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Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski is leaving her post in 2016. Perhaps, a career in astronomy is next? By Nancy Doyle Palmer
Photograph by Simon Bruty.

When Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland was little, her parents took her to a movie about chemist and physicist Marie Curie. Thus began her lifelong love of science. Later she got a chemistry set and imagined herself winning two Nobel Prizes. But she was clumsy in the lab, so she switched to debate and drama, then became a social worker.

Once elected to the House of Representatives, Mikulski says, "I figured if I wasn't going to develop the cure for cancer, discover a planet, or develop a tsunami warning system, I could be on the committees that support all of this."

Although Mikulski—elected to the Senate in 1986—is committed to medical research, her true love is space.

"I'd be a Trekkie in two hot seconds," she says. But she admits a more realistic job would be an astronomer.

"While I would love to go up to the distant planets and find new galaxies," she says, "I wouldn't want to be an astronaut. I don't quite see myself in the costume."

Posted at 11:20 AM/ET, 03/03/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The hermetic families who once ruled DC were dubbed "cavedwellers." By Britt Peterson
Washington, BC: George Washington’s step-granddaughter Martha Parke Custis Peter; Washington Globe editor Francis P. Blair Sr. Photograph of Peter courtesy of Tudor Place Historic House & Garden; Blair by Wikicommons.

Like their Neanderthal counterparts, the segment of Washington society known as cavedwellers has been going extinct nearly as long as it’s been in existence—which has been since Washington was habitable.

The term appeared as early as 1902, when a Utah newspaper defined it as “the name given to that ultra-southern circle which pretends to be ignorant of congress being in session or of the existence of an official circle at the capital.” By 1928, the Chicago Tribune was already mourning the decline of the breed: “There are perhaps only a dozen or so authentic cave dwellers left.”

It’s easy to believe the Trib was right. Most Washingtonians have never heard of any actual cavedweller, and why should they? Cavedweller status is not tied to one’s tax bracket or political mojo but to one’s relation to the Blairs, Peters, and other families who built Washington more than 100 years ago. Compared with this crowd, the famous 20th-century hostesses—Marjorie Merriweather Post, Lorraine Cooper, Katharine Graham—were arrivistes.

Fame, indeed, seems antithetical to the cavedweller ethos, which involves a journey through select prep schools into corporate law and investment firms. Maturity is marked by involvement in charity events and allegiance to the Metropolitan and Chevy Chase clubs. Burial in Oak Hill Cemetery constitutes a suitable end.

Cavedwellers’ anonymity once gave them a crucial function. According to Jane Stanton Hitchcock, a chronicler of Georgetown culture in novels like 2010’s Mortal Friends, “Ambassadors whose countries were warring could go to a cavedweller’s house,” which “offered a certain society that was independent of the media.”

If their influence is a thing of the past, cavedwellers don’t likely mourn it. As one of the species wrote in 1905, “Washington . . . has been this many a year a bit too garish for some of us old residents, and . . . we have gone to our caves.”

This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 02:15 PM/ET, 03/02/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The conference's libertarian streak favors the District. By Kristen Doerer
Men dressed as superheroes at CPAC, which was probably a bad place to be high. Photograph by Ewa Beaujon.

Marijuana became legal in DC last week, despite threatening talk from the head of the House Oversight Committee and impediments thrown into place by other conservatives in Congress. But at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives at National Harbor that ended Saturday, views on pot were more attenuated.

I spoke on Thursday with a group of students from the University of North Florida who had no qualms about marijuana legalization. When I told them that DC had legalized marijuana that day, one of them began clapping while the other two nodded in approval.

It was in this group of students that I found a self-proclaimed libertarian. “I’m definitely for state power, and DC isn’t necessarily a state, but it should have the power to enforce its own laws,” said UNF student Dylan Lowe, who is from Miami.

Among the students I spoke with, none thought states had no right to legalize marijuana. But a debate Thursday onstage in the Potomac ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center showed a divide among attendees on the issue.

