Everyone—from Joe Allbritton on down—expected Robert to buy the nine New York Times Company television stations.
“I knew it wasn’t the right move for us,” he says.
He knew that managing nine more TV stations around the country would put pressure on his team of three executives. They had been running Allbritton Communications with him for a decade. They valued their time—their “mind share,” as he once put it. It gave them the ability and the agility to make decisions and move quickly. And at the moment, they were considering a venture in another news platform.
“The media world was a different place even three years ago,” Allbritton says. “We looked at radio, but WTOP was the best and not for sale. What else was out there?”
They decided to make a run at entering the newspaper market on Capitol Hill. A paper would be a nice fit with their broadcast and cable-news operations. Two papers—Roll Call and the Hill—were making money covering politics and policy.
Allbritton and Fred Ryan started negotiating with James Finkelstein, owner of the Hill. They made an offer, and Finkelstein seemed ready to accept. But the price kept going up and the deal never got done.
Ryan finally said to Allbritton: “We can start our own paper for less.”
Allbritton sought advice from Bob Barnett, a lawyer and literary agent for many top journalists. Barnett suggested that he hire Marty Tolchin to help launch the new enterprise. Tolchin, a Washington reporter with the New York Times for 40 years, had started the Hill and retired to write books. He agreed to help get the venture off the ground.
It was to be a newspaper in the image of the Hill. They came up with a name—Capital Leader—and began hiring reporters.
Says Fred Ryan: “It was going to be a more modest endeavor” than Politico turned out to be.
In October 2006, around the time he decided against buying the Times Company’s stations, Allbritton started focusing on the new newspaper taking shape on the first floor of the Rosslyn high-rise. It seemed like it was going to be a good paper.
“But it was not the level of quality I wanted to attach my name to,” he says. “I live here.”
Across the Potomac, Washington Post political writer Jim VandeHei also was restless. “The news industry was changing,” he says. “We had no clue where it was heading.”
VandeHei was at the top of the reporting game. He had gone to the Post from the Wall Street Journal and become one of the paper’s top political writers. He had covered the 2004 presidential campaign and was free to roam the capital for stories.
“In some ways,” he says, “I couldn’t have been happier. I had one of the best one or two jobs in journalism. I loved Don—I loved Len.”
Don Graham is chairman of the Washington Post Company; Len Downie was executive editor of the Post.
“But,” says VandeHei, “I had an entrepreneurial streak.”
In the summer of 2006, VandeHei started talking about his doubts and dreams about journalism with John Harris, one of his editors at the Post. Harris had just returned to the paper after cowriting a book about the 2004 presidential campaign.
“I was getting bored with reporting,” Harris says. “I knew journalism was changing, and no one had come up with answers about how to take advantage of the changes.”
VandeHei, 38, and Harris, 45, don’t seem to be natural allies. VandeHei is tall and thin and has a manic bent; Harris is stout, a few years older, and seems more steady. VandeHei had been at the Washington Post since 2002; Harris had come to the paper right out of college in 1985 and risen through its ranks. He was a Post lifer.
“Jim and I started shooting the breeze,” Harris recalls. “They were ‘pass the bong’ conversations. Out of those conversations, we gropingly came to a set of ideas that led to Politico.”
The first idea was to hire a band of six star reporters and six younger reporters, launch a Web site, and start covering Washington politics in a new way.
“We both had the belief that Washington journalism was not living up to its reputation,” VandeHei says. “A lot of it was pedestrian, a myth. Could you create something on your own that would dominate the coverage of politics?
“All journalists are not created equal,” he says. “Give me the six best—reporters people must read.”
With an idea, no staff, and no money, VandeHei and Harris began talking with friends, who in turn set up meetings with venture capitalists. They met in the basements of homes in Northern Virginia about starting a company that would publish on the Web only.
“People liked the idea,” VandeHei says. “It became all-consuming for a few months.”
But when they started to add up the costs of starting such a venture, which would require about 48 employees, they arrived at $2 million. The moneymen backed off.
“Too much money, too much risk,” VandeHei told his wife.
“The air came out,” he says.
David Bass, a public-relations executive, had been hired to help Allbritton Communications find an editor for its new newspaper. He suggested that VandeHei contact Fred Ryan.
“I already talked to them,” VandeHei told Bass. Tolchin had discussed the Capital Leader editing job. He had said, “I don’t want to run a newspaper on Capitol Hill.”
Bass convinced VandeHei to meet with Ryan and Allbritton. They got together in the 27th floor. Allbritton talked up the Capital Leader.
“It doesn’t really work for me,” VandeHei said.
“Why?” Allbritton asked.
“You don’t have the right people to distinguish yourselves in a crowded market. You either do something big, concentrate on the Internet, or go home.”
“Tell me more,” Allbritton said.
VandeHei rolled out his vision of a band of top reporters who would dig for news and handle it in a different way.
“We would elbow our way to the front of the line in Washington reporting,” he said.
Allbritton liked what he heard. He asked to meet with Harris.
The next day, Ryan met VandeHei and Harris for lunch at the Metropolitan Club. They made their pitch again. A day later, they took Mike Allen to Rosslyn for a meeting. Both VandeHei and Harris had worked with Allen at the Post. He was covering the White House for Time. They considered him the best political reporter in town.
Allbritton was sold. There was one problem: VandeHei and Harris wanted to publish only on the Web.
At a meeting Allbritton said, “We have run the numbers. There’s not enough revenue online to make it work. You need a newspaper at least as a bridge, if not forever. The only way we can do it is to marry the two. If that works for you, we can do it.”
John Harris had reservations.