In Riley’s 13 months at the helm at BGov, he has overseen a raid of CQ’s editorial staff. At one point in late 2010, as the newsroom was being established, one informed estimate put the proportion of ex-CQ staffers at 70 percent. BGov didn’t stop with the newsroom. It has poached CQ salespeople and even employees from the IT department.
CQ was easy prey. The layoffs had bred an air of mistrust in the ranks, current and former employees say, and BGov exploited those weaknesses. BGov has attracted talent from other companies, but the number of hires from CQ leaves little doubt that BGov sees it as the main competitor in Washington.
BGov’s top brass resist the suggestion that they’re vying with any publication for coverage or readers. “I can say with a straight face I don’t think we have competition in this market,” Riley says. But employees are another matter. “The only competition here,” Riley says, “is for talent.”
Mike Mills, who was editorial director of Roll Call Group before it merged with CQ and now oversees the combined newsrooms of both organizations, says there’s been anxiety in his newsroom over the defections to BGov. “No doubt about it.” He adds, “We’ve lost a lot of talented people, but the people we’ve hired to replace them are terrific.”
BGov’s emergence has coincided with the fallout from CQ’s layoffs as well as a round of buyouts at National Journal, in which 48 employees left the company. The commotion has set off a game of musical chairs in Washington newsrooms. After National Journal’s buyouts, a congressional correspondent and an editor took comparable jobs at CQ Roll Call, as the merged enterprise is now called; the top congressional reporter and its economics correspondent bolted for Politico. (The latter has since left.) One of National Journal’s most junior staffers departed for Politico Pro, and a more senior writer went to BGov.
But a Politico reporter also left to join National Journal, as did seasoned journalists from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek,AP, and the Atlantic. National Journal ultimately hired 47 new journalists, including a number of recent college graduates for lower-level reporting positions.
Politico Pro has been on raids of its own. Editors there aim to hire about 40 new reporters to cover health care, technology, and energy, and they say that at some point they’ll add more beats. The new online-only publication will graft Politico’s micro-coverage of politics onto the world of policy, says editor Tim Grieve, and so far it’s been seeking many journalists from the trade press. Five reporters came from the news service Environment & Energy Publishing, drawn by what one source describes as extravagant salary increases—double in some cases, more in others. In a brazen maneuver, Politico Pro tried to poach Environment & Energy’s sales staff en masse, contacting each person individually by phone or e-mail. The owners of Energy & Environment spoke to the courted employees, and ultimately none accepted Politico Pro’s offer.
It’s not unusual for journalists to change jobs in Washington, but this spate of hiring is being fueled by new positions that didn’t exist a year ago. In all, at least 150 reporters, editors, and analysts have been hired for new or vacant positions in the past year. “I can’t remember seeing this much movement in this short a time,” says Jim Brady, former executive editor of Washingtonpost.com and onetime general manager of TBD.com, the local-news site started by the owners of Politico.
Add to all this professional momentum a surge of new digital ventures homing in on Washington, including Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, which has merged with Newsweek and is attracting star reporters; a new daily on Capitol Hill from the Huffington Post, which is being acquired by AOL; and new cable shows that are turning daily political debate into prime-time entertainment. The news business has rarely been so obsessed with Washington.
This frenzy of interest has been building for decades as federal power has consolidated and the government’s influence over business has intensified. The trend began in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was accelerated by Richard Nixon, perhaps most famously in 1970 when he created the Environmental Protection Agency. As the federal budget grew, businesses outside Washington realized they needed more eyes and ears there. Trade associations set up shop. Law and lobbying firms expanded. And all that new money moving through Washington grew the city itself—its arts, its restaurants, its real estate. Today the hometown business of government has never been bigger or more central to the fate of US industry. Washington media are the latest beneficiaries of this 50-year expansion.
The presence of BGov has riveted the attention of Washington’s elite media owners on a business they long presumed was theirs alone to rule. “Bloomberg can spend a lot of money, and they are,” says Mills, the CQ Roll Call editorial director. “It would not be an overstatement to call this a battle of the giants.”
Mills has seen this battle before, and he’s taking a lesson from recent history. “When Politico came, the effect was to grow the market,” he says. The media establishment, Mills included, overlooked the fact that there was room in Washington for another publication, even if it seemed that coverage of politics and government had reached its saturation point. “We took too long to take Politico seriously,” Mills says. “We’re not making that mistake with Bloomberg.”
This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.
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