Talking Shop: John Harris

Politico editor dishes on his paper's past, present, and future

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?

JH: No, no, no, no. Kim Kingsley [Politco’s media director] does that. And she’s got a deputy. She’s really, really, important to what we did. She worked with us over at the Washington Post and she was like a booker over there. And we brought her with us. And she represents one thing about Politico that I’m very, very, proud of. She had a narrowly defined position over at the Washington Post. She was the deputy of the team of people that was in charge of getting Washington Post reporters on the air. So she’d build up relationships with cable bookers and the hosts of call-in radio shows, and say “Hey, do you want Dan Balz,” or we’ll put John Harris on MSNBC, or whatever. That was important to us because we knew that we were starting a new publication and we really needed to get people out and promoting it. But she does so much more than that for us. We’ve done three presidential debates, and she was our key person organizing those. She’s heavily involved with the partnerships we’ve done with the Denver Post, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Yahoo!. She’s only twenty-eight, maybe twenty-nine, but at a big place like the Post there’s no way she could be in a senior position. Here, it’s not her title, but she’s effectively a deputy publisher.

CJR: How much of your time do you find going to that sort of stuff?

JH: It depends what you mean by “my time.” My personal time, as a journalist, I don’t spend that much time. There are people like Mike Allen, who are constantly on TV, who are constantly thinking that the story doesn’t matter unless you can get it in front of people, by going on TV, by making sure that the Web sites that drive a lot of traffic are linking to it.

But in terms of my time as I’m trying to position the publication and make sure that we’ve got a good robust place in the market, I think about it a lot. That’s one of the main things I do. Jim VandeHei and I are the editors, but we probably spend at least probably half our time doing things that would be almost more like what a publisher does at a normal publication. We don’t get involved in trying to sell—we still have a very traditional line in that respect—but in other respects, “How can we do a partnership with Yahoo!, what kind of event can we do to attract attention…” I spend a lot of time doing that.

CJR: The partnerships with The Denver Post and the Pioneer Press: What is actually being done there?

JH: It builds on something we did right when we launched. We set up partnerships with the four early state primary papers: The Des Moines Register, the Manchester Union Leader, The State, and the Las Vegas Sun. That was mostly just based on relationships we had with editors and reporters there. We would give them access to our content, and we’d take some of theirs, less frequently, but occasionally, and we were happy to have it.

CJR: Were you paying them, or were they paying you, or was it an even trade?

JH: That we did with no contracts, or anything written. It was just done over the phone. There was no exchange of money, nothing. It was good for us because we’re a brand new publication—now we’re more established, and all the campaigns know us and are accustomed to dealing with us—but at that point, say you’re with one of the campaigns and you get a call from The Politico, but you also know that story might be on the front page of the Manchester paper, which is all they’re obsessing about. You’re going to pay attention. Those worked well for 2007 and the early part of 2008.

With the conventions, we decided to build on that. Our partnership is editorial. They take our stories and they can use them in the paper, which is a good deal for us because everybody sees the hometown paper during the conventions. We think—and they must agree, because they went along with it—that it’s a good deal for them. Because the conventions coming to town is the equivalent of the Super Bowl, but most of these papers have a great local staff, but they’re not really well equipped to cover national politics. So since that’s all we do, it gave them a better editorial report to share with readers.

On the business side, we did strike an arrangement where we could sell into their pages. So our business side was able to go to our advertisers, most of whom were Washington based, and say, “Look, everyone’s going to be out there at the convention, and you’re going to want to get your message out.”

CJR: With some money going to Politico and some going to that hometown paper?

JH: Correct. So for me, I was excited about it because I thought it was a really good platform for our reporting. From our publisher Rob Allbritton’s perspective, it made us some money..

CJR: What happens on November 5? What does Politico do when we’re not in the throes of this intensely watched election season?

JH: Obviously, we think a lot about that. And we’ve got some good answers that are going to carry our strategy for the next year. First some context though: We like the fact that we get a lot of traffic. It’s kind of a parlor game that we have around here. Like each month, we guess what we are going to get. In those Editor & Publisher rankings that come out based on Nielsen numbers, we’ve been as high as number ten.

CJR: Which is pretty great for a paper that didn’t exist two years ago.

JH: Yeah. We’re the only new paper on that list, and the only specialty paper. The others were either national newspapers or major metropolitan newspapers. We like that. But neither our editorial model nor our business model was ever based on that big sort of average.

I think of our audience as concentric circles. The smallest circle, but right at the center of what we are doing, is that we need to be must-read in Washington, among the community of people there that really cares a lot about politics and government, and most of them care about it for a living, and not just as a hobby or a side interest. So being key and being essential reading to that group is more important to us than that outer ring, as much as we like the outer ring. In terms of our traffic, we are riding a pretty cool election year wave, but we’re not riding that wave as part of our strategy. That’s the first thing.

The second is that I don’t really know what will happen to our national readership next year, but my strong hunch is that it doesn’t really contract much, and there’s a pretty good chance it’ll grow. I can’t see any outcome of this election that is uninteresting, where people won’t be intensely focused on a new president and a new administration, a new agenda in Washington. I think that’s true if it’s McCain or Obama.