“Having a debate on whether or not to legalize marijuana is like debating whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow. It’s going to come up,” Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, libertarian presidential candidate, and current CEO of Cannabis Sativa Inc said.

Johnson's antics dominated the debate, called “The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?” His foil was Ann Marie Buerkle, a former nurse and Republican member of Congress. She spoke about the dangers of legalizing marijuana, saying not only can pot lead to depression and long-term memory loss, but that its stronger strains can also be blamed for a quarter of psychotic illnesses.

Both raised their voices; neither quite shouted. After Johnson made a point about the immense cost of enforcing marijuana laws and the prison costs, Buerkle responded that not that many people actually go to jail for marijuana. “The percent of people going to jail for smoking a joint is 1 in 1,200,” she said.

“Anybody do the math?” Johnson quickly retorted. “That’s 1.8 million people!”

At another point in the debate, Johnson feigned a heart attack and fell to the floor.

“This humor is disingenuous. It’s really reprehensible!” said a clearly offended Beurkle.

This type of stark disagreement isn’t all that surprising considering Pew’s recent findings that 38 percent of Republican Baby Boomers favored legalizing pot, compared with 63 percent of Republican Millennials.

Every year CPAC holds a straw poll of attendees, and last year’s roughly reflected that generational difference: 41 percent of attendees voted for the full legalization of marijuana; 21 percent for the legalization of marijuana only for medicinal purposes; and only 31 percent voted for it to remain illegal in all cases.

The poll also points to the influence of libertarian ideology among Millennials. US Senator Rand Paul won the straw poll last year with 31 percent of the vote. And while Paul is not officially for the legalization of marijuana, he is for its decriminalization.

On the third day of CPAC, Howard ‘Cowboy’ Wooldridge stood out in a sea of suits and dresses in a cowboy hat, jeans, and a shirt that read, “COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT: ASK ME WHY.”

“My profession is flying around in a helicopter, spending millions of dollars looking for a green plant,” the Frederick resident and former police detective said, calling enforcement of pot laws “a horrific misallocation of resources.”

DC's ballot initiative, which passed with support from 70 percent of voters, “wasn’t even close,” he said. “This is the will of the people, the vast majority of the people." Those in Congress who attempted to derail the legislation are "nosy busybodies" who should "mind their own goddamn business," he said.

“It’s so inconsistent here at CPAC that everybody screams about Obamacare, one size fits all for 50 states, when one person says five minutes later, ‘but for marijuana we need a federal 50-state solution,’" he said. "Helloooo? Do you see any inconsistencies here?”

Back on the Potomac ballroom stage, Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company came out on stage to announce the results of this year's straw poll. Cheers broke out in the ballroom when she showed a slide presented the voting results on marijuana. Another plurality, 41 percent of the voters, had voted for legalizing marijuana, and 26 percent had voted for legalizing it for medical uses.

Rand Paul won the straw poll again. A chant began: “President Paul! President Paul!”

Posted at 10:09 AM/ET, 03/02/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
DC's public-transit system has many faults, but the decision not to raise fares and cut service has at least one passenger swooning. By Emma Foehringer Merchant
Photograph by Flickr user JJ Jackson.

Most Metro riders are familiar with the ups and downs of its service. I’m not naïve: Metro is a fickle mate, but it’s been there for me—sometimes.

There was the time I walked to Union Station in a downpour, debating Uber the entire walk. Metro never surges its prices in the rain. There was the time I stayed out too late because I bought a panini from IHOP and upon entering the Columbia Heights station, was greeted by the metallic clink of fencing and a “Sorry, honey,” from the station manager. Despite the disappointment, we both knew I’d be coming back.

On Thursday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced that it will spare riders from fare hikes and “substantial” cuts to train or bus schedules it had proposed last month, at least for the current fiscal year. I had been waiting for this positive news since I first heard of the draft budget through the grapevine, just as one might be informed of a philandering two-timer. It’s good to know the trains won’t keep me waiting any longer than they already do. Still, I’m left to imagine what “substantial” could mean for our future. WMATA’s final budget vote won’t be until spring.

