The coming launch of the political news web site Politico has drawn much attention from those who wonder about its longevity (see the latest New York Times article about it; and an earlier one). I have no idea about how long it will last — though, being a political news junkie, I hope it will be for a long time — but I am fascinated by the ideas that its founders have about how it should be structured and how it should operate.
Politico is a news web site that will focus on Capitol Hill politics, presidential election campaigns, and Washington lobbying and advocacy groups. It is set to launch in two weeks (Jan. 23) but has made a splash over the last couple of months by hiring the likes of John Harris and Jim VandeHei from the Washington Post, Martin Tolchin from the New York Times, and Mike Allen from Time magazine, among its other stars. The chief financial backer is Albritton Communications.
More interesting than the journalistic stars it has attracted to its staff is the approach that Politico will take to its publishing. Here are some of the things that the site is doing that are worth noting (although none of these represents a brand new or unique appraoch):
Web-centered rather than print-centered. The web site, not the print edition, will be the crown jewel of this operation. That is a major shift in thinking among big media types, especially in a place like Washington where print is revered. There will be a print edition, a 30,000 run three days a week when Congress is in session and once a week when it is not. And the print edition will be free.
Focused subject matter. The site, as noted above, will focus on Washington politics and on only a part of that. The all-purpose newspaper approach and the blanket coverage of the wider community are ideas that are left behind. In the parlance of web discussion, this is called “unbundling.” The site doesn’t care about food or high school football or the stock market. It is betting that there are enough people interested in politics — and in the particular parts of politics that it has identified — to draw a large audience. In Washington, that’s not a bad bet.
Small, star-quality staff. The site not only gained a lot of publicity by the hires of John Harris, author of a widely-acclaimed book on the Clinton administration, and Jim VandeHei, a well-regarded journalist and frequent face on MSNBC, but it also gained some instant credibility. Most of the journalists on the staff (staff page) are well known and deeply experienced. The news organization has every chance of living up to its own billing as a top-ranked center for information about congressional and presidential politics.
Staff outreach. Plans are for the staff to step out of the organization by writing for other publications and appearing in other venues. Mike Allen will continue to write a column for Time magazine. Others are having their columns syndicated. Undoubtedly, you will see faces from Politico on the cable and network talk shows.
Multi-platform. In addition to the web site and print editions, there will be a television show on the Albritton cable television network and a five-minute drive-time radio program broadcast on WTOP all news radio in Washington. Presumably, all of these media will be used to cross-promote each other, but the web site will be what is always available and always at the center of the action.
As we noted earlier, none of these ideas is particularly original. There are certainly political information web sites with good journalists in existence now. What makes this effort noteworthy is its high profile, and the big media money that is backing it.
One of the unknowns is what the site will look like and how it will approach the presentation of information. The web, as we have often argued, is not a newspaper on a computer screen, and it is also not radio or television. It is a different medium with different demands and different audience actions and expectations.
The coming weeks will show us whether or not the founders of Politico understand these differences.
Jim Stovall (posted Jan. 9, 2007)
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