Politico Junkies, Part II

The Mike Allen memo and the state of the journalistic brand

It’s tempting to frame the debate between Bill Keller and John Harris—yep, the exchange provoked by Gabe Sherman’s much-discussed treatment of Politico in The New Republic, the exchange whose content was surprisingly and almost amusingly acerbic—in fairly epic terms. Institution versus upstart, old media versus new, pedigreed DNA versus hybrid vigor…et cetera.

To wit, the substance of that debate:

Harris: We are not the AP or The New York Times. … If we ONLY do what those two great organizations do, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE AND WE WON’T HAVE JOBS.

Keller: Politico has focused on an inside game. I’m not sure if it translates to an outside game. I’m not sure how they get scale, and, if they don’t, I’m not sure what the business model is.

Harris: I greatly admire Bill Keller and the New York Times, but I was not really surprised by the shots he took at Politico. The truth is we have placed starkly different bets about the future of the news media and what type of journalistic and business models will prosper in the years ahead.

Keller: So you’re saying the Times won’t prosper?

Harris: Read my lips, Billy. Game on.

Keller: John, I don’t understand. Why are you being so mean?

Harris: What are you talking about? I said I greatly admired you, didn’t I?

Keller [groaning, and waving a copy of the Times]: But, you…I mean…ugh, Politico sucks!

Harris [brandishing his BlackBerry]: No, the Times sucks!

[They proceed to engage in a slapping fight. Nobody wins.]

So, okay…that was basically how the debate went. A bit of artistic license is in order, I think, not only because of the rather dramatic manner in which the debate escalated—from Keller questioning Politico’s business model and Mike Allen’s caps-happy “Playbook” emails, to Harris’s fairly trenchant notation “that Politico stories have been cited by the Times, in its paper version, on more than 100 occasions suggests we may be doing something right”—but also because both editors are themselves engaging in such license. Keller and Harris, in their debate, are trafficking in both aggrandizement and reduction. Of themselves…and of each other.

Take Politico itself, the “hybrid” that doubles, per many accounts, as The Future of Newspapers. On the one hand, the outlet’s Gossip Girl sensibilities and Drudge-tastic trajectories are of dubious merit. On the other hand, though, Politico’s obsessive chronicling of Washington provides aggregate value, if for no other reason than the sunlight principle. And the outlet, to be fair, provides much more than Washington gossip. Politico stands not just despite its identity as a house divided, but because of it: though Sherman’s piece broadly focuses on Politico’s tabloid tastes, those by no means characterize all—or even the majority—of the journalism the outlet produces. “I think that there are actually two Politicos,” Greg Sargent wrote this morning.

There’s the good Politico, which offers big-picture, reported pieces that genuinely change the conversation, and boasts bloggers who regularly offer useful info and valuable insights. The good Politico is doing a better job of using Web-based journalistic techniques in a “non-ideological” setting than the Times. The other Politico does, in fact, play the “inside game” in unsightly ways. It fetishizes Drudge and consciously strives to break the kind of catty gossip that will reverberate inside the cable bubble.

Agreed. Only I’d say that there are even more than two Politicos. That there are, in fact, myriad Politicos: there’s reporting-on-Congressional-legislation Politico; there’s gossip-item Politico; there’s reporting-on-the-media Politico; there’s political-commentary Politico; there’s blog Politico; there’s video Politico…et cetera. In some ways, there are as many Politicos as there are Politico products. And even if that’s taking it too far…the fact remains that “The Politico” as a rhetorical entity—as a term in a broader cultural conversation—is both overly expansive and overly reductive to be of any real value. As is, as a rhetorical entity, “The Times.” On the business side, sure, we can fairly group the varied components comprising a news organization together; as things now stand, to borrow from a journalistic truism, the Times’s civic-minded journalism and its Style section will rise and fall together. But when it comes to discussion of the editorial content of Politico versus that of the Times (and, indeed, even finance-focused discussions must take the editorial side into account), reductive binaries are no more helpful than they are in any other context.