Since moving to DC from California’s freeway-slashed Inland Empire, the lulling ding of train doors and the cozy plastic chairs have been a balm to my sun-deprived soul. Metro made me comfortable in a new city, ferrying me from place to place with relative ease. We spend a lot of time together: we all know how long the Red Line takes on the weekend (or many weekdays). But I wouldn’t want to go to the zoo with anyone else.

Sure, the relationship can be a bit disconcerting. It perturbs me when people try to jump through the doors as they were already sliding shut. (“Doors closing, stand back” isn’t a joke, people.) And yes, watching my SmarTrip dollars tick down, only to be auto-loaded behind my back is always a bit creepy. Then, the announcement of potential fare hikes and diminished service. A couple weeks later at Dupont Circle, the crush of people from an unloaded train left me reeling. And since January 12, when the smoke that filled a broken-down train left one passenger dead, the acrid, burned-plastic smell that marks certain stations is now suspect. I didn’t know where Metrorail and I would go from there, and honestly, my trust was greatly diminished. And fares hikes weren’t supposed to be on the table until next year.

So, good timing on the announcement, Metro. My transit budget was starting to stray. Even though using Uber makes me feel awful, that fare-splitting is tantalizing—and a little snow wouldn’t keep me away from Capital Bikeshare. But I’ll keep riding. Because I don’t have a car. And also, I love you, Metro, I really do.

Posted at 01:22 PM/ET, 02/27/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The truth behind Reggie Love's memoir. By Matthew Cooper
Love, shown with his boss at an Olympic basketball game at the Verizon Center in 2012, remade the role of body man from “chief of stuff” to First Friend. Photograph by Leslie E. Kossoff/Landov.

Attending every powerful man or woman in Washington is a host of enablers. At the top of this class are clerks at the Supreme Court, legislative assistants on the Hill, and special assistants throughout the federal government. They have important work to do—overseeing schedules, providing counsel, relaying confidences from other bigwigs. But a large part of the job is managing the ego of the man or woman they serve, anticipating their boss’s needs, accepting his or her disdain, imparting bad news—rarely. Suffering these indignities is the price of proximity.

Among the coolest and most humbling of these gigs is the personal assistant to the President, better known as the “body man.” Invariably the young man (if Hillary is elected, the gender will change) makes sure the leader of the free world’s water is carbonated, not still; sees that his suits are pressed; and hustles him to his next meeting. Body men keep a low profile, endure a good share of abuse from a tired boss, and are granted a remarkable view of history.

Though essentially factotums, body men—who usually carry over from the presidential campaign—are political animals, climbers who graduate to fine business careers. Kris Engskov, one of Bill Clinton’s body men, is a Starbucks executive in London. Jared Weinstein, who worked for George W. Bush, runs a capital firm in New York. But because they tend to fade into the background after their presidential tenure is over, we rarely hear from them again.

Until now. Reggie Love, a body man from the 2008 presidential campaign through the first years of the Obama administration, has made headlines since leaving the White House in 2011, once revealing that he played spades with the President while Navy SEALs hunted Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Love has released a memoir,
Power Forward: My Presidential Education.

Now Love has released a memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education. The title is a triple entendre, playing on Love’s athletic career (he played basketball and football at Duke and was briefly enlisted by the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys), his rise from middle-class kid to presidential body man, and his things-I’ve-learned counsel to the rest of us.

Much of the last of those three hits somewhere between Tony Robbins and a TED Talk. “Every day doesn’t end or start with a slam dunk,” Love consoles those of us who would settle for toothbrushing. His big finish aims to inspire: “ . . . I know there is no music as beautiful as the swish of a net, that there is nothing we can’t achieve, if we just stand tall, take the ball, and power forward.”

