Thirty-five-year-old Ben Smith reports on national politics for Politico from a rent-a-desk writers’ workspace on the first floor of a blue Victorian house in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. While Smith’s widely read blog at Politico bears the tag line, “A running conversation about politics,” the well-sourced, web-savvy Smith seems, at times, to be running the conversation about politics. His scoops have ranged from the splashy (presidential candidate John Edwards’s $400 haircuts, discovered in a 2007 campaign finance report) to the more substantial (the Giuliani administration having billed to obscure mayoral offices travel and security expenses from Giuliani’s visits to his mistress, uncovered in 2007 through New York’s Freedom of Information Law). Smith’s blog, arguably the most influential reported political blog out there, is a go-to place for campaign news, as well as coverage of Smith’s pet “mini-beats,” labor and Jewish politics. Prior to joining Politico just before its 2007 launch, Smith wrote a political column for the New York Daily News. He has also worked for the New York Sun, The New York Observer, and The Wall Street Journal Europe, and started three blogs about New York politics and a fourth, with his wife, about Ditmas Park. CJR’s Liz Cox Barrett interviewed Smith in Brooklyn last summer.
A Scoop a Day
At Politico there’s this win-the-morning ethos. Mike Allen, he wins the morning. There is, in fact, no point in competing with him in attempting to win the morning. So my view is, I actually try to win the, sort of, late morning or early afternoon.
The best part of my sourcing and my reporting is I get a ton of e-mail from both the official sources (the press secretaries and politicians whose job it is to play the game by giving tips to bloggers like me), but also from this other universe of smart, interested people who read everything and read my blog and feel like they’re having a conversation with me. That often turns into very official pieces about campaign fundraising or about what some politician is doing with some policy. It very often kind of bubbles up from the interests of readers, which is the really fun part of the reporting I do.
People talk about the immediacy of online reporting and that’s definitely what that means to me. You really know who you’re writing for; you know the names of who you’re writing for and what they do for a living. When I started, I was a stringer for The Wall Street Journal in Eastern Europe. I worked for the New York Sun. I worked for The New York Observer. They were very traditional, broadsheet journalism which is really fun, but at its worst it was an academic exercise to sort of create a reverse-pyramid-shaped document that had to fit a certain template, a certain space in the paper. I remember faxing stories to sources to ensure that they would read them. But you really often had very little sense of who was reading.
Having read blogs through the 2004 campaign, I saw there was not a New York-focused one so I started one at the Observer, The Politicker. I figured if I had fifty or a hundred readers—even ten readers—if they were the right readers, that would be great. When I was an intern at The Jewish Daily Forward, my first job in journalism, the joke was always, “What’s your circulation?” And it was, “Well, it’s two old Jews. But it’s the right two Jews.” And I always thought that was sort of a good model. If you have the right two Jews reading you, everyone else kind of has to read you. And pretty soon I could see on the Politicker tracker that I had fifty and then a hundred people reading and that was pretty amazing. Because I knew who they were; they were my sources. I was in this conversation with them, which is very satisfying.
In a way the New York Sun was great training. [Sun editor] Seth [Lipsky] had me filing like five stories a day; they were sort of like blog items. I would make calls and calls and calls. He had this great sense of the power of reporting, and that you weren’t just a foreign correspondent writing about something, you were much more an active player, of necessity, if you were doing it well. Political reporting is like that no matter what; the press is so much part of the fabric, more than other beats. Lipsky once told me when he was mad that I had an instinct for the capillaries. I’ve been trying since then to not have an instinct for the capillaries.