“I think a lot [of] journalists say there’s something ethically and morally wrong about [p.r.],” The Politico’s publisher, Robert Allbritton, tells Gabe Sherman in The New Republic’s critical analysis of the Beltway’s newest “must-read” news outlet. “I’m like, wait a minute, if you wrote a great story that’s factually accurate, why would you be ashamed of that?”
It’s a good question—and an open one. Journalists often reflexively balk at self-promotion, many of them under the assumption that, if it is to set us free, the truth should also speak for itself. The wall tradition has built—Journalism on the one side, Publicity on the other—remains not only intact, they believe, but also impenetrable. (It’s the story as a means, rather than the story as an end in itself. It’s reporting with an agenda, rather than reporting to learn the truth. Et cetera.)
Which is an attitude, overall, that seems remarkably quaint—not to mention naïve—not to mention self-injurious—in an increasingly Web-based media world of infinite news holes and limited eyeballs. One adopts it at one’s own peril: generally speaking, the only people journalists hurt in shying away from self-promotion are themselves. And, by extension, their stories. (If a piece gets posted, and there’s no one there to hear it…does it make a sound?)
Politico’s success—both financial (after only two years of existence, it’s about to turn a profit) and cultural (the whole “must-read” thing)—is in many ways a testament to the realities of what Sherman’s subhed deems “the brave new world of post-print journalism”: among them, the notion that success comes from impact. Which comes from dissemination. Which comes, quite often, from publicity. “We’re pretty damn methodical about making sure anybody who cares about a story we wrote knows about it,” Jim VandeHei, Politico’s co-editor, tells Sherman. And it’s a strategy that—again, financially, culturally—has, thus far, paid off.
But, then. Subtext. The question that underscores Sherman’s analysis of the fledgling venture—continually suggested, but never answered—is whether Politico’s selling of itself also constitutes, to some degree, selling out. Sherman paints a picture of a publication that straddles the line between journalism and self-promotion. And it’s a line that, as far as some are concerned, the outlet has crossed. Last month, Sherman notes, Wonkette called Politico a “vulgar asshole of a publication” by way of announcing: “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.”
Yet if Politico is, indeed—as it’s been widely hailed, by TNR and by many others—a Model for the Future of News, it could augur as well that Future’s general cultural context. Politico’s assumption that dissemination should be an integral part of the journalistic equation (as evidenced by its widespread and “methodical” approach to publicity) heralds the toppling of the traditional wall dividing journalism from PR. The life cycle of a story is no longer the simple reporting-writing-editing-publication; it’s now reporting-writing-editing-publication-syndication-conversation. Which is nothing new, generally speaking—pickup has always been, to some extent, a goal of journalism—but as the Web flattens the relationship between discrete publications, and as the link economy grows, publicity dominates a broader portion of a story’s lifespan. And it becomes an increasingly integral component of news organizations’ business strategies.
The increased influence of influence itself is intensified by the Web’s tendency at once to collapse and expand geographical markets (which is to say, by Web users’ increasing tendency to talk about the same things): the less proprietary our news becomes, the more we have to fight to ensure it gets consumed. No longer can editors and publishers take for granted the notion that publication itself yields eyeballs and impact; for a story to gain traction on the Web, it’s got to extend itself…beyond itself. The Internet demands extroversion.
For Politico, in particular, pickup involves not only the typical Web formula—garnering links (“It’s not content until it’s linked,” Jeff Jarvis says) and getting re-published on high-traffic aggregation platforms like the HuffPost and Drudge—but also moving beyond the Web. It involves parachuting, to mix a metaphor, into that Holy Grail of journalistic influence: TV. “Politico writers and editors are masters of knowing what will make prime time,” Sherman writes. And, per his portrayal, making it to cable—the Great White shark in the journalistic food chain—is the end goal of impact for Politico. In that, the outlet is expanding the definition of “impact” to encompass not just its stories, but also its journalists.