So what are we going to do next year? We’re going to take the basic editorial approach that has always allowed us to have a big impact in a hurry in the presidential campaign, and we’re going to take that same approach, and most of the same people, and turn it to a new White House.

CJR: Are you anticipating that you’re going to be able to keep your full staff?

JH: Yeah. I think that we’ll have as impressive a White House team as any publication has ever had: brand name reporters like Mike Allen, Ben Smith, Jonathan Martin, Jeanne Cummings, though she’ll probably do some policy reporting and some White House… There’s going to be a lot of very good reporters covering a very big story, and that’s a good combo.

CJR: Martin and Smith are two of my very top reads every day, and I’m sure that’s true of many political journalists today. They very often will use their blogs to promo stuff on the site, sometimes things they’ve written, sometimes stuff other people have written. Do you have a sense of how much traffic that drives in?

JH: That’d be easy to quantify with precision. I’ve never bothered. This will sound wrong or naive, but we never have either one of them link to our stuff. They just do it based on what they think is interesting. Occasionally, when I write something, I’ll send it them and ask “How about a link for the boss,” which is usually enough to generate one. But those guys are not part of our link strategy. We do have a link strategy. I know the sites that drive the most traffic for us, and we try to optimize it.

CJR: What are they? Give me a couple.

JH: Here’s a half dozen. These aren’t ranked. Yahoo. Google. Drudge. Real Clear Politics. Huffington Post.

CJR: But you guys are highly trafficked enough that people will find stuff on their own. There are a lot of places that won’t get any attention on their own, but you guys are far beyond that, I would guess.

JH: We weren’t at the beginning. But I think we are now. We now get, and this isn’t precise, about half our traffic coming to us directly, and half coming to us different ways. It used to be like ten/ninety. And the total number has grown a lot, which is good, but the proportion has changed too. We’re never going to stop pushing for a good story to have an impact, but now were a little less dependent.

CJR: Are you able to get decent traffic to pieces that are over 1,500-2,000 words, or are you mostly a small bites kind of place?

JH: Roger Simon did a very long reconstruction of the primaries. That had a good audience, and had a good impact. And that was 20,000 words. So it doesn’t make me disconsolate about the possibilities for long form journalism on the Web. I definitely think that you need to be more selective about when you make those big investments than we might have been in a earlier era. That’s very rare for us to do something so long. It’s not so rare for us to do something that’s 2,000, which is pretty long. And those stories can pop. Whether they pop or not is almost all based on what the top says—not how long they are.

CJR: Here you are in the last day of the convention. Looking back over the last two weeks, what’s gone well, and what would you maybe do again or tackle differently?

JH: Well, I feel like at both conventions we’ve been sort of ahead of the conversation in terms of what people are thinking about. It was right before the convention that Mike Allen and Martin did a conversation with McCain on how many houses he had, which obviously generated a lot of attention. Mike—and I was helping on some of these—was doing a lot of reporting on what was the state of play between the Clintons and the Obama campaign. Those two sides were sort of warily circling each other, and we were ahead on that. Some of the enterprise we produced for St. Paul and Denver, including David Rogers, who is one of our congressional reporters and has been up on the hill for thirty-five years. He took a buy out from The Wall Street Journal. He’s a really, really, talented guy and I think he comes as close as anyone to being the dean up there. He’s written big pieces on McCain, wrote a big piece on Senator Kennedy the night he spoke to the convention at Denver. There’s not really anybody you’d rather read on those topics. So I’ve been proud of that. And I’m always really proud of the way that Ben and J-Mart tend to keep things popping.

In terms of what I would do differently, well, we’re really new at this. Pulling this off, doing our panels—we did eight of those—the logistics of producing stories or working with our partners was all highly improvisational. It’s our nature as a start up that it’s a white-knuckle ride. We always finish a project and are ready to crash in a heap, except for that we can’t because we’ve always got something else going on. I want to collapse in a heap now, but we can’t because we’ve got to keep things going through the general election, and I’ll want to collapse in a heap then, except we can’t because it’ll be a transition. Jim and I, and our other top editors, would like to be more methodical and less white knuckled. We’re actually much better than we were when we started.

It’s just a matter of experience. None of the people who run Politico on the editorial side have equivalent experience at their other publications. I was national politics editor at the Post, but I’d only done that a year and a half or so. Otherwise I’d been a reporter, and that job is not remotely like this one in terms of the range of responsibilities that I’ve got here, or the number of people who report to me here. Jim had no managerial experience. Bill Nichols, our managing editor, was a reporter at USA Today, not an editor. Danielle Jones, our Web editor, she had worked at Hotline and run Hotline, so she had had some managerial experience, but not totally equivalent.

The intensity is now just a fact of life. That’s going to change only to become more intense, not less so. I don’t want the publication to be anything other than really scrappy, always looking for new ways to drive the conversation. But you can be scrappy and hungry in more organized ways. We used to clear the top of the mountain by six inches, and now we clear it by six feet. That’s still kinda close!

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.