As White House memoirs go, Love’s isn’t scholarly hagiography, like Arthur Schlesinger’s JFK Oval Office account, A Thousand Days. It lacks the ungrateful barbs of George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, about the Clinton years. Love’s recollection is more akin to Ten Minutes From Normal by Karen Hughes, the longtime George W. Bush adviser, whose most mundane moments seem meant to impress, as when she shares how bizarre it is to be shopping for produce while taking a phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Love’s humblebrag comes one morning on the campaign trail, when Obama walks into his hotel room while the body man is entertaining a, um, guest. In Love’s telling, his date has the sheets up to her neck and Obama politely apologizes. Love, who seems to want us to know both how tight he is with the President and how he can score on the road, comes off as less modest.

Other tales speak piquantly of the longueurs of the job—watching the health-conscious President pick M&M’s out of his trail mix, nearly getting fired for misplacing Obama’s bag. At one stop, Love has tossed out the taquitos Obama is craving. Fortunately, the body man finds some at the next stop. “I earned some respect that day,” he writes.

J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. For the body man, it’s about sticks of meat and cheese.

The Case of the Missing Taquitos will be enough to tempt political junkies to buy this book. But a close reading offers a glimpse into Obama’s character as well. Love doesn’t get into it directly, but you can see why the two men became so close.

Yes, the President famously loves basketball and loves his guy Friday’s ability to talk hoops at all hours. The two share other bonds, however. Each went, with considerable financial aid, to private school—Obama to the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, Love to Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each went through a bad-boy phase before settling down.

This common history throws their differences into relief. As a basketball player at Duke, Love lived the life of a rock star. At Columbia, Obama was reclusive, by his own account, residing off campus in New York City’s then seedy Morningside Heights. I was a year behind him, Stephanopoulos a year ahead; neither we nor any of the future pols on campus I’ve since asked ever knew the President-to-be.

Love’s African-Americanness, too, must have appealed to Obama, in the same way eventual First Lady Michelle Robinson’s did. Love had none of the dreams-from-my-father angst that plagued “Barry” Obama as he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia of mixed race and with multiple caregivers. Love’s touchstones were church, rootedness, and middle-class values: “. . . [T]he things that give me satisfaction don’t change. Sweet tea. . . . The stirring swell of a church choir. . . . My mother saying she’s proud of me. My father shooting hoops with me.”

Love emerged from that upbringing with a mix of hubris and modesty that’s simultaneously endearing and infuriating. To his credit, he’s quick to say he has screwed things up, from a DUI at Duke to being a jerk to flight attendants aboard the campaign charter. It’s a rather self-deprecating account for someone whose college years were rife with friends and hangers-on.

At times, he can appear blind to himself and the culture of Washington. At one point, Love invites friends to a DC bar to celebrate his birthday, but when word gets out, a crowd of nearly a thousand people shows up, desperate to touch a little power. Love is stunned by this throng.

He shouldn’t be, as he himself is a bit like the crashers. Had he not wanted to get close to Obama, Love’s followers wouldn’t be following him. But when it comes to his desire to cozy up to Obama, his candidness dissolves into “aw, shucks.”

Love—who left the White House before the President’s term ended (most body men do)—got an MBA from Wharton and is now a partner in Transatlantic Holdings, a financial holding company in DC. His ambition and smarts would likely have gotten him there anyway, together with his standing as a commanding athlete and his Duke degree. But his life has been supercharged by a superb ability to manage up and render himself indispensable. That makes Love a lot like the rest of us who harbor ambition and chirp, “Great idea, boss.” We’re all body men.

Posted at 07:00 AM/ET, 02/27/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
“Historic preservation is a major third rail in Montgomery County real estate." By Miranda S. Spivack
The former COMSAT building in Clarksburg. Photograph of COMSAT building by Isabelle Gournay/Mary Corbin Sies.

Viewed from I-270, the COMSAT building in Clarks-burg seems to float like a silver spaceship, befitting its origin in 1969 as the home of the US’s fledgling communications-satellite network. Designed by Modernist Cesar Pelli, the building’s cylindrical corridors and gleaming aluminum shell foreshadowed Pelli’s later plan for Reagan National Airport. More than 300 patents were filed from research conducted by COMSAT, founded by Congress in 1962. But COMSAT’s distinctive looks and history may not be enough to save it.

