Alex Massie

The Politico Future

The Politico Future
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At the New Republic, Gabe Sherman has a fun piece about the rise and rise of Politico, DC's in-house paper for political intrigue and gossip. There's plenty to consider: Politico is essentially a web-paper that carries ads in a small circulation print edition circulated on Capitol Hill and K Street. At the moment - though they say this is changing fast - it's the print edition that makes the profits. Nonetheless, as a niche, but obsessed, audience there's no doubting the impact Politico has made. The most entertaining bit of the piece is the sniffiness with which "old media" regard this whipper-snapper:

Politico's pace and self-promotion has irritated some in the Washington press corps. "It's maddening. Everyone has to chase them," one Washington reporter complains. "You wind up running down these gotcha moments that are painful. ... [I]t's the New York Post approach to generating news." After Martin's confrontation with Obama last month, Wonkette called Politico a "vulgar asshole of a publication" and announced the blog would cease linking to the site. "We will stop linking to these particularly retarded, trollish articles Politico front-pages just to get a crappy two-minute panel slot on [Anderson Cooper] 360 later in the night."

The Times' Bill Keller dismisses Politico's scooplets as an insubstantial foundation on which to build a sustainable news organization. "If you hadn't reminded me, I couldn't have told you who broke the seven houses and the six-figure wardrobe budget. ... Politico has focused on an inside game. I'm not sure if it translates to an outside game. I'm not sure how they get scale, and, if they don't, I'm not sure what the business model is."


In fact Politico is the closest thing Washington journalism has to a British paper. It revels in the hurly-burly of whipping the competition ("Win the morning! Win the afternoon!" is the paper's de facto motto). Politico takes the view that journalism, like politics, is a contact sport. Just as importantly, it's supposed to be fun. Stirring up trouble is part of the job description. Naturally, this leads to accusations - especially in a town as staid as DC - that the paper is crass, overly commercial (in terms of chasing links from Matt Drudge), too keen on being talked about and not keen enough on worthy public service, Pulitzer-chasing snoozealism. A good deal of that criticism has some merit; it's also why Politico is much more fun to read than the Washington Post. It's a British cuckoo in an American nest.

Sure, sometimes it takes a flier and gets things wrong: but its brashness, its willingness to adapt, nay embrace, the 24 hour news cycle is also a large part of its success. It likes politics and revels in being at the centre of the Washington village. So, yes, it's breathless and gossipy and sometimes trivial and occasionally a little absurd (all also nods to its British-style spirit) but, more importantly, anyone who wants to keep abreast of what's happening in Washington needs to read it. Not bad for an upstart.

And, at least in terms of journalism targetted at specialist audiences it may also be part of the future. Consider this memo sent to all staff:

A Politico story works THE POWER EQUATION

WHO is trying to GET or HOARD it?

WHAT MEANS are they using an what OBSTACLES are they encountering?

HOW are they doing, and how is this contest affecting or reshaping the city, state, party, caucus, government body, industry, corporation or social set? [...]

Stories need to be both interesting and illuminating--we don’t have the luxury of running stories folks won’t click on or spend several minutes with in the paper.

a) Would this be a “most e-mailed” story?

b) Would I read this story if I hadn’t written it?

c) Would my mother read this story?

d) Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?

e) Might an investor buy or sell a stock based on this story?

f) Would a specialist learn something from this story?

g) Will my competitors be forced to follow this?

IN MOST CASES, THE ANSWER WILL BE “YES” TO SEVERAL OF THESE QUESTIONS IF THIS IS A STRONG POLITICO STORY. If you are not certain that several of these are “yes,” you can reframe your reporting and analysis so people will say, “POLITICO is reporting…” or “The way POLITICO put it is…”

If your friends or source are buzzing about something related in any way to public affairs, don’t ask yourself WHETHER it’s a Politico story. Ask yourself HOW you can make it a Politico story, to capture built-in traffic and mindshare.

Will anyone be interested or informed or entertained by this story?



UPDATE: See Klein, Scheiber, Yglesias and Matt Zeitlin for more Politico-related coverage.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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