“I said, ‘I want to do this,’” Benjamin remembers telling her editors. And while it was “like pulling teeth” at first, Rex Smith gave her the green light to launch Capitol Confidential in early 2006. Benjamin immediately loved the format. “I love reporting and blogging lends itself to that,” she says. “And I’m sort of a frenetic person and the pace of the blog is frenetic, so that works pretty well for me. It’s a quick hit and you get it out.”
Bob Port, who joined the Times Union as senior editor of investigations in 2007, kept an eye on Benjamin’s statistics in the early days. “She amassed such a huge audience in such a short time—there were about 10,000 uniques on the web reading her blog—it dwarfed anything else we were doing,” he says. It was the result of hard work. “She would feed stuff into it day and night. The rest of us were at home, drinking coffee, trying to wake up, and Liz would be on her computer filing news.”
Capitol Confidential quickly became the first-read for political junkies across the state. In 2007, the Daily News poached Benjamin to take over the blog Ben Smith had gone on to start there, The Daily Politics (until this month, she also wrote a Monday column for the paper). Some say she eclipsed the blog’s founder. “I think she set the standard and defined political blogging in New York state,” says Rex Smith, who was sad to see her leave the Times Union. “With all respect to Ben, I think Liz really brought the political blog to fruition. Now, everybody has one.”
Benjamin’s latest blog, The State Of Politics, had a slow start on Capital Tonight’s website when she moved to the show in April. Faithful readers followed while others took time adjusting to Benjamin’s multimedia move. But the blog—featuring video from the program and contributions from Capital Tonight’s reporters and producers—soon picked up steam. In September, for instance, the site’s servers crashed when Benjamin posted video of an altercation between Carl Paladino and Dicker that Capital Tonight reporter Kaitlyn Ross caught on her cell phone.
State of Politics, like many political blogs, specializes in legislative musical chairs and horse-race snapshots of particular political moments: the moment Andrew Cuomo jumps in a poll, the moment Carl Paladino accosts a reporter, the moment X refuses to endorse Y, the moment Y is replaced by Z. It’s aimed at political junkies, and its sharp, informed, and sometimes comic tone has proven addictive.
It helps that Benjamin—the daughter of noted SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin—is something of a political Wikipedia. “I remember a lot of arcane political stuff,” she told me casually the day I visited at YNN. “Who defeated whom, who’s giving money to whom, who screwed whom, politically speaking.”
“She knows a lot of people and they trust her,” says Ken Lovett, Benjamin’s onetime co-worker as bureau chief for the Daily News. “She knows people from the unions to the political insiders. She’s a political junkie and she’s very good at it.”
Benjamin’s famed Rolodex has proven an asset in her TV role at Capital Tonight—she often books guests directly herself, taking to her BlackBerry to coax the state’s leaders into an appearance at YNN’s Albany headquarters or to a satellite studio to be beamed in for an interrogation. The Capital Tonight office is adorned with political signs and posters for guests past—“Carl Country,” “Lazio/Edwards,” plus a David Paterson bobblehead, which Benjamin says predates her. A huge whiteboard, ruled-up as a calendar, shows who’s coming up today: Carl Paladino, Roger Stone, and Harry Wilson.
Why TV now? I ask, when she finally pauses after a blur of activity—phone calls, two recorded TV interviews, several blog posts—to notice I’m there. Her answer is characteristically blunt. “TV’s still the best way to reach people and newspapers are not,” she says looking every bit the anchor in a fitting brown patterned dress and slick primetime-ready bob—she had her long curly hair colored, straightened, and chopped when she got the new gig. Has her newspaper past helped her adapt? I ask. “There are two kinds of people in political TV news: people who started there, and the people who are the print journalists. The print journalists are a thousand times better. They have the context, they can break the news, and they can do reporting.”