Or rather, to save it again: In 2007, after threatening to knock the building down, its owner, Pennsylvania developer LCOR, agreed to include it in a proposed retail, housing, and commercial complex. But the 2008 economic downturn appears to have foiled those plans, and now LCOR wants out. The public sales listing makes no mention of the site’s significance. LCOR executive vice president Bill Hard declined to comment.

“Historic preservation is a major third rail in Montgomery County real estate,” says historian David Rotenstein, who was on the county’s Historic Preservation Commission when it pushed to protect the building.

Isabelle Gournay, a University of Maryland architecture professor who nominated COMSAT in 2005 for historic designation, calls it an elegant example of “machine in the garden,” a 19th-century idea blending the modern with the pastoral: “I don’t understand why people are so adamant about demolishing it. There are very few buildings like this in the United States.”

And fewer in Maryland. A 2005 Montgomery County report pointed to only five buildings in the state comparable in stature to COMSAT: two Frank Lloyd Wright houses, in Bethesda and Baltimore; Richard Neutra’s Mellon Hall at St. John’s College in Annapolis; and two Ludwig Mies van der Rohe structures in Baltimore. “Those four architects, and their limited buildings, are all the state of Maryland has with regard to world-class Modern architecture,” the report noted. (Recently, a home designed by Marcel Breuer in Bethesda was granted historic status.)

The 88-year-old Pelli, who helped in the fight to save the building nine years ago, says it represents “what was best of a period,” adding: “I will be very sad, of course, if that building is torn down.”

This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 05:11 PM/ET, 02/26/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Legalized marijuana has stirred an international incident. By Benjamin Freed
Amsterdam features robust bike infrastructure, charming canals, and absolutely no sense of humor. Photograph via Shutterstock.

On Tuesday, with the District on the cusp of legalizing the possession and home cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, Mayor Muriel Bowser's office published leaflets offering guidance to residents about the city's new drug reform. A sheet containing several frequently asked questions attempted to spell out all the details of Initiative 71, from the amount of pot people are allowed to carry (not more than two ounces), to the number of plants residents are allowed to grow (six, only three of which can be mature), to where it can be consumed (private residences only, not in public, and definitely not on federally controlled land).

But then there's this line: "Is DC going to become like Amsterdam?"

Comparing any jurisdiction that relaxes its marijuana laws to the Dutch capital is kneejerk and inevitable, but you know who doesn't like it? The Dutch!

In a fact sheet of its own, the Embassy of the Netherlands is rebutting the Bowser administration's dismissal of Amsterdam as a city swaddled by an unyielding fog of marijuana smoke.

"Mayor Muriel Bowser said this week that the District will not become 'like Amsterdam,' as though being 'like Amsterdam' would be a bad thing," reads a press release from the Dutch Embassy.

The Dutch are also keen to point out that their marijuana laws—which are nationwide, not just restricted to the capital city—are more stringent than DC's in some aspects and looser in others. While the Netherlands licenses cafés to sell weed along with coffees and pastries, there are strict limits on how much green a customer can buy and how much a store can have in stock. Alcohol is prohibited, as are minors, other drugs, and, per the press release any "nuisance." Also banned from buying weed: foreigners, although local jurisdictions, like Amsterdam, are allowed to make this a low-priority enforcement issue. (In 2013, the Netherlands, responding to burdensome drug tourism along the Belgian and German borders, restricted marijuana purchases to Dutch residents only.) DC's legalized-marijuana regime has no framework for a retail market, but it does allow possession of much larger amounts (five grams for the Dutch, compared to two ounces in DC).

But the Dutch aren't ragging on Washington just over differences in weed policy. They're also taking potshots at DC's relative deficits of museums, bike lanes, canals, and—this one stings—streetcars.

