ARLINGTON, VA, 2014—The quirky assignment handed down by CJR’s editors—to imagine the future as though observing the past—brings to mind an old joke about the man who went to a psychologist complaining of strange dreams.
One night, he woke up having dreamed that he had turned into a teepee. The next night’s dream was even more vivid: He had turned into a wigwam. The psychologist furrowed his brow. Then he announced: “I have figured it out. You are two tents!”
As the editor and a co-founder of Politico, I am not too tense. Since our publication launched online and in print in January 2007, we have prospered far beyond our early expectations. Fueled by intense interest in the 2008 presidential campaign, our traffic soared and we were regularly in the top dozen of Editor & Publisher’s monthly listing of most-trafficked newspaper Web sites. Politico is growing by every measure that counts to me: newsroom size, traffic, ad revenue, journalistic reputation, and impact. Our strategy is to be in the top tier of news organizations covering Washington and national politics, and to do so as a self-sustaining, profit-generating business.
But this doesn’t mean I sleep well. Like the man in the joke, I have anxiety dreams of my own. My visions of the future-past can be pleasant at times, and quite unsettling at others.
Let me take you inside my own version of Two Tents.
It is five years from now, early 2014, and Politico is a major player in the media covering Obama’s second term. From this vantage point, the fears and turmoil that beset the industry in 2008 and 2009 seem distant, even a little overwrought. Yes, there was agonizing retrenchment at many news organizations, but it was matched by impressive growth at other places.
Journalism is thriving in ways that only the most bullish—and seemingly Pollyannaish—voices were predicting five years ago. As some of the brashest bulls, those of us at Politico take particular satisfaction that we are among the success stories. We proved that niche publications, producing highly focused journalism for an audience with intense interest in particular subjects, can achieve the same ends—both editorially and financially—that in the past were the sole province of a handful of big newspapers and broadcast networks.
Politico is making money from advertisers who know we are read closely in Washington and by a politically sophisticated audience around the country and the world. We have a staff of eighty reporters and editors, roughly the size of The New York Times’s Washington bureau during its glory days.
We do not have a network of reporters around the world; other publications have sprung up to meet that need. But that does not mean we don’t leave the newsroom. We spent millions on travel over the past five years. What’s more, in the old days, a lot of travel money got wasted—by reporters who wrote maybe one story, buried deep in the paper, after a week on the road. Since our audience is just like we are—political junkies all—they have limitless appetite for our stories. I’ll confess that I had been a skeptic of the craze for multimedia, but it turns out that our video dispatches from the road have been wildly popular. Our daily Web TV program started out a little cheesy, perhaps, but damned if it does not routinely get two hundred thousand viewers a day.
More important, our success as a business means we have the freedom to do longer, investigative and narrative work, rather than just chase the story of the day and the traffic that comes with it. Some people once believed that there would be no market for this kind of work in the new-media world, but our publisher, Robert Allbritton, bet against them, and he was right.
A lot of what people once feared, in fact, turned out not to be true. The media world that I grew up in, from the day I arrived as a summer intern at The Washington Post in 1985 at age twenty-one, is gone and I was very sorry to see it go. But it turned out the sky was not falling. The sun was rising.
It’s 2014, Obama is in his second term, and Politico is still here and managing to pay our bills—more than a lot of once-great news organizations can say. But I can’t say I’m having a hell of a lot of fun. And the ability to have fun and have an impact at the same time was the reason I got into this business.
In retrospect, we probably were too cocky for our own good. We had such a good run in 2007 and 2008 that we assumed that growth and success would keep flowing. We did not appreciate that the same trend that made Politico possible in the first place—the massive fluidity and fragmentation of the news business—could cut the other way.
But the fragmentation never stopped. Now Politico is seeing its audience and ad market sliced up in the same way that battered the big legacy publications.
I also never would have guessed that the economy would stay in the dumps for five years. And the rates advertisers are paying for Web impressions are still pathetic. I hate to say it, but the Cassandras were right.
And it wasn’t just some amorphous “bad environment” that put us in this position. We lost some of our edge. I well knew the hazards of newsroom culture—complacency and blah, addiction to outdated habits and bureaucratic routines. I had seen how this had dulled creativity during my years at The Washington Post, a newspaper I love. What stunned me was how quickly bad habits could develop at a new enterprise, or how hard they are to root out.
How’s Politico doing in 2014? We are doing fine by most measures. But doing fine is not good enough. Constant innovation and clear thinking are the only salvation for the media in this chaotic new age.
I’d like to depart from CJR’s clever device and speak from the real-life perspective of 2009, not the imagined one of 2014. Politico was founded two years ago with a couple of distinct ideas in mind.
The first was that in this crowded media environment, journalists are not commodities. The best journalists have distinctive strengths, with a disproportionate ability to have impact and drive conversation. In a Web era, these journalists have in many cases built their own franchises. This is different from earlier generations, when the most important factor behind a reporter’s influence was his or her institutional platform. It is an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one. Politico seeks to take advantage of this trend by assembling a roster of journalists with a demonstrated ability to thrive on the Web, and then helping them build their franchises. This is an expensive model, but it has paid dividends for us in public profile, audience growth, and, yes, advertising dollars.
The second idea on which Politico is based is that today’s niche publications have certain intrinsic advantages in their business models—advantages that are amplified by the Web. Legacy news organizations typically had business models that thrived on inefficiency. Perhaps only 1 percent of The Washington Post readership, for instance, is looking at any moment to buy a car. But car dealers paid handsomely to reach 100 percent of them.
Politico is different. We basically cover four related subjects: Congress, the White House, the Washington lobbying and influence industry, and national politics. No one is coming to our site for Washington Redskins news, or Fairfax County crime news. That means we are able to cover our areas of expertise much more intensively. And it means that advertisers know precisely—with a high degree of efficiency—who they are reaching on our site. If you want to reach sports fans, talk to ESPN.com. If you want to reach an educated and affluent demographic that cares intensely about national and civic affairs, talk to Politico.
What we have done at Politico has been relevant to the conversation about where journalism is going. But by no means do I believe that we have cracked the code on the awesome challenges facing our profession. Both of the time-travel flights I sketched above contain elements of my real-life perspective. I am bullish on the future of journalism, and think the pessimists are not just a drag, but in their own way, naïve. I also think that complacency is a curse, and that constant innovation is indeed the only remedy.
So there is no rest for the weary, and no time to worry much about anxiety dreams. I am wide awake now.John F. Harris is the editor-in-chief of Politico.