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April 21, 2009

A Visit to Politico

Peter Osnos

In Washington, Politico is now an established and respected competitor in news and comment about its subject. Lots of media entries in the Internet age have started strong and faded when they were unable to convert online audiences into cash flow or to find a buyer who could. Politico seems to be different, and it may have one of the vaunted new models for journalism so desperately being sought these days.

            Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., the CEO of Politico, startled me in a brief corridor chat by calling it “this newspaper,” which for people in Washington it is. Politico appears in print on a daily basis when Congress is in session, otherwise weekly, and is distributed free to its intended local readers. Last Tuesday, the paper was twenty-eight pages, with ads from Chevron, Boeing, Novartis, and Kaiser Permanente, among others. Living in New York, I am a Politico reader only on the Web, so the importance of its print product was a surprise. But I knew the star bylines and was familiar with the energy and tone of their pieces.  Mike Allen’s dawn e-mail, Playbook, a summary of news stories and gossip appearing in morning media, quickly has become a popular notice board for the politically minded chattering classes and is currently sponsored by Starbucks, which pays what I’m told is real money.

            So there it is: a newspaper with advertising directly addressed to its target audience in the nation’s capital, and a Web site with reach and (as is the Internet’s strength) an infinite potential for visibility. What adds to Politico’s breadth and financial depth is its ownership by Albritton Communications, which includes WJLA, the ABC affiliate, and the twenty-four-hour News Channel 8. Politico shares expansive premises in Arlington, Virginia, with the television outlets, and therefore has full technical capacity for its reporters to appear anytime, any place. Unlike most start-ups, it is supported by a full infrastructure of corporate services, including human resources, finance, and IT. Putting it together you have a “news organization,” which is what its editor-in-chief and co-founder John Harris chooses to call it, focusing on the output, rather than the means of distribution.

            That multi-platform capacity, all of which can attract advertising revenue and potentially share in subscription volume from, say, cable television programming is what distinguishes Politico from other leading news sites such as The Huffington Post, which for now, at least, is relying on Web-based advertising alone or ProPublica, the investigative collective, which is backed by philanthropy.

            The history of Politico (in a nutshell) is that Harris and Jim VandeHei, two leaders of the political reporting team at the Washington Post, had a concept for a site to cover the 2008 election cycle that would take advantage of the urgency of the Internet and their belief that they could make themselves a key destination for the campaign and beyond. The Albritton people were discovering at the same time that their efforts to close a deal for an existing Capitol Hill newspaper, the Hill, were going nowhere and decided to back Harris and VandeHei instead. As Harris explains it, the investment and infrastructure provided by Albritton was essential, as were the attractions of starting from scratch rather than accommodating the traditions and competing demands for attention they would have faced at the Post. So they jumped.

            Harris says that Politico lost $3–$4 million its first year, $2 million in its second year, and, he says, is on track to break even or turn a small profit this year. Print advertising covers about 60 percent of the revenues, with the rest from the Web and smaller streams of income (it costs $200 to get the newspaper delivered, for example). I’m guessing that Politico’s results and potential are significantly affected by being embedded in the greater Albritton enterprises. The real test of its viability is its contribution to the company’s overall volume and overhead. By all accounts, Albritton is more than satisfied with Politico’s growth so far.

            In the Washington Post the other day, Howard Kurtz said that Politico’s online readership reached 4.6 million unique visitors in October and is now about 3 million, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. By contrast, nytimes.com is almost back to its October number of more than 20 million, reflecting, of course, its vastly broader array of material.

            Content seems to be both Politico’s strength and its limitation. “No one comes to us for Redskins news,” as Harris said, but if they want to know what seven White House reporters can find out, double or more than what other news organizations deploy, then Politico is the place to go. (In all, there is a staff of around one hundred, divided about evenly between the editorial and business sides).

            The major value of Politico, aside from its focus on Washington, is harder to quantify. It is its sensibility, a recognition that all its readers will know the basic facts in the news (what Obama announced), so Politico’s role is to provide what readers don’t know and seem to want—scoops, scooplets, and sassy commentary. Politico has “immediacy and volume,” as Harris describes, it and is “groping for depth.” The whiz bang of Politico makes it fun for junkies, the sophistication of its reporters and editors give it credibility, and their continued objective, indispensable to success, is the belief among readers and advertisers that what they are getting is so important that they are willing to pay for it.

            Everyone in the news universe is looking for the ways to do pretty much the same thing: make themselves invaluable to a projected audience.Politico seems closer to getting it right than a lot of others in the hunt.

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Comments

http://action.democratz.org

Politico appears a right wing organization. I don't trust them.

Angry about Medicare Part D that does not help the middle class? You can do something about it.

I have a plan to fix the prescription drug benefit and more.

Get people to Send a free prewritten fax to Sen. Minority leader Mitch McConnell telling him to STOP EVERY REPUBLICAN FILIBUSTER, get the Employee Free Choice act enacted into law, along with single payer universal health care, a fix for the Medicare Prescription drug benefit, a 10 dollar an hour minimum wage, an end to the Iraq war and until that happens you will boycott some Republican campaign contributors.

You can go to http://action.democratz.org and send Mitch McConnell a free prewritten fax. This web site appears completely noncommercial. I don't sell anything there.

We have to hit the friends of the GOP in their wallets. Oh and if you only send your fax, this will fail. You need to get friends to send the fax and have their friends send the free fax and so on.

Thank you!

PS the prewritten fax reads thusly:

Hello

I want the following actions taken
and legislation enacted into law.

Congress and the President must
enact S 703 single payer universal
health care and set up a new
prescription drug benefit in
Medicare Part B covering 80% of the
cost of all drugs with no extra
monthly premiums, no extra yearly
deductible, no means tests, no
coverage gaps, and remove the means
test for Medicare Part B and until
that happens, I won't buy ANYTHING
from Republican contributor
Rite Aid Pharmacies.

The President must end the war in
Iraq and until that happens
I will not buy any products from
Republican contributor and War
contractor General Electric
Corporation.

Congress and the President must
enact a $10/HR MINIMUM WAGE
into law and until this happens
I will not go to any Republican
contributor Wendy's Restaurants.

In 2008 Brown-Forman of Kentucky,
the maker of Jack Daniels Whiskey
and Southern Comfort gave Mitch
McConnell money for his campaign.

SENATOR McCONNELL MUST NOT
EXECUTE ANY REPUBLICAN
FILIBUSTERS FOR 8 YEARS
DURING THE OBAMA PRESIDENCY
AND MUST GET THE EMPLOYEE
FREE CHOICE ACT ENACTED
INTO LAW AND UNTIL THAT
HAPPENS I WON'T BUY JACK
DANIELS WHISKEY OR SOUTHERN
COMFORT OR ANY OTHER OF THEIR
PRODUCTS.

Thank you.

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