DC vs Amsterdam

Posted at 03:41 PM/ET, 02/26/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
A counterpoint from a woman with hair. By Marisa M. Kashino
Marisa M. Kashino's snow kit.

Listen, we all known Ben Freed hates Bao Bao and is therefore not a rational person, so it's not entirely fair to gang up on him. But for real—this no umbrellas-in-the-snow business is wack. And I would know, since I spent the first 22 years of my life in Seattle. If anyone has the right to be a snob about umbrella usage, it's me. I use an umbrella in the rain. I use one in the snow. I used one this morning during my commute into the office. And you know what? It made that commute a lot easier for this reason: I am a woman. With hair. And I don't really feel like I should have to justify or explain beyond that.

Actually, wait, one more thing: I'm a woman who carries a purse. A leather one that didn't cost nothing. My coat and my hat don't protect it. My umbrella does.

You know when I don't use an umbrella? In the wind. That's a pointless battle waged only by suckers.

And I'm no sucker. But Ben Freed might be.

Posted at 11:59 AM/ET, 02/26/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Don't be a weather wimp. By Benjamin Freed
Photographs by Benjamin Freed.

The photo above was taken from Washingtonian's office. In the lower right-hand corner, you can see an individual walking down the sidewalk using an umbrella for protection. From what, exactly? Possibly the light snowfall that is currently dusting the city with, at most, three inches of fresh powder. As you can see, this umbrella-toting person is not alone. Peek through the trees and you'll see two pedestrians on the corner of 19th and L streets, Northwest, underneath half-domes of water-resistant cloth.

Every time Washington gets even the tracest amount of snow, there are some people around here who grab their umbrellas at the first gentle flake. This is ridiculous. And while it's not a manuever specific to DC—New York suffers from the same phenomenon—it is an ugly image that reinforces the notion that Washingtonians panic at the slightest hint of winter. Here are two more offenders making their way down shoveled sidewalks hugging a freshly plowed roadway.

Clearly, it is time for an intervention. Repeat this sentence: Umbrellas are not for the snow.

An umbrella is a device used to protect the user from either rain or direct sunlight. While umbrellas have no single point of origin, they are seen in history as far back to the fifth century BC in Greece and the first century AD in China. But they are not for the snow. Umbrellas are useful during rain because rain water can penetrate layers of clothing. Their bulkiness is tolerated because of their utility. Raincoats are designed the same way. Snowflakes can be brushed off most fabrics, and do not even cling to snow-specific apparel like parkas and ski jackets. None of the umbrella-carrying jokers seen here appear to be wearing raincoats. Some of them might even have hats or hoods on their heads!

Perhaps Washington is just overrun with office-dwellers who are more willing to admit their seasonal weakness than suffer a few hours of hat hair. But they're only hurting the cause. As long as even a few people walk down these lightly sprinkled streets with umbrellas over their heads, Washington will continue to be seen as a town that panics in the snow.

Just to be clear, it is acceptable to use an umbrella if:

  • It's raining
  • The sunlight at the beach is too intense
  • You're starring in a mid-20th century musical about blending into high society
  • You're a magical British nanny and you need to make a quick getaway

It is not acceptable to use an umbrella when:

  • It's snowing

You know who else used an umbrella in the snow?

Screenshot from Batman Returns.

Oswald Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin. Don't be like the Penguin, people.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 02/26/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
After years of chasing monster traffic, web publishers are seeking a more refined measure of success. By Andrew Beaujon
Pressing engagement: Politico’s Susan Glasser seeks readers who want to read a whole story. Photo-illustration by John Ueland.

For those who follow digital media, 2015 may be remembered as the Year of Quality. In New York in January, Gawker Media announced that the company would shut down the live chart on its Manhattan office wall showing how many clicks its articles were getting in real time. Gawker’s CEO, Nick Denton, wrote on his blog that his company had “reached the limit” of paying writers a bounty for posts that cracked open the internet. Instead, Gawker would salute high-quality work—“a recognition that we can never play the viral traffic game as shamelessly as BuzzFeed,” sniffed Denton.

