Politico Junkies

Where's the line between selling yourself and selling out?

“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.

Politico isn’t the only publication to personalize pickup, of course. Nor is it, by any means, the first to define journalistic success according to impact. (Indeed, for journalists, what better metric is there?) What’s striking about Politico, however, and what’s distinctive about it, is the sheer audacity of its pretensions to influence. Sherman describes “the motto around the Politico newsroom”: “to ‘win the morning, win the afternoon’—by which editors mean that Politico’s stories need to be the most talked-about and cited in that day’s news cycle.” Fair enough—again, impact, great—but then, compare that motto to, say, The New York Times’s “all the news that’s fit to print.” It’s not a direct parallel—the space between “official” and “unofficial” is notoriously vast—but, still, it’s remarkable how different the two general approaches are. One outlet defines its mission as printing the news; the other defines its mission as getting talked about. One defines success as being comprehensive in its newsgathering; the other defines it as beating the other guys. With “beating” them meaning not just “doing a better job at newsgathering,” but also—more so?—“getting more exposure than they do.”

From one angle, Politico’s popularity-uber-alles attitude is callous and covetous and, in some ways, symptomatic of a strange strain of journalistic relativism. (There’s a point at which judging yourself based on how much attention others give you seems less suited to Beltway journalism and more suited to seventh grade.) From another, though, Politico’s publicity-mindedness is not only eminently pragmatic; it’s also blissfully free of the self-referential self-importance that has, for so long, plagued the newsrooms of the so-called legacy media. (Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei “believed traditional journalism was often complacent and self-important,” Sherman notes; their publication was intended, to some degree, to offer an antidote to that.) News organizations are businesses, after all—their products, commodities—and Allbritton, to return to Politico’s publisher, is right that there’s nothing wrong with publicity on its face.

He’s also right, however, in the qualification he appends to his formulation: that there’s nothing wrong with publicity if the journalism it seeks to publicize is good. The value-of-publicity question is an open one—in Sherman’s piece, and in general—because, in its broad framing, it simply can’t be answered. Publicity defies normative pronouncements; and it does so because its value—both ethically and pragmatically—is completely contingent on what predicates it. It exists only in relation to its object. And the same may be said of news outlets. No longer can publications—in print, and especially online—afford to be inward-looking, no longer can they afford to see themselves as self-contained. Politico’s spotlight-seeking, say what else you will about it, takes for granted a reality that other, older publications have been all too slow in realizing: that they’re not, and can’t be—and, therefore, shouldn’t try to be—ends in themselves. Spotlights can always be shared.

Update: More on the Politico flap.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.