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The Son Also Rises
Comments () | Published July 22, 2009

Are these guys on the level? he wondered. He considered himself a “citizen of the Washington Post.” Don Graham had had a hand in hiring him in 1985. Why not create their venture within the Post? They at least owed Graham a chance to hear their pitch.

On Wednesday, November 15, the week before Thanksgiving, they arranged a meeting in Graham’s office. In attendance were Graham, executive editor Len Downie, managing editor Phil Bennett, Web editor Liz Spayd, and Washingtonpost.com publisher Caroline Little. All except Graham have since retired or changed jobs.

“It was a bit like a state visit,” Harris recalls.

Graham ran the meeting. One of his first questions was “Why did you go to Allbritton?”

VandeHei and Harris chose not to answer the question directly. But they’d come to the conclusion that the Post under Downie wasn’t nimble enough to produce the Internet and newspaper publication they hoped to create.

VandeHei and Harris handed out a memo that described their vision. They talked for an hour about how they would hire a band of reporters to break news and dominate coverage. The Post brass took notes.

They seemed skeptical, especially of VandeHei. They pointed out that he had been only a reporter, had never edited anything, let alone run a news operation. Harris found himself defending his partner.

At one point, according to VandeHei, one of the Post executives said, “You are making a catastrophic mistake.”

That afternoon, Phil Bennett responded with the Post’s offer: Harris would stay in the newsroom as national political editor; VandeHei would go across the Potomac and become political editor at Washingtonpost.com. They could hire a staff of three. They would become the bridge between the Post’s newspaper and digital-news operations.

Harris was torn; VandeHei was ready to bolt.

It poured the next day. Jim VandeHei walked through the rain from the Post to the Jefferson Hotel for a lunch meeting with CBS News executive Paul Friedman.

Friedman discussed hiring VandeHei as an on-air reporter. VandeHei said he was “totally flattered” but was working on another venture. Friedman was curious. VandeHei described his vision for a political newsroom that would publish on the Web and in print.

“Brilliant,” Friedman said.

VandeHei said Harris was concerned they would lack exposure and lose their standing as top political reporters.

“What if I got you on Face the Nation every other week?” Friedman asked.

VandeHei says it was the “holy s---” moment.

Friedman called CBS News president Sean McManus to make sure he could make good on the promise; VandeHei called Harris at the Post.

“I think we have a deal clincher,” he said. “Come over to the Jefferson.”

Harris grabbed an umbrella and walked over. The three talked. McManus was on board. VandeHei called Fred Ryan and asked if he and Allbritton could come talk with Friedman. The two executives took a cab across the river and met with Friedman. There were handshakes all around.

Walking through the rain back to the Post, VandeHei said to Harris: “Dude, this is meant to be. We’re doing this.”

Harris still had doubts.

That Saturday, he asked VandeHei to meet him for what they now call “the coffee walk.” Driving to Harris’s house in Alexandria, VandeHei practiced his pitch.

They walked and talked. Harris spelled out his reservations and argued for staying with the Post. He feared they would wind up playing on computers in their basement in a version of Wayne’s World. He said they risked losing their high-profile appearances on TV talk shows; they would drop into oblivion.

“You’re probably right,” VandeHei said.

He arrived home with a long face.

“Harris changed your mind, didn’t he?” said his wife, Autumn, a social worker and former Capitol Hill staffer. Then she said, “That’s not going to happen.”

She started whipping off e-mails to Harris, invoked Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, and said the Allbritton offer was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Harris and his wife, Ann O’Hanlon, read the notes and reconsidered. Ann was with Autumn and Jim.

“Okay,” Harris said. “Let’s do it.”

That Sunday, November 19, VandeHei called Ryan, who was hunting pheasant in Boonsboro, Maryland. VandeHei, a native of Wisconsin, was watching a Green Bay Packers game. “I want to get this done before the end of the game,” VandeHei said. “We want to do this.”

“Okay,” Ryan said. “John will be editor-in-chief, you will be executive editor. We’re off to the races.” 

The defection of VandeHei and Harris jolted the Washington Post. The paper was already reeling from losses in circulation and advertising revenue. Too many top reporters had left for other news organizations or taken buyouts. In the view of many journalists, the loss of two more top political writers threatened the paper’s franchise on political reporting.

“I don’t see us competing against the Post,” Robert Allbritton tells me. “We’re competing against everyone out there. One guy battling another is old-media thinking. True, our first two guys came from the Post, but most came from all over the place.”

