As evidence for this proposition, Pexton cites “the readers who write to [him] by the score every day,” demanding a more populist approach to news. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those appeals. But one of the basic unfortunate insights of political research is that most people have better things to do than think about politics. The intense, and growing, demand for political information comes disproportionately from the “power elite” and an expanding class of political professionals. And while the popular audience is growing too, citizens who want to read about politics every day are more likely to be partisans than populists—and they may in some ways value Beltway-oriented coverage, which allows them to, in effect, listen in on insider conversation.
The contemporary newsroom that most closely resembles what Pexton calls for is probably ProPublica, which eschews inside-the-Beltway drama for investigations and accountability reporting. Along with its various publishing partners, ProPublica has produced many stories—on troubled mortgage modification programs, on tainted drywall, on environmental dangers, and more—that hold government (and big business) to account on behalf of the public. It’s a terrific record, and these stories no doubt connected powerfully with the ordinary people who were directly affected. But news organizations need to cultivate a regular, recurring readership, and ProPublica reportedly draws about 300,000 monthly unique visitors—not bad, but about a tenth of the traffic generated by Beltway-obsessed Politico. And its impressive reporting team, of course, is underwritten by generous philanthropy.
Maybe ProPublica is too investigations-heavy, too focused on specific issues, for a mass audience? Well, then the best analogue to what Pexton seeks might be the original reporting at The Huffington Post, which, setting aside its ideological orientation, captures some of the scrappy, populist approach he describes. (I’m thinking especially of Arthur Delaney’s tireless reporting on economic policy.) HuffPo, of course, has never suffered for readers, it doesn’t rely on wealthy donors, and it doesn’t charge a dime for its reporting. But that mass readership—which produces relatively modest revenues—has been built through hyper-aggressive aggregation and SEO strategies, a healthy heaping of tabloid material, and an unabashed liberal perspective. This is not a model that’s available to the Post.
The point is not at all to diminish ProPublica or the reporting team at HuffPo, each of which are very valuable additions to the political journalism world. Nor is it to diminish the important values expressed in Pexton’s column.
Rather, it’s to remind earnest media critics that there is a compelling logic to the Post’s current approach, which is to serve, in a nonpartisan way, an audience that already wants to consume a lot of news about politics. Pexton’s vision of high-quality, populist (but nonpartisan) political reporting, by contrast, depends on creating a mass audience by convincing people to consume a lot of news about politics. It’s a noble task, one that I’d be thrilled to see a major outlet take on. But it’s also a daunting one.