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The Politico’s editor John Harris on new media coverage of politics in D.C.

Saturday, February 24, 2007
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HH: For the balance of this hour, I’m pleased to welcome for the first time to the Hugh Hewitt Show John Harris. He is the editor of ThePolitico.com. It’s the new kid inside of the Beltway, although he is a very seasoned hand in Washington, D.C. John Harris, welcome. Good to talk to you.

JH: Hey, I’m glad to be on. Thank you. And do you mind if I correct you? I think actually, you can reach us through ThePolitico.com, but most people just go Politico.com. Our newspaper on Capitol Hill is The Politico, but the website’s Politico.com.

HH: All right, you can in fact reach you through the, because that’s my URL. But Politico.com it is.

JH: Oh, okay, cool. All right.

HH: Now John, I spent a lot of time with your co-author of The Way To Win, Mark Halperin.

JH: Yes, I remember.

HH: But that’s a different kind of interview than I want to do tonight.

JH: Okay.

HH: I want to ask you about The Politico, because Jeanne Cummings, one of your staff, gave a presentation off the record, so I don’t want to talk about what she said, at the Heritage Foundation today, and my eyebrows went up, my ears perked up, because this is really quite an adventure. Tell people what it is.

JH: The Politico is a newspaper, and Politico.com is a website that has gotten going just a month ago today. We started on January 23rd. Most of us, at least the leaders of the enterprise, are people who have had serious and important jobs at traditional news organizations. All of us feel that there’s a new and more creative way to cover politics. And so we took the plunge, and started this new publication, that is, we’re all political junkees, we’re aimed at political junkees, we hope that people look to Politico as a reliable needle in the vein for people who share our interests. We don’t try to cover everything, we cover the 2008 presidential campaign, we cover Capitol Hill and the politics of Capitol Hill, we cover lobbying, and the business of Washington advocacy. Jeanne Cummings came over from the Wall Street Journal, and that’s going to be her specialty.

HH: Now give people a little bit of the sense of your background. You came from the Washington Post. How long had you been there?

JH: I graduated from college, I went to Carlton College in Minnesota, graduated from there on a Saturday in 1985, and joined the Washington Post as a summer intern the next Monday. And I had been there for the next 20-some years, 21 years, with the exception of taking a year or two off to write a book on President Clinton. I covered the Clinton White House for the Post. That’s probably how I’m best known. I was the Post’s White House reporter through most of the Clinton years. You were kind enough to mention the book I co-wrote with Mark Halperin that came out last year, but I’ve spent my career as a political reporter mostly for the Post. At the time I left the Post, I was the national politics editor, and I was in charge of the White House coverage and campaign coverage over there.

HH: Now were you a Minnesotan originally?

JH: No, I grew up in upstate New York in Rochester.

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.

– – – –

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.

HH: Let’s talk about the brand a little bit, because a lot of people in America, center-right especially, believe that elite media, of which you were and remain a member, are overwhelmingly left wing. You may remember that Tom Edsall came onto my radio program, and put the ratio…

JH: Oh, I remember. Yeah, you know, Hugh, I was at the Post at that time. Trust me, that interview got noticed in the newsroom over at 15th Street.

HH: Well now, do you agree with his calculation that there are at least fifteen, and as many as 25 Democrats for every Republican in a mainstream media elite organization?

JH: I think that is a stretch. I don’t know where Tom pulled that out.

HH: What do you put the ratio at?

JH: Look, most…I’d rather not just like rest it on my opinion. You know, people have done survey research on this, and shown that indeed, most reporters do end up voting Democratic. We can look that up, and Pew and others have done it. I guess it’s at…isn’t it in the 60’s or low 70’s? I have to say I’ve never shared your belief that this is so central. I don’t think most reporters are driven by their ideology. I think there’s a lot of others…institutional, in some cases psychological factors that drive reporters. But I really think that most reporters are not terribly ideological in their motivations.

HH: You know that Edsall held up Jim VandeHei, who is your colleague on this, as a conservative. Were you shocked by that?

JH: I knew that Jim was offended by it, and I don’t blame him for being offended by it. I think Tom was, you know, extrapolating from some things that he knew, frankly, about Jim’s wife, has worked for Republicans, and so therefore, Jim must be. I can tell you about VandeHei, he and I have started this business together, we jumped off the cliff, I spend more time with him on any given day than I do with anyone else, including my wife, much to my wife’s distress, although she understands it’s a start up. And I honestly have no idea what his political inclinations are. You know, he is a more extreme than most reporters I know at really, really keeping that information to himself. I think it’s easier for him to do, because I don’t believe he has strong political opinions.

