By Hillary Atkin
Journalists working in traditional media have had to adapt to the changing times, yet few have done so as successfully as former Washington Post reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHai.
The two veteran political reporters left the storied newspaper in 2006 to start something brand new — a Web site that covered Congress, the White House, and the judiciary and federal agencies, with fellow experienced journalists — a news source that would compete with the traditional big guys who had long owned the turf.
Now, Politico is a must-read for Capitol Hill insiders and for millions of others who want to keep up with the latest power plays on the Potomac. The staff numbers about 120 people (about 80 on the editorial side and 40 in sales, marketing and business development), including the largest contingent of reporters covering the White House from any one media entity. And in an inverse equation of the typical scenario, the Web site was so successful that a print edition was started.
Harris and VandeHai, who sometimes refer to themselves jointly as VandeHarris, found their backer in Robert Allbritton, chairman and CEO of Allbritton Communications, which owns television stations in Washington, and nine other markets, all ABC affiliates. Allbritton also operates a 24-hour news channel that serves the nation’s capital and, with Politico, is based in Arlington, Va.
From the beginning, VandeHai and Harris had no trouble luring fellow top-notch journalists to come on board.
“We offered competitive salaries and a chance to be part of something new and exciting,” said VandeHai, Politico’s executive editor. “Newspapers were kind of a drag. Advertising and circulation were down, and it was just not as much fun. The promise of being in a place trying to shape its own destiny and shake things up snowballed.”
Even highly experienced political journalists could not have imagined the monumental developments of the 2008 presidential campaign and the instantaneous coverage and reverberations that shaped it. It was Politico’s coming-out party, and during the high-octane campaign that culminated in Barack Obama’s election, the site claimed more than 11 million unique visitors a month.
“Our coverage of the campaign was first-class, with scoops big and small — such as Mike Allen revealing that [Republican presidential contender] John McCain couldn’t remember how many homes he owned,” said VandeHai, who also pointed to reportage on vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s costly clothing budget and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s early missteps that took him out of the presidential mix.
Politico retains a large audience estimated at more than 3.5 million unique visitors a month as the nation’s political concerns focus on the economy, joblessness, health care and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The health care debate has been fabulous,” VandeHai said. “We’ve broken all the developments. It’s an important story, changing almost hour by hour, and people are consumed by it.”
But VandeHai makes no bones about admitting that the audience that matters most is political professionals — the power elite. “We’re proud of being an inside Washington, D.C., organization,” he said. “We have a first-class reputation. We need serious people to understand and trust our coverage and to believe that we are a first-class news operation.”
In order to reach those heavy hitters, advocacy organizations, trade associations and corporations are willing to pay good money to advertise on the Web site and in the Politico newspaper, which is printed five days a week and distributed free to homes and offices when Congress is in session. Its circulation tops 30,000.
“You’re often sitting on the House floor wanting something to read,” VandeHai said. “It’s a fantastic device. There are a lot of those who buy ads in both. It’s a good combination.”
There’s no question that Politico’s role as an influencer is now cemented. Mike Allen’s Playbook — an early-morning briefing of events and topics that drive the agenda on Capitol Hill — is a must-read in the political world.
Yet the most popular feature is Politico 44, an hour-by-hour chronicle of President Obama’s time in office.
“We make it essential to the White House insider, and figure that tons of Americans will want to peek,” said VandeHai. “It has its own staff, design, and our plan is to devote even more resources to it in an effort to figure out how the White House works.”
Another new foray is an online subchannel called “Click,” launched last September. It’s a gossip/social/style chronicle of Washington power brokers and high-profile events — the lighter side of the political spectrum.
“Based on what we learned from 44, it has the electricity of a blog, but the sensibility of a more traditional Web page, with its own staff, mission and mandate — covering the parties, the people, personalities and gossip,” VandeHai said, adding that “Click” plans to do red carpet coverage of upcoming state dinners with streaming video.