an exodus of great talent there, and when you think about the fact that, and you should have on the founders of Politico to talk about it, but I believe the people who started Politico, John Harris wrote for the Washington Post at the time, and Jim Vandehei, I think he was with the Wall Street Journal at the time. I think what they wanted, I think they wanted to do it at the Washington Post. They wanted to do Politico at the Washington Post, and they were not allowed to fly.
HH: So John Harris, Jake Tapper told me to ask you if that’s true. Is that true?
JH: The history is a little more complicated than that, Hugh. I’d be happy to explain it to you after the break.
HH: Okay, because we were talking about Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.
HH: And I do want to get to the story there. Are you excited by Bezos buying the Post?
JH: Yeah, I think it invigorates the competition in Washington, and for political journalism. The competition is always good. It’ll make the Post stronger, it’ll make us stronger. It’s a good thing.
HH: It is a very good thing. When we come back from break, we’ll talk about how that impacts it. Are you surprised, though, that anyone is willing to buy an old media name for that kind of money this late in the game when there are Politicos and Washington Examiners abounding, and Townhalls and Powerlines and Talking Point Memo? Are you surprised anyone wants to buy a dead tree paper? 30 seconds to the break.
JH: No, I’m not. It reminds me of the line in Citizen Kane where they tell the owner he’s losing a million a month. He says at that rate, I’ll be bankrupt in 60 years. But that was in 1940 dollars. So 1% of his income is not a lot for Jeff Bezos.
HH: Everyone brings up Citizen Kane.
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HH: By the way, have you seen Jason Kokrak out on the course at Oak Hill Country Club today, John?
JH: I didn’t see him, no.
HH: He is a graduate of Warren John F. Kennedy High School, my alma mater, and he has to shoot…
JH: Oh, is that right?
HH: He has to get under 70, I think, to make the cut. And he’s still out on the course, and I don’t have the current leaderboard. Keep an eye open on that guy.
JH: I will.
HH: And of course, I hope you’re going to go over to Hobart and William Smith…
JH: …it takes par to do it.
HH: Are you up there on business? Or is this what you do for fun?
JH: I’m going to refer you to my lawyers on that.
HH: (laughing) Okay.
JH: I’m from Rochester, Hugh, and so I came up here to see my family and catch a day of the PGA.
HH: I didn’t know you were from Rochester. That’s interesting.
JH: Yeah, yeah. And I don’t, sometimes when I’m up here, I see Mark Gearan, another person in the Hugh Hewitt universe.
HH: My college roommate over at Hobart and William Smith College, you betcha.
JH: Yeah. So one degree of Hugh Hewitt, as everybody is related somehow.
HH: (laughing) My first segment with you, I played Jake Tapper’s direction to me to ask you. So why did Politico start? And was the Post not organized in the old days to be nimble enough to start it? And do you think Bezos will do so?
JH: You know, we had, and I say we, a small group of people that have been on your show, me, Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen, we had a very specific idea of what we thought would be a successful site, organized all around politics and government as opposed to the kind of big city newspaper that covers all kinds of different subjects. That was our theory of the case. The Post was interested in the idea, and invited us to do it there. But our publisher, the person who ultimately became the owner of Politico, Robert Allbritton, also gave us a really great offer to start from scratch, brand new. And we thought an entrepreneurial enterprise would do better starting from scratch than it would inside the confines of a big Wakandan institution like the Post.
HH: And so do you think the opportunity is still there? The barriers to entry are very low now. You don’t have to carry the technological start-up costs that an old dead tree newspaper does. And so the like the Washington Examiner is in that space now, and Townhall. Can the Post launch something like that? Could Bezos come in and say use the data collection abilities of Amazon to power a competitor to Politico?
JH: You know, it depends on what the ambition is. I don’t know if he’s trying to make a lot of money. I don’t really see, he’s a far better businessman than I am. It’s not obvious to me what the business model is for a place like the Post. If you’re talking about sort of breaking even, and trying to be home for good journalism, that’s certainly possible. The thing about today’s media environment is you’re only as good as your last story. So on any day, maybe Politico’s got the best story. Maybe it’s the New York Times. Maybe it’s Huffington Post. Maybe it’s somebody just operating on a blog somewhere who happens to come across something interesting. So in terms of like producing outstanding journalism, the field is wide open. And yes, there’s no barrier to entry.
HH: You’ve got people like Hohmann, who’s a regular guest here.
JH: Love him. Love him.
HH: And James, I think he’s an extraordinary talent, and he’s going to go a very long way. Are you feeling like you need to sign your young guys to long term contracts so they don’t go all Ben Smith on you and end up at BuzzFeed without all of a sudden…
JH: Oh, it’s hard to sign people in this very competitive business to long term contracts. My general view is I’m giving somebody what I think is a great opportunity to work for Politico to make a name for himself or herself. I often, I’ll try to at least sign them to a short term contract for an election cycle. The last thing we want is someone going AWOL on us a month before an election or something like that.
HH: And so is it a two year, because I’m thinking of it as the Yankees now. I think that professional journalism is back, and Mark Steyn did a long interview with me yesterday on how Fleet Street steals talent all the time from each other in England. Do you think that model’s going to come back if Bezos really opens up the purse strings?
JH: If he does, yeah, it will. As somebody who’s got to work hard to attract talent, retain talent, I can tell you it’s a competitive business.
HH: And so when you look down the road, and you expect five year from now, I know Politico expects to be there. Do you think the Washington Post is going to be exclusively internet? Or will they still have a paper edition?
JH: Five years is a pretty short time horizon. I think they’ll still have a paper. I noticed Bezos said he’d be stunned if they have one in twenty years, and that may well be the case. But I think five to ten is, we’re still going to see it.
HH: John Harris, thanks for joining us. Go back out there. Find Jason Kokrak.
JH: Hey, good to talk to you, Hugh.
HH: And give him a cheer, will you? Because the Warren, Ohio native needs to make the cut.
JH: I’ll do it. Talk to you soon.
End of interview.