HH: What about you? Are you a Kerry voter or a Bush voter in ’04?

JH: I’m going to pass on that, although I will, not trying to be so opaque. I’ll be honest. I think that most reporters, and I probably put myself in this category, have what I might call a centrist bias. We tend to think that politics is too messy, we tend to be suspicious of ideologues of all kinds, we think, we tend to think that politics should be sort of this rational process that’s controlled by experts. I’ve often said that if Washington reporters had their way, at least Washington political reporters, I think most of them would, their ideal government would be a collection of experts from AEI and Brookings Institution, hiding away at Andrews Air Force Base, and they wouldn’t come back until they had cut everybody’s entitlements, and come up with sort of sober, centrist solutions to everything from gay marriage to the Iraq war. That’s the bias of reporters, and it is a bias, because I’ve had to learn over time, it’s not sort of sensible centrist, you know, middle of the road types that make history. You know, it tends to be ideologues that really move the process.

HH: That’s faintly pejorative, isn’t it, John? And doesn’t that, by the way, affect the brand you’re trying to establish? Because it sounds like you’re importing to the new venue all of the old hubris of the old venues.

JH: No, I’m not. Trust me, I’m not. Just because I recognize that bias doesn’t mean, Hugh, that I succumb to it. I honestly have, you know, the longer I spend in this business, the more I realize that my own opinions really don’t matter that much. First off, you know, you ask me on any given day, I realize a lot of things I think if I look back at them a year later, end up not being true. So I end up being, the longer I spend in this business, the more modest I am about my own opinions. I’m just trying to give you a straight answer. I know this is a subject that interests you a lot, the sort of ideological preconceptions of reporters. I do not think liberal bias is what motivates a lot of mainstream coverage. I do think there is a kind of a centrist bias, and we should be alert to it. I’ll give you an example.

HH: Wait for after the break.

– – – –

HH: John, how often are you updating content at Politico? Are you doing this five days or seven days a week?

JH: We try to do it seven days a week.

HH: And what’s the traffic thus far?

JH: It has been good. Our first four weeks, we started a month ago today, we had close to 1.5 million unique visitors.

HH: That’s excellent, wow.

JH: And several million page views. So obviously, for something brand new, that’s a fair amount of traffic. I will say this…

HH: Now what’s the relationship going…

JH: …when we get good links, it really spikes, and then on days when we don’t have a lot of good links from around the web, it’s a lower figure. But we’re on an upward trajectory.

HH: What’s the relationship going to be with, talk radio? I’ll talk to you and Jim every week if I can get you, because you guys know stuff like Fred and Morton. But I don’t know, are you going to be comfortable with talk radio format, doing that sort of thing?

JH: Yeah, we’re enthusiastic about it. As a new venture, we feel it’s our job when we have good stories, push them out. We do think we’re doing something different that’s different than the so-called mainstream media, where we all came from, that we wanted to create a new voice and a new brand of journalism. That’s why we left those kind of comfortable, big institutions. So we’re eager to talk wherever anybody wants to hear us. So…

HH: That’s different from a lot of print reporters. But let me close with this. I talked to Rudy Giuliani at the start of the show, taped interview, and he thought that the Obama-Hillary kafuffle was an accident, that is sort of a collision that no one intended. Do you share that opinion, or did Geffen act on orders from on high?

JH: You know, I think that he’s probably a rich guy, so if he has an opinion that he thinks is interesting, he’s going to share it with Maureen Dowd. I will say that all the indignant response of Hillary Clinton’s camp sounded very calculated to me, that they were professing great indignation, hoping they would get exactly what they did get, which was Obama sort of entering the fray, and they believe sort of scuffing him up. I think there was an awful lot of artifice in that exchange, Hugh.

HH: And do you think, who’s got the more brittle campaign at this point? Who could more easily crack and go away? Hillary or Obama?

JH: Oh, I think clearly the answer to that is Obama. You know, Hillary’s camp, whatever it is, is not brittle. These guys have been around the track several times, and they’ve proven their toughness.

HH: And has Obama gotten anything like the scrutiny of the others, like Giuliani and Romney and Hillary? Or has he gotten a free ride thus far from your old colleagues in MSM?

JH: I feel mostly a free ride.

HH: Are you guys going to change that at Politico?

JH: We’re going to, yeah, we’re going to look at all the candidates with a tough and skeptical eye.

HH: John Harris, a real pleasure. Good luck in the new venture.

JH: Yeah, I appreciate it, Hugh.

HH: Great reading. www.politico.com, and of course, his book is The Way To Win, along with Mark Halperin. It’s available at Amazon.com, probably being sold a lot to campaign activists. John, good to make your acquaintance.

End of interview.

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