The Politico is the new, multimedia, Capitol Hill, political news title. The Editors Weblog spoke to executive editor Jim Vandehei. He describes Politico’s multi-platform structure, and how it could be a working model for newspapers in the future, which he foresees as being both niche and expertise-backed.
A multimedia newspaper
The Politico is a full-fledged multimedia news organization, designed as such from the very beginning.
“At the end of the day this is a web-based product,” says Vandehei. The bulk of the work goes towards updating and maintaining the online edition. Vandehei stresses that they must avoid treating the website as a “content dumpster.”
The online version presents a clean and clear layout, with homepage access to its four columnist blogs (which coincide more or less with the different sections, named below), an introductory video to The Politico, a mainframe picture, a few slideshows and the day’s main headlines. Its main sections are divided straightforwardly between ‘Congress’, the 2008 campaign, ‘Lobbyists’, ‘Ideas’, ‘Happy Hour’ and ‘Video’ – having one of its main homepage sections devoted to video is representative of Politico’s strong emphasis on multimedia.
To the disappointment of some, Politico.com is nothing revolutionary, but its agreeable layout, simple navigation, and emphasis on graphics (each blog, thus section, is represented by a noticeable cartoon caricature drawn by Matt Wuerker) make it accessible and enjoyable to use. The website recorded a decent 596,000 unique visitors in its first week, despite a few technical problems.
In the few days after its launch, the Politico’s website address was still ‘capitolleader.com’, and search words ‘politico’ on Google returned no results. Bloopers, which certainly detracted a number of visitors who sought the newly launched publication. Both problems have been resolved since then. In the first phase of the launch, “our aim was to be usable and fun,” says Vandehei.
“As it turns out, the Politico looks like most other news websites. Sure, there are some innovations, like reader-powered editorials and $100 payments for successful local reporting by amateurs,” wrote the editors of Foreign Policy on their blog. “But otherwise, there's nothing remarkable about The Politico thus far.”
Politico editor-in-chief John Harris isn’t worried, and still aspires to offer a new kind of coverage: “I don’t think we’re going to produce a publication that will transport people to a new place and time on day one. But version one will be followed by two, three, and four.”
Print advertising is still Politico’s main revenue generator, so by definition the print edition is still an essential focus. In some ways, the print aspect of Politico “was the easiest part of this,” says Vandehei, again thanks to his ‘freak team’. The Politico has already established partnerships to share content with other newspapers, such as the Manchester Union Leader and the DesMoines Register.
25,000 tabloid copies are distributed three times a week (once when Congress isn’t in session). These titles are either free at select pick-up points in Washington D.C., or home-delivered for free to Washington households selected on the basis of their targeted demographics, or home-delivered for a $200 yearly subscription. The Politico is also delivered to members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers.
Politico’s televised news show, its most distinctive multimedia feature, is still “a work in progress,” as management is developing partnerships with Allbritton’s News Channel 8 and CBS. Eventually, Vandehei hopes Politico can have a nightly news show.
Vandehei’s main concerns, in the days following the launch, were basic: to maintain a solid balance between the online and print editions and keep them running. Second concern: “to get the word out!” he says. The Politico is here folks.
As for the future, Vandehei couldn’t give any details on Politico’s plans, mentioning the fierce competition in the political news arena. He alluded to more work on databases, robust resources, and new media features such as podcasts and improved reader interaction. In any case, the Politico’s foreseeable focus will remain on politics, as Vandehei is convinced branching out into general news would be a diluting mistake.
The Politico: a model for newspapers in the future?
Much of the pre-launch buzz about the Politico revolved around the seemingly novel or contradictory idea that well-established print journalists now migrated to online – previously thought-to-be risky – journalism.
According to many, including Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, The Politico is more than just another political newspaper. “This is a sign of a new economic model of a specialized site, where journalists can be entrepreneurial,” he said.
When asked about the future of newspapers, Vandehei answers that “they will have to be different from what they are now.” Those “who can find their niche and do it better than anybody else” will be successful, says Vandehei.
Thus local news sources will have to concentrate even more on becoming the local news reference; business titles should be a reference for business, and so on - Vandehei acknowledged The Wall Street Journal as successful in that manner.
Sounds familiar? It’s exactly what the Politico is trying to achieve, by focusing on US politics, backed with a team of some of the country’s political correspondent elites.
Editor & Publisher recently interviewed industry specialists, and their conclusion was similar. "Offer and aggregate hyper-local and niche news, being guides to the best of what's going on outside their walls, and stop pretending to be oracles," said Dan Gillmor, founder of Center for Citizen Media.
Vandehei believes generalist newspapers, such as the Washington Post, will continue to exist, although they won’t have the success they had 10-15 years ago. How can these newspapers adapt then? “They’re going to have to focus on three or four areas they can monetize,” says Vandehei. Those papers can’t be the reference on each of their 10 sections, like they used to be. It’s precisely those newspapers that will have the hardest time to transition says Vandehei. These papers “will need to go through a core change,” he says.
The Politico seems to have embraced the core change, and it’s building its foundations on that ‘niche expert’ realization. Will an accurate assessment of the market and talented journalists be enough? Politico is no exception, its business model will have to succeed too.
“Beneath the hype and video cams, Politico is a formidable undertaking with a good chance for success. But that chance has more to do with business and finance than it does with journalistic prowess,” said Harry Jaffe, writer for the Washingtonian.
It just happens that Politico might have a winning business model, despite the number of other Capitol Hill publications, which have already eaten much of the advertising pie, including from mega-companies like Boeing.
Speaking of The Politico, “This is a very cost-effective way to send a message to Congress. A full page ad for us can cost $10,000. It would cost ten times that in the Post or New York Times,” said Marty Tolchin, former editor of The Hill and New York Times veteran, who helped publish the Politico.
It’s much cheaper than if the ad were to be published in a big-time newspaper, and might have more impact – at least in the eyes of advertisers – than if it were published in less hyped political news publications. So, business-wise, Politico has its arguments to seduce advertisers.
“What has interested us in this new Capitol Hill paper is that Congress is always involved in making decisions, so it’s a bit of a different advertising base,” said Allbritton President Frederick Ryan.
“We are the only ones that will be doing combined television, Internet and print,” Ryan said. “This will be a chance to be a one-stop shop — an entire advertising strategy for a campaign.”
Does Vandehei regret leaving the Washington Post?
He still loves the Washington Post but has no regrets. “It’s still the best move I’ve ever made,” he says. “How often in life do you get the opportunity to launch an enterprise you really believe in?”
Good luck to The Politico, which will have to fight hard to compete with the myriad of established political news sources, including mainstream titans, which it’s taking heads-on.