The problem isn’t merely one of rhetoric, though. It’s also, and more so, a problem of what the rhetoric represents. Because at issue in the Politico discussion is the broader nature—and, within that, the evolution—of the journalistic brand itself. Politico provides, among other things, a convenient case study in the market trajectories of online news. And its lesson is both something that we knew already (and if we didn’t, it was something we could easily infer from the annals of journalistic history) and something that’s valuable to remember nonetheless: that online journalism, left to its own devices, trends toward the linkable. And, relatedly, that the cold, hard currency of Web-based media is the click.

Politico is, to some extent, an exception that proves the rule. Despite its print-product underwriting—print ads (many from government contractors, lobbyists, and other groups whose job involves shaping the opinions of opinion leaders) essentially finance the whole operation—Politico’s business model is based, fundamentally, on clicks. And on their rather more questionable corollary: clickability. (As Allen puts it in his memo, “Stories need to be both interesting and illuminating—we don’t have the luxury of running stories folks won’t click on or spend several minutes with in the paper.”) The hybrid paper takes for granted the fluidity of influence: pickups on Drudge and appearances on cable solidify the prestige of the Politico brand, which in turn attracts advertisers for the print product, which in turn funds the stories that get posted online, which in turn get picked up by Drudge, which in turn leads to cable appearances. The circle of life, and all.

In that sense, Politico’s case study provides evidence of the increasing power of the journalistic brand. Not only is consumer trust—the core component of branding—all the more valuable the more crowded the media market becomes, but brand cachet also becomes increasingly important in terms of elevating individual stories and journalists into the news media’s echelons (those being, currently, a spot on Drudge or the HuffPost or what have you, or, if you’re really lucky, at Meet the Press’s not-so-round table).

On the other hand, though, Politico’s Darwinistic fervor suggests the broader realities of our current, crowded media environment: that, when you’re in the midst of a free-for-all, branding becomes largely irrelevant. A click currency means that individual stories, rather than holistic publications, are the entities that matter online. Whether a story is housed on the Times’s Web site or on Politico’s doesn’t much matter when that story is headlining Drudge—or, for that matter, when that story is linked anywhere else. It’s the click that matters. And the click, in that sense, supersedes an outlet’s brand. In the link economy’s flattened marketplace, the where of stories—the site on which they’re initially published—is increasingly meaningless; it’s the what of stories that has value. And that value means that journalistic branding is at once more important, and more irrelevant, than ever.

Politico’s business model recognizes that paradox—and exploits it. And, you know, fair enough. If Politico had some kind of implicit monopoly on the news, that’d be a problem. But: it doesn’t. And even if it did, it’d be a monopoly of consumer choice rather than consumer coercion: Politico is doing well not just because of its varied strains of tabloid mentality and Drudge kiss-up-ery…but also because people simply like the journalism it’s producing. Sure, we can’t fairly deem the majority of what Politico produces—and then strenuously publicizes—each day to be “journalism in the public service.” But, then, much of what the Times produces isn’t public-service journalism, either. (Yes, I am looking at you, Stupid Thursday Styles Trend Story.) And that’s fine—because some of the journalism the Times produces serves the civic interest. And also because we have the Post and ProPublica and TPM and all the rest producing such journalism, as well. Which isn’t to say that we have enough of it—the ratio of schlock to quality is frighteningly high—but it is to say that even the worst-case scenario when it comes to Politico—the outlet’s proving to be, you know, A Scourge to Political Journalism—doesn’t pose much of a threat to the public interest in the aggregate.

But, again: In the aggregate. As I wrote earlier, when it comes to much of our discussion about The Future of News, we need to get out of the individual mentality and into the collective one. News consumers certainly don’t limit themselves to reading one publication—far from it—yet too often news outlets’ publishers and editors operate as if they feel a compulsion to be everything to everyone, rather than a really good something to some select someones. In proving the value of the niche—and in reiterating hyperlocal journalism’s tendency to thrive when applied not just to geographical areas, but to ideas, as well—Politico’s case study also suggests the reflexive value of collectivity. Politico may be on its way to becoming the Wal-Mart of political journalism; if it continues on that path, we’ll all have to adjust. Collectively. We’re in this together—and our discourse should reflect that.

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