Immediate Returns

Ben Smith is not an old-school political reporter
December 2, 2011

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.

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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.

I’m very scoop-driven and always have been. At the Sun, even though it was a very ideological place, it was a real news place where scoops trumped everything else. I think the rule was you were really supposed to have a scoop a day, certainly a major scoop every week. They were really trying to drive stuff. And so while I like the analytical side of blogging that Andrew Sullivan is absolutely the best at, I also love scoops. And that conversation is the way to get them. Because people know you like information and send it to you.

The most satisfying anecdote like that was in the summer of 2008, this law student in Michigan e-mails me and says, “I just had this really weird experience at an Obama rally and I think it’s the sort of thing you’d be interested in because I read your blog.” He, his friend, and his friend’s sister had gone to a rally, and his friend and sister were Muslim. The sister had worn a headscarf. A volunteer, an Obama organizer, had seen him and his friend in business suits and said, “Can you sit in the backdrop behind the camera?” Then the sister pops up with the headscarf and the volunteer was like, “Actually, please don’t sit in the backdrop.” And then one of her friends at the event who was also wearing a headscarf had a very similar experience, was told, “We don’t want anyone who looks Muslim in the shot.” It became this huge thing. Obama had to call them up and apologize. It was a really interesting moment, I thought. It really was just an ordinary person who read my blog who was peripherally involved in an event. It was the sort of story that wouldn’t necessarily have been told at all. That’s all changing as everyone sort of gets their own voice and sources express themselves directly.

The news cycle now is about these tiny segments, and I think my stuff is what people are talking about in any given segment reasonably often. Scoops speak for themselves. If you have some new piece of information, it gets passed around and it’s fun to see people discovering something because you broke it. It’s one of the basic rewards of journalism in some way, I think. To tell people stuff they didn’t know.

Mistakes Are Made

It’s the total dream job for me to be able to move a story forward by taking a lot of little bites at it, which is what the blog is perfect for. Often you can’t get the whole thing in one story: you have an inkling about something, but it can take fifty or more bites, you just keep poking at something until what’s actually there comes out.

You make mistakes all the time. I will definitely have situations where I will write a blog item and then I will get an e-mail and I will be like, oh man, that guy is totally right and I was totally wrong. And then I’ll just post the email and say, this guy has a point. I have no problem reversing myself. You sort of have to allow your analysis to move or else you get really shrill and stuck in defending. I definitely allow myself to swerve and detour.

The absolute worst thing I ever did—this was sort of in that way of taking a small bite at a larger story—was when presidential candidate John Edwards was scheduled to make a big announcement in spring 2007, and an hour before I wrote a blog post based on a tip from an inside source saying Edwards would announce he was suspending his campaign, possibly even announce he was dropping out, because his wife’s cancer had recurred. Edwards announced he was staying in the race.

It was such a terrible moment. Actually, a little bracket to that, I’ve always hated working from home. At that point I didn’t have an office in Brooklyn and some days I was working from home and I did feel that my judgment was worse if I wasn’t sitting at a desk surrounded by other reporters. Because it was definitely bad judgment. I had one very good source, a genuine Edwards insider whom Edwards had told—the details are little fuzzy—I think Edwards had told that morning that he was going to drop out. And either he changed his mind or had never meant it, or who knows. This guy was a totally legit source, but it was only one source. I misread the signals I was getting from the campaign where basically friendly people were saying, “Don’t write this, we can’t say anything but don’t write this.”

Yeah, it was just one source. I sort of wrote it as, “one source told me this,” I didn’t frame it differently but I misunderstood the impact it was going to have. I didn’t have the right level of confidence for that scale of story. But all you can do is be, like, obviously I was wrong and here’s why and here’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t—was it a mortal sin?—I hadn’t made it up. It was a real source. My editors knew who the source was. The guy had either been confused or misled. The guy talked to Edwards before the event and got the wrong impression. It was a terrible moment.

Speed Bores

In 2007, Politico reporters on the campaign trail were like the scrappy upstarts, which was fun. I was just able, for a while, to move so much faster. I could sit at a press conference, type what a politician said in my blog, and it’d be online twenty minutes before anyone else because they had editorial processes that weren’t fast enough for the Internet. This is no longer true. This stopped being true a couple years ago. Now Twitter is so much faster, the fact that my blog takes a minute and a half to propagate means it’s ancient and no longer a place that you go for that. A lot of people went to Politico because they were so hungry for information and we were literally the first place to have it. And that’s kind of exciting for a while. But ultimately, being the guy who types fastest isn’t that rewarding or interesting. So I’m happy enough to be freed of that. There was this sort of compression of the news cycle that is now very familiar, but I think we delivered that to national politics.
Now blogs feel so ancient and creaky. I think if you have a blog and an audience you can maybe hold that space you’re in and as that audience ages just age with it. But Twitter has displaced blogs as the place where you see something new for the first time. So the blog has lost a bit of its rhythm and centrality. Now you have this new place for one-liners. I do a lot fewer blog items of the form, hey, look at this cool thing, because people are seeing that cool thing on Twitter. The blog is now a vehicle [laughs] for long, analytical stuff. And for news breaks, certainly. It’s not the place where you conduct the central political conversation which I think I did with some success in ’08.

When it’s working, there’s a useful interaction between my blog posts, my longer work, and Twitter. I use Twitter and the blog to promote longer work and to figure out what the broader themes are. I’ll sometimes plug away at the blog and realize I have five different examples that can be woven together into a longer story or see an idea knocked down or reshaped by the people who are reading. If I have an embryonic story, I can put it out there and see whether it survives the scrutiny, use both the blog and Twitter to test things out. And I’ll push blog posts or longer pieces out onto Twitter, to make sure the people who I’d like to read it are reading it.

It’s Graffiti

I have this comments section, which I loathe, on my blog. This guy, Sam Graham-Felsen, a former Obama campaign blogger, recently described it as the worst comments section on the entire Internet, which I would totally go with. I’ve been asking Politico for two years to switch it off. It’s just depressing. I initially fought really hard to have comments open. Because in New York politics, commenters were informed, real people who wanted to have a conversation that was informed by actual knowledge of people and places and things. But national politics is chimerical. People have opinions totally unmoored in reality and scream at each other all day. A good comment section is a reason to refresh and see what the conversation’s doing. Mine, it’s such a sewer. It’s graffiti. But we have finally switched to a comments system that links users to their Facebook profiles, and I hope that’ll improve it.

I ♥ Pols

I like having official sources and good relationships with the press offices, but also I don’t care that much because I have this outlet that’s pretty much mine. Ultimately if I screw something up, it’s my fault. It’s an institutional problem, but it’s much more my fault. I have freedom, enough rope to hang myself. It’s harder to call an editor and scream about what I did. It’s like, look, he hanged himself, yell at him. At times I am a massive irritant to campaigns, which is fine. I’m of the view it’s better to be feared than loved. I like, I love, politicians and political operatives. They are people I enjoy talking to. There’s a class of political reporter who, I think, hates politicians and thinks they’re all criminals and thinks it’s a reporter’s job to expose them, and there’s another class who thinks they’re all heroes. The job used to be to construct these hero narratives. I really like politicians and politics and think it’s an honorable calling. But not that honorable.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.