Mike Allen came from Time, Roger Simon from Bloomberg News, Ben Smith from the New York Daily News. David Rogers came from the Wall Street Journal. Danielle Jones came from the Hotline. Eamon Javers came from Business Week. The only other hire from the Post was Kim Kingsley to run public relations.

When Harris and VandeHei announced they were leaving for Politico, Don Graham sent Allbritton a note wishing him luck.

“I love Don,” Robert says. “I absolutely admire what he’s been able to do with himself and his life.

“We’re both very fortunate people,” he says. “We’ve had opportunities most people can only dream of. Don grabbed those opportunities and did something with them. He’s engaged in the community and journalism beyond the Post. I know he has a commitment to a high level of quality.”

Mike Allen, Politico’s chief White House correspondent, rocked the Post’s reputation for journalistic ethics with a story in July about the paper’s plan to bring reporters, editors, politicians, and lobbyists together in a “salon”—paid for by corporate sponsors—at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home. Politico got mileage from the scoop; the Post endured days of negative press.

Allbritton and Weymouth are about the same age and represent the next generation of media magnates. Allbritton says he wrote Don Graham shortly after Weymouth took over in February 2007 and asked to meet her. Graham set up a lunch at the Hay-Adams hotel.

“She struck me as very bright and intelligent,” Allbritton says. “She was very aware of the challenges the newspaper industry is going through.”

Weymouth and Post executives wanted to use the salons to help meet the financial challenges. Allbritton chose a different course: He arranged public debates and forums, paid for by Politico, to promote Politico’s brand.

Meanwhile, the political reporting at Politico often eclipses the Post’s coverage—from the White House to Capitol Hill.

“It’s hard to compare,” Allbritton says. “They’re publishing 600,000 copies; we’re putting out 35,000. We’re not trying to be all things to all types of people; we’re trying to do one thing well.”

And fast. And furious.

Jim VandeHei often arrives at the Politico newsroom in Rosslyn around 6 am to push his troops to “win the morning,” as he exhorted in a memo.

Mike Allen arises at 4 am to write the Playbook, his daily take on news, links to articles, musings on the coming day, and birthday greetings.

Media writer Mike Calderone was riding the 42 bus down Connecticut Avenue when he got e-mails that Joe Scarborough had dropped the “F-bomb” on MSNBC. He jumped off at Dupont Circle, plugged his air card into his laptop, and filed for the Web site.

“We wake up to our BlackBerrys, start filing, and keep it up all day,” says a reporter.

Allbritton positioned the Politico newsroom at one end of an open room the size of a football field on the first floor of 1100 Wilson Boulevard. WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 news operations have been squeezed back to make room for around 75 Politico reporters and editors.

Politico publishes a free newspaper Monday through Friday when Congress is in session; 32,000 copies are distributed to congressional offices, the White House, executive departments, and boxes in downtown DC. But most readers get their news from Politico’s Web site.

“For me, Politico is pure digital,” says Staci Kramer, who lives in St. Louis and covers the media for the Web site paidContent.org. “You have to flip your view and think of Politico beyond what you see in DC. For most readers, it’s not a newspaper.”

VandeHei and Harris often talk about Politico’s digital platforms and the newsroom’s “shared DNA and metabolism.”

What gives Politico a leg up on the Post and other newspapers is that it started as a Web publication with a print edition rather than a print product that publishes on the Web. Other than that, Politico follows an old-school model of gathering and disseminating news.

VandeHei and Harris hired experienced reporters, directed them to flood the zone, and expect them to work hard and file several times a day. In the old days, reporters would cover a crime scene, phone the paper, and say, “Rosie, give me rewrite.” Now reporters type the stories and send them over the Internet, but the essential reporting remains the same.

“They have done a very good job of establishing themselves as one of the go-to sites for Washington political coverage,” says Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News. “One glance at their Web site and I get a sense of what’s going on.”

In Politico’s early days, Harris was forced to apologize in print for an inaccurate article or two. The reporting sometimes seemed breathless and skimpy during the 2007 presidential campaign. But it has matured.

“They have done an impressive job of changing from sizzle to substance,” says the editor of a rival publication.

Politico’s PR staff makes sure scoops show up on other Web sites and reporters get time on cable TV. Tune in to a political discussion on TV or radio and you’re likely to hear a mention of Politico or see one of its reporters; in less than three years, it has built a brand that rivals the Washington Post in political news. 

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