A veteran California reporter on why she’s excited to join Politico

Photo courtesy of Politico

It’s been eight years since Politico launched just outside the nation’s capital and started to change the way DC politics is covered. Now, the outlet is going nationwide. There are Politico sites for New York, New Jersey and Florida, and “Playbooks”—the signature daily politics tip sheets—for Massachusetts and Illinois. California, the biggest state of all, comes next.

Late last month, Politico announced the first hire for its Golden State operation: veteran political reporter Carla Marinucci, who will launch a Playbook California newsletter on Oct. 8. Marinucci, 61, has been covering state politics for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1996, making her one of the veteran members of a shrinking capitol press corps.

Marinucci’s move to Politico is one of a few big changes in that press corps recently. The same day that Politico disclosed her hiring, the Los Angeles Times announced that it had hired John Myers, formerly of KQED-TV in the Bay Area, as its bureau chief in Sacramento. And one of the state’s mid-sized newspapers, the Ventura County Star, just lost its one-man Sacramento bureau. Timm Herdt, who has covered state politics for the Star since 1997, resigned from the paper, effective Oct. 2. He said he will continue to write his column and his blog for the Star and will freelance for other outlets. The Star does not plan to replace him.

In a recent email exchange and follow-up phone interview, Marinucci discussed what drew her to Politico, what she hopes to accomplish with California Playbook, and the state of statehouse reporting. The conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below. 

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CJR: How would you describe Politico’s general approach to covering Sacramento? Does it differ from the approach taken by the Chronicle and other newspapers? 

Marinucci: I think Politico does have a different view of the news, and news-gathering. At a time when traditional news organizations are cutting back on staff and budgets, and shrinking (or even eliminating entirely) their operations in the state capitol, Politico gets it: that quality, in-depth coverage attracts a savvy audience that will support top-quality content and journalists who break stories with impact. 

I’ve watched the Politico model in other states—they’ve brought on top notch folks who illuminate, analyze, and break big stories on what’s going on in areas like high tech, education, and in the statehouses. It’s the kind of reporting we all got into the business to do. So when they called me about California, it wasn’t hard to see: This model is the future of this business.

You obviously don’t have a detached take on this, but give me your non-detached take: What do you think the influence of Politico has been on political reporting in the country?

I’ll just say: everyone who loves politics reads Mike Allen every day. I’ve read this guy for years religiously. And everyone in New York reads the New York Playbook every day, same in Florida. And when they do break stories, it gets talked about, becomes part of the political fabric—keeps the pols honest, takes them to task, sheds light and sunshine on the process. Readers win. Voters win.

How did you end up going to Politico? Have you been planning your escape from print newspapers?

No, they called me. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, to quote my favorite movie.

What exactly is your role with the California Playbook? You were the first big hire; are you the boss out here? 

I’m just a reporter. I’m a hack like everyone else. My job is going to be to write the news out of California politics. I’m not the boss. 

What will the staff look like, and where will you be based?

I will be based in the East Bay. I’m the first person they’ve brought on, and there is not a physical office yet. I suspect when you get enough people and start opening operations, there’s likely to be some kind of physical office. … You can do this business anywhere now with a cell phone and a laptop. It’s going to be require being where the action is, and maybe that’s down in Palo Alto one day and up in Sacramento the next day.

I know they intend to cover the Capitol, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Central Valley—they get the fact that California is many different states, if you will, many different interests, and they want to have comprehensive coverage. 

Obviously Politico has been huge in the daily political coverage game. Lately they’ve done more policy stuff, more longform stories, and they’ve launched Politico Magazine. Where does the California Playbook fit? 

I think the Playbook is about becoming a must-read source for people in each of the states that it’s in. If you look at New York and Florida, they have people who break stories, who do the news roundups, gossip, people reporting, policy stuff—it’s really all of the above.

I’ve done this long enough that I feel comfortable breaking down what’s going on in California politics and linking together these different factions of California: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, education, drought politics. There’s no state like California when it comes to the range of stuff that’s out there. One in eight voters in this country is here and about one-fifth of the money companies spend lobbying is from California. Right now nobody’s capturing all that in one spot, and that’s what we want to do. 

How is the journalism scene in Sacramento? Everybody has cut back their capitol bureaus. Is it a ghost town up there?

I’m not based in Sacramento, but I have been covering it for 20 years. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s definitely much reduced from the days when every news organization had one or two people there.

The policymakers feel it. They sense a vacuum and that’s not good. The elected officials feel like they’re not being watched anymore. The lobbyists, the big money people, they know there’s not that many people covering what they do on a granular basis anymore, and that’s not good for California.

This is the state where the most money is spent on politics, where the average race for assembly can spend 10 times as much as a race in other states. When you have that kind of money, stuff happens, and as journalists we should be covering this stuff in a very aggressive way. 

These things are true in a lot of state capitals. Are Californians more poorly served by our press corps than people in other states? 

I don’t know the answer to that, but I know from my Politico compatriots in New York and Florida that they’re able to fill a void in those states because of cutbacks by newspapers and TV stations.

The ranks of political reporters have been depleted, especially people who have been covering it for a while and can offer some perspective on what’s going on. I think that’s true of every statehouse in this country.

So what happens? Can the new media startups and the nonprofit journalism operations make up for what’s being lost in print and TV?

What we’re seeing is an evolution, a disruption, which isn’t a term I love, but a disruption of the whole journalism model, and I hope we come out of it with a stronger, more aggressive, and more vibrant product for everybody. That’s certainly my goal and Politico’s goal. It’s been painful to a lot of people in the business. I’m hoping that with so much talent out there we’re going to see a new model.

So much happens first in California. We are a trendsetting state. We’ve created so many innovations, and in this area there’s so much potential, just the number of people, the amount of talent, and the number of stories. California is a place where we could see a rebirth of journalism in a way that hasn’t been seen in other states. The mother lode—here we are. Let’s dig and see what happens.

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.