Is Politico Really ‘New Media’?

Just because it's online doesn't mean it's not old-fashioned

The official announcement today that Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei has been elected to the Pulitzer Prize Board went out of its way to cast the move as part of the Pulitzers’ growing (and welcome) acceptance of “new media.” Politico is described as a “leading new media company,” and praised for blending “the old media values of fairness and accuracy with the speed and immediacy of new technologies.” A write-up of the announcement at MediaBistro concurs, calling Politico “one of the most successful new media launches in recent years.” And VandeHei himself, in Michael Calderone’s account, quickly drops a “new media mention.”

But is Politico really a “new media” enterprise? Even the Pulitzer press release—which makes reference to Politico’s “Washington-based newspaper,” which “is distributed to more than 30,000 senior government officials, staff, lobbyists and political professionals”—undercuts some of that buzz. In other words, Politico is new. It’s media. And it has been, by many measures, a success. But it is not really—or at least to this reader, does not really feel like—“new media.” And the way it’s sometimes categorized as such demonstrates how slippery that term can be.

It’s probably true that Politico would not have been possible in an earlier era. Politico was on the Web from the paper’s inception, and it has always cultivated high-metabolism reporting that matched the Web’s bottomless appetite for content. That same approach made it a natural match for the cable news networks, which have come to be increasingly influential in shaping political coverage. The outlet has also clearly benefited by avoiding some of the legacy costs that hamper older newspapers, and by not having to retrain writers who are made uncomfortable by the Web.

But the way that Politico produces much of its content—by paying reporters who scurry around interviewing people—is decidedly old-fashioned. Much of the content itself—conventionally structured news articles that track the latest developments in D.C., and parse the inside-the-Beltway response—is also traditional. Of its various platforms for distributing that content, the most widely read is the Web, but if having many more readers online than in print makes you a “new media” outlet, The New York Times meets that description, too. (Indeed, while both organizations supplement their articles with blogs and videos, the NYT does far more in the way of interactive data displays and other Web-only content opportunities than Politico does.)

Editorially, the innovation at Politico seems to concern pace, volume, and the recognition that a sizable audience existed for an obsessive level of detail about politics. Or, as Greg Sargent puts it: “Their main innovation seems like it consists in marrying widely-used Web-based techniques with self-styled ‘non-ideological’ journalism.’” That’s an approach that is only possible online, but it hardly tests the boundaries of digital journalism.

In terms of revenue, meanwhile, as of April a reported 60 percent of Politico’s income came from ads placed in its small, targeted print run. That puts its much closer to parity than general interest newspapers, whose revenue streams depend heavily on print readers—but it’s not quite a sign that Politico has cracked the code to monetizing Web content, either.

Indeed, one of the striking things about Politico, at least to anyone accustomed to getting news online, is how familiar it feels: it’s traditional political journalism, with strengths and weaknesses magnified, but not really changed. Which is probably one of the reasons the Pulitzer board picked VandeHei in the first place.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.