Will The Politico Foster More Horse Race Coverage?

Welcome to the land of inside baseball, otherwise known as the week-old highly touted new Web site, The Politico.

Do you care about which legislative aide to Senator Carl Levin writes the senator’s questions for his Armed Services Committee grillings? What about whom Nancy Pelosi might endorse for president? Or why Representative Loretta Sanchez quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus?

Hello? You still there? If you are, welcome to the land of inside baseball, otherwise known as the week-old highly touted new Web site, The Politico.

With the amount of hype and money that was thrown at this new venture, not to mention the political reporting star power that has been sprinkled on top, it’s worth asking how this infant to the media universe is doing so far. Or more importantly, what it might do to that universe once it grows up a little and learns to walk.

The Politico is actually more than just a Web site. There will be a print edition with a run of 30,000 published three times a week when Congress is in session and once a week when it isn’t, as well as many TV tie-ins with channels owned by the Politico’s bosses, Allbritton Communications.

But the focus is really on the Web, and that’s because the point of the Politico is to bring it back to the reporting, to the quickly developing story, to give the big-name, enterprising political journalists like Mike Allen from Time and Ben Smith from the New York Daily News (both big-time poachees) to stretch their muscles directly in front of their readers. The shift is from the institution to the individual. It is not Time reporting breaking news, but Mike who is blogging about what some political operative just told him on the phone.

This part of the venture is smart, virtual crack for political junkies. Through the blog format you can mainline the information without having to read it filtered through institutional newspeak. As Robert L. Allbritton, the publisher, put it to the New York Times recently, ”Newspapers have to be all things to all people. On the Internet, there is no one site that delivers everything. It’s broken down into mini-mini-subdivisions of interests and they attract people who are passionately interested in one subject.”

The question we have is not whether the one thing that the Politico has decided to focus on like a 12-year-old baseball card collector is worth the effort. This is part of the Internet’s beauty: name your niche and it exists. And this niche, the politics of politics, is actually important because it is how things get done, or don’t get done, in Washington.

What we wonder is, given the fact that the site has snagged so many political journalists and editors with bright futures at national newspapers, like Jim VandeHei and John Harris, who decided to place their bets with the Politico as opposed to the Washington Post, what kind of gravitational pull might the site have on the rest of political reporting?

To look at the Politico now, just a week after its launch, is instructive. The site is devoid of any discussion of the substance of politics. No analytic look at Social Security or universal health care plans. No thoughts on what’s next in Iraq. There are a handful of blogs, all of which serve as an hour-by-hour ticker of who’s up and who’s down. Senator Joe Biden’s comments about Obama’s cleanliness yesterday were big news, with every few minutes offering the latest updates on apologies and counter-apologies. The site contains no stories longer than a few hundred words. There is a prominent gossip column. A few of the pages that link to posts on particular subjects, like lobbyists, seem painfully esoteric. But the real audience seems to be the nerds who follow politics for politics’ sake, for the game of it.

We fully acknowledge that the Politico is brand new and may very well evolve into something else over time, but the potential problem with this political junkie approach is that it could nudge political reporting from other sources — newspapers and television — to become even narrower than it already is.

It seems as though journalists have been promising forever to move political coverage beyond the horse race, and yet most days most political reporting delivers little more than that. A position taken by a candidate ends up being dissected for its political implications rather than for what its real world reverberations might be — Hillary said this because Obama said that. For example, the New York Times today has one front-page political story — about Biden’s gaffe. The Washington Post has two on the subject, not to mention a new site called Politics that mimics the Politico’s modus operandi.

Here’s what we wish the mainstream media would learn from the emergence of the Politico: don’t try to compete with it; surrender the incremental developments of the politics of government to the Internet and focus instead on the deeper explanatory and investigative stories, the ones that connect the dots and help us understand what is at stake, the ones that no one else is going to give us if you don’t.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.