Three years ago, Robert Allbritton flew his executive team to Oklahoma City to kick the tires on a pair of television stations. The New York Times Company had put nine TV stations up for sale, including the two in Oklahoma, and Allbritton was preparing a bid.
Aboard his Citation Sovereign airplane were Allbritton Communications president Fred Ryan, chief financial officer Stephen Gibson, general counsel Jerald Fritz, and marketing chief James Killen. Robert Allbritton is chairman—and pilot.
The Times Company was beginning to feel pressure from print’s loss of advertising revenue to digital media, so it wanted to cash out of television. Allbritton Communications seemed an ideal buyer. Cash-rich at the time, it owned eight TV stations, led by WJLA, its flagship ABC affiliate in Washington, and NewsChannel 8, a cable station here.
The question on Allbritton’s mind: Do you want to put a big bet on something you already have a big bet on?
Allbritton was 37 at the time. Boyish and easygoing, he was sometimes mistaken for a reporter or techie in the newsroom. He had been running the family communications business since 1996, when he was four years out of college. His father, Joe Allbritton, had been a big player in Washington business and political circles since coming from Texas in 1973; he entered the media market by buying the old Washington Star and Channel 7, and he took control of Riggs National Bank.
“A Texan with a Washington footprint big enough to rival the Lone Star State” is how the Washington Business Journal described Joe Allbritton.
By the time of the Oklahoma trip, the family had sold Riggs Bank under the weight of a money-laundering investigation. Joe, in his eighties, was retired but still a force, and Robert was running things.
The company’s top executives had been examining the TV deal for weeks. They were eager to bid. Back at company headquarters in Rosslyn, Robert Allbritton analyzed spreadsheets and crunched the numbers. He asked his accountants to boil the deal down to one page, got into his blue Mini Cooper at the company headquarters in Rosslyn, and drove across the Potomac River to his parents’ home on Foxhall Road in DC.
There he sat down to lunch with his father, Joe, and his mother, Barbara. Paintings by Impressionist masters hung on the walls. He had spent his teen years there, holed up in his room with friends working on computer programs, playing tennis, and swimming in the back yard. Today chicken salad was on the menu, as usual.
“What do you think we ought to do?” his mother asked.
“Are they good stations?” his father asked. “Are they in strong markets?”
Robert explained the pros and cons, the debt they’d have to assume, the cost to the company in time and energy.
“What’s our bid going to be?” his father asked.
“I wouldn’t do this thing,” he told his parents.
They were surprised and a little disappointed but respected his judgment. He returned to Rosslyn and met with the team that had flown to Oklahoma City.
“Okay, boss,” one said. “What’s the bid?
“We’re not bidding,” Allbritton replied.
“At any price?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just not comfortable with it.”
Deciding not to buy the nine television stations from the New York Times Company was a crucial decision for Allbritton—and for the DC news business. It freed Robert Allbritton to devote his time and money to launching Politico, the hard-charging newspaper and digital publication that covers political news from Capitol Hill to the White House.
First published in January 2007, Politico has become something of a media phenomenon. Seeking to bridge the gap between print and digital news, it has hired many top journalists and broken more than a few stories. According to Allbritton, it’s a financial success in an industry littered with bankrupt newspapers.
“We are making money,” Allbritton says. He continues to pay top dollar for top journalists. “We’re playing with house money.”
He and I are sitting in his office on the 27th floor of a Rosslyn office tower that once housed the Gannett media company and USA Today. The view reaches from Bethesda to Prince George’s County. Theodore Roosevelt Island is in the foreground, the White House, Washington Monument, and Capitol just beyond. The Potomac River curves below. Eagles float on thermals. Allbritton can look down on helicopters banking past the Kennedy Center.
“I’ll take it,” he says of the view.
Despite his prominent role in Washington, little is known about the man who has controlled two local TV stations for more than a decade and was at the helm of Riggs Bank in its final days. Now, as publisher of Politico, he’s taking on a more public role. He has welcomed audiences to Politico’s presidential debates, hosted eight Politico tables at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, and assumed his father’s place at the Gridiron and Alfalfa club dinners.
In a series of interviews, Allbritton makes clear that he doesn’t relish the limelight.
“I just want to be able to shop at the grocery store and not have people know I am anything more than an average guy buying tomatoes,” he says.
He rarely wears a tie, often dresses in jeans, and bows to style only with a pair of Gucci loafers. He doesn’t use a Montblanc pen or sport a Rolex. In fact, he doesn’t wear a watch. Tall and thin, the boss seems to have a smile or good word for everyone. “A puckish sense of humor” is how Mike Allen, one of his marquee journalists, puts it.
But Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei says: “Robert has vision, balls, and money—and knows how to use all three.”
It will be harder to keep his sense of humor and low profile. Politico reporters are breaking stories and rattling the capital: Allen’s exposé about the Washington Post’s proposed “salons”—at which lobbyists would pay to dine and dish with reporters—killed the plan and scalded publisher Katharine Weymouth.