The same month, Arlington-based Politico hired Jack Shafer, the highly respected, ruminative former Reuters and Slate media critic. Since its founding in 2007, Politico has driven Washington’s political reporting with high-cadence, incremental scooplets that are easy to mock but hard to ignore if you’re someone whose “business is Washington,” as new editor Susan Glasser described Politico’s audience in her introductory memo to staffers. Shafer’s work is quite the opposite of that model. But it seems to fit Politico’s current MO.

For much of Glasser’s six-month tenure, scoop machines like Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman have been bailing out. To Glasser’s critics, that’s a sign of a newsroom in crisis. In fact, it looks quite intentional: As stalwarts of Politico’s early years have left, they’ve been replaced not by the New York tabloid types the publication once recruited but by talent from slower-paced newsrooms like the Boston Globe (Peter Canellos and Stephen Heuser), the Tampa Bay Times (Bill Duryea and Michael Kruse), and Time (Michael Crowley and Michael Grunwald).

The arrival of Shafer seems to make the swivel official.

Politico editors still get e-mail alerts when Drudge Report—which can drive reams of web traffic—picks up on their stories. Thus prompted, they can fill the favored article with related links in hopes of goosing traffic across the entire site.

But when reached by phone, Politico CEO Jim VandeHei disabuses me of the notion that high traffic was ever something Politico gave a big hoot about. “Traffic for traffic’s sake is a deal with the devil you don’t want to make,” VandeHei says. A publisher who plans to make money by selling mere audience numbers “better be up there with BuzzFeed or beyond.”

Dismissing BuzzFeed as a mere traffic junkie is a recurring theme here; it’s also a bit disingenuous, as the site also runs slow-cooked, important stories by respected journalists. But it still makes its nut with “listicles” like 25 sweaty memories every soccer girl will never forget—which get the kind of clicks you’ll never get with profiles of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.

The numbers bear that out. In December, according to the digital-measurement company comScore, Politico had 7.6 million unique visitors, the web term for individual readers. That’s a heck of a lot of people (and 44 percent more than Politico had in December 2013). But in the same period, BuzzFeed drew 77 million uniques. By pushing out massive volumes of content to grab ever-diminishing seconds of readers’ time, “quantity players” like BuzzFeed shrink what advertisers are willing to pay for clicks.

“When you have so much supply out there, it just inevitably pushes the prices down to pennies,” VandeHei says.

Which is why publications like his are changing focus. Last year, Chartbeat, another digital-readership tabulator, won approval from the Media Rating Council to sell advertisers on a measure of the quality of readers’ attention. Chartbeat’s software doesn’t just track when people click on a story—it captures how they interact with it, whether they scroll down, whether they hit any keys, whether a tab sits open and untouched. All of this makes them more appealing to advertisers—that is, more valuable to media companies—than folks who open an article and then forget about it.

Which means there’s a business case for quality. Midmornings, Politico will likely continue to pull in prized eyeballs by serving up tidbits to Hill insiders about, say, breakaway Republicans forming a “House Freedom Caucus.” Come afternoon, when readers have a little downtime, it’ll float a 2,100-word chronology of President Obama’s middle-class economic policies. The more deliberative pieces will allow Politico to “hit the reader from 360 degrees,” VandeHei says.

Other Capitol Hill players will be watching closely: In its short existence, Politico has a way of changing the game for everyone. When it launched, “everyone was kind of slow, and we came along and we were fast and fun,” says VandeHei. Now that the competition has sped up, “we still want to be faster and more fun than any publication around, but we also want to think about how to break through when everyone visits 20 sites per day.”

In announcing his own company’s pivot to quality, Gawker Media’s Nick Denton said: “Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.” Or they may remember it as the moment at which traditional media, battered by the brutal economics of the web, yielded yet another selling point to digital upstarts.

Senior editor Andrew Beaujon can be reached at abeaujon@washingtonian.com.

This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 09:00 AM/ET, 02/26/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()