In Pennsylvania, a niche site with wide reach

PoliticsPA drives political conversation in Keystone State

PENNSYLVANIA — Whether it is a presidential swing state or not, Pennsylvania is always a political battleground. With countless boroughs, school districts, the state legislature, and more in a near-constant state of electing, there is never a shortage of campaign news.

What there can be is a shortage of boots on the ground, particularly those with broader statewide perspectives. So it’s noteworthy that a Harrisburg-based political news site has managed to break traditional journalistic boundaries and maintain a high level of quality, authority, and urgency. It may not be the shape of things to come—and it shouldn’t be, at least not entirely—but it helps drive reporting in traditional outlets and sustain political conversation in the state.

PoliticsPA is owned by principals in public affairs and lobbying firms and has a full-time staff of one—managing editor Keegan Gibson. From its origins as a gossipy, insider site founded nearly a dozen years ago, it has become an indispensable source of links, number-crunching, and even smart analysis and original reporting, with Gibson’s own reporting and writing bolstered by a group of college interns. Today, the site’s approach is akin to some of the better political blogs from Pennsylvania newspapers, like The Morning Call’s Capitol Ideas and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Early Returns. But PoliticsPA’s plethora of daily links to Keystone State news outlets and blogs, as well as its mission to write smartly about nearly any political news here, means the site often offers politics junkies more than any of its peers.

Gibson, who came to the site in 2010 after heading new media for the late US Sen. Arlen Specter, likes to point out he started working for the lawmaker when Specter was a Republican and stayed with him when he became a Democrat—a status that mirrors the differing partisan affiliations of the site’s owners. The son of Harrisburg Patriot-News staff reporter Elizabeth Gibson, he continues to lift the site far beyond its Drudge-like roots.

“I consider myself a journalist. People ask me what I do, I say I’m a political reporter,” said Gibson. “It’s niche journalism. I cover the mechanics of campaigns. I’m on all the press lists, get tips, follow up on them, and do research.

“We watch Pennsylvania members of the delegation, how they play in big national stories, such as (US Rep. Allyson) Schwartz and (US Sen. Pat) Toomey on the budget,” he added. “We watch folks in Harrisburg, too. Imagine a candidate who gets up and gives a passionate speech on any topic they care about. We’re the guys who are looking at the political ramifications and political context of things that are going on.”

And for a niche operation, the site’s reach and influence is substantial. Its posts draw mentions in news stories, editorials, public radio shows, hosted political discussions, and reported blogs here in Pennsylvania. And Politico recently picked up its smart evaluation of voting for President Obama vs. US Sen. Bob Casey Jr. across the state, numbers crunched by one of the site’s interns.

Borys Krawczeniuk, a veteran political reporter at The Times-Tribune in Scranton, said the site helps fill the gap left as consistent reporting on government and politics has waned.

“It is very useful,” he said. “To campaigns, it’s a way of getting messages out first. They are instantly up on polling and keep you up to date on what’s going on. It’s a good digest of what campaigns are doing. I’ve not sensed any bias.”

And while the site doesn’t regularly do deep factchecking of those campaign messages, its posts offer useful information on ad spending and the sources of campaign cash, and often provide some basic scrutiny—as in an Oct. 23 look at an ad for GOP Senate candidate Tom Smith that noted, “in general the ‘war on coal’ theme may be off base.”

A key to its success is the distance its politically connected owners seemingly keep from the site.

David Urban, a former chief of staff for Specter and now a lobbyist, bought PoliticsPA with others in 2007. He saw it as an opportunity to cover a range of political goings on in D.C., Harrisburg, and beyond as legacy outlets cut back.

Co-owner Larry Ceisler is based in Philadelphia and active in Democratic circles statewide. He was recruited by Urban to keep ownership bipartisan.

“For me, I just like the fact people read it, people like it,” Ceisler said. “It is quoted in national publications. That’s a credit to Keegan and the people who worked before him.”

Ceisler said he gets calls from people who want to be in the sites “Ups and Downs” feature—or are unhappy once they are. The comments, he says, are steered directly to Gibson.

“If we can be used as a jumping off point to stimulate discussion and conversation, we’ve done our job,” he said. “We’re a site people go for this type of news, whether they be elected officials, natural gas people, reporters and other people in the media.”

In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Gibson also sells ads for the site, and his compensation is tied in part to the site’s revenue as well. That arrangement does not affect his approach to coverage, he said. Among the site’s current advertisers are Urban and Ceisler’s own firms, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, and conservative activist Scott Wagner.

“Thankfully, the owners of the site have consistently and totally respected a firewall between what they do and I do,” Gibson said. “I talk to them every week, couple weeks. I give them updates on ad revenue and traffic.”

In some ways, any conflicts of interest may be prospective. The site has not yet made a profit, Urban said. He is hopeful the reported stories and credibility of the site will lead to more revenue in the future.

“People come to site to read unbiased stories,” Urban said. “Our goal for the next several years is to continue to grow the brand. We want to be the last man standing, when there are no reporters in Washington and nobody left in Harrisburg covering politics.”

That’s not an especially inspiring vision for journalism—and hopefully, that day will never come. The need for unaffiliated, broadly focused political reporting and larger narratives is as strong as ever, and that’s something PoliticsPA is not built to fully engage.

But PoliticsPA is here and growing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a key stop for reporters, and its focused, quick-hit features and ability to drive a niche is something other outlets media can learn from.

“It is one of the main places you can go for political news,” said Alex Roarty, who managed the site before Gibson and now covers politics for National Journal. “It provides things nobody else does.”

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“In PA Primary, Television News is Late to the Game”

“How undisclosed money works its way in”

“Pittsburgh-Area Reporters Tested in Ad War”

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.