On Thursday afternoon, I visited The Politco’s RNC workspace, a long carpeted convention ballroom they shared with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Half a dozen near-empty boxes of coffee sat on a bare buffet table, and 15 or so journalists worked on laptops set up on cluttered folding tables. John Harris, who, along with Jim VandeHei, left his job at the Washington Post to become a founding editor of The Politico, joined me on a coach in a makeshift, black draped, television studio in the front of the room to talk about the politics-obsessed hybrid-paper’s convention success and its plans for the future.
CJR: How many people did Politico bring to the conventions?
John Harris: Thirty or so. Now, not all those thirty are editorial. We’ve got some people doing administrative, technical, logistical stuff. We came on pretty strong with editors and reporters.
CJR: I know this is Politico’s first convention. How many do you have under your belt at this point?
JH: One in ’92, on in ‘96, two in 2000, two in 2004.
CJR: Six. So you’ve got a baseline for comparison. What’s so different now, especially vis a vis what Politico is doing.
JH: Even in 2004, when I was at the Post, and obviously the Web existed then, and blogs existed then, but they were at the margins of the news report. People were not organizing their day around questions like what’s the morning lede, how do we freshen things up for the afternoon, what’s new on our blog. Jim VandeHei and I started Politco in part because we thought that it was important that newsrooms organize themselves around the Web as a primary goal, rather than as a secondary goal around the print edition.
When I left the Post, and it’s been two years now, and I mean this with no disrespect to them, for all they talked about how important the Web was to their future they were organized around the imperatives of the print edition, and organized around the rhythms of the same sort of twenty-four-hour news cycle that existed as much in 1975 as in 2005 or 2008. That may be different there. Things probably have changed a lot.
But for us, it’s not just bullshit. It’s not just a talking point. We do think of ourselves as organized around the Web. That’s different.
And I think also, this has been a big branding opportunity for us. We’ve been putting on these panel discussions in the morning. I’m glad we did, they’ve been picked up on C-Span, and we’ve written new stories off of them. But they’re a lot of work to organize them, to make sure they don’t flop. They do start at 8:30 and we are writing stories off of them, so it is like our news cycle starts at eight and goes ‘till midnight. And that is different than at any of the other conventions that I’ve been to. I’m not complaining. It’s fun to have stuff to do. But it is different than what it used to be—just kind of messing around for much of the day.
CJR: And there’s no down time now.
JH: There’s not.
CJR: And this year it was two straight weeks.
JH: That was a real hassle. You know? People are away from their families. I went home very briefly, but most of our people did not.
CJR: How did you prepare defiantly for the convention than you would have for a heavy news week on the campaign?
JH: I don’t know that it would be radically different than how I would have prepared when I was national politics editor of the Washington Post. You try to think ahead, and get as much enterprise in the pipeline as you can, without ending up being tyrannized by the enterprise—that’s always one kind of problem among editors. You have such a list of stories, and you’ve thought it through so well, so you can’t hop really quickly on some new narrative, or something that’s really interesting. And I do think that’s the key to driving the conversation in the modern media environment. You have to be really willing to move quickly, to react to news, to try to get ahead of news.
At this point, a producer of Lou Dobbs’s radio show gets Harris on the line for a live ten-minute interview. Just before our interview started, a local camera crew popped in to shoot a short tour of the Politico’s St. Paul workspace.
CJR: Do you keep track of all these requests yourself?