When Jim Brady went looking for an editor to launch his online local-news venture, he zeroed in on Marc Fisher, a lifer at the Washington Post. Brady’s new operation will be backed by Robert Allbritton and is intended as a companion to Politico, Allbritton’s political newspaper and Web site. It could present a direct threat to the Post.
Fisher was intrigued. He had been a foreign correspondent, local reporter, editor, and Metro columnist. He now manages a team of writers covering local stories. It would be huge fun to start something new, he thought.
But he declined.
“The Post is committed to radical change,” Fisher says. “I would rather be part of creating whatever we’re going to become.”
Brady was disappointed but says, “I am happy where I ended up.” Where he ended up is with Washington City Paper editor Erik Wemple.
Not landing Fisher is one of the differences between Politico and Brady’s Web site; Allbritton snagged Post stars John Harris and Jim VandeHei to start Politico. Brady comes from the Post, where he ran its online side, but Fisher wouldn’t budge.
Politico survives in a niche market of Capitol Hill, where there are plenty of print ads from companies seeking to lobby Congress; most of the revenue still comes from the paper edition. Brady’s new venture will have to compete for news and ads in a regional market—with no print revenue.
Politico has cut into the Post’s franchise on national political news; what if Allbritton’s new venture undercuts the Post’s local franchise?
“I take seriously any new entrant into the local market,” Post publisher Katharine Weymouth says by e-mail. “And I have great respect for Robert and the team he has hired.”
Says Allbritton: “It’s not as though we’re looking at how we can tear apart the Post. We see a great business opportunity—with a higher risk than Politico.”
The Post’s reaction to Politico’s arrival was leaden. Then-editor Len Downie was stuck in print, and star reporters were fleeing Susan Glasser’s mismanagement of the national staff.
Can current editor Marcus Brauchli meet the challenge?
“Of course we can,” he says. “They are coming late to the party. We launched our local home page last year. It’s doing extremely well. It will continue to adapt to our audience’s needs. I wouldn’t want to be dismissive, but I think the quality, speed, and range of our Washington-area content will set us apart.”
Brady expects to hire fewer than 20 reporters to cover the region; the Post now deploys around 100. Brady is banking on agility. His reporters will, he says, “shoot video, get in front of the camera, write stories.” He’ll welcome local bloggers and share video with Allbritton’s News Channel 8 and WJLA-TV.
“We view this as a chance to reinvent how local news is done in the new media age,” Brady says. “We’ll be using Web tools in Web time.”
As publisher, Brady, 42, will have to figure out where the revenue is. Display ads, he says, can’t pay the bills. He sees a mix of mobile and geo-targeted advertising: “We will try a lot of things.”
It’ll add up to a fight for survival.
“There’s more excitement than concern,” says Fisher, “but anyone who comes in and says they want to take your livelihood will create a spur. It’ll be interesting.”