Politico Grows Up

With a new high-priced subscription, the scrappy start-up makes the leap into establishment journalism

By: Shane Harris

As John Harris tells the story, the idea to start Politico four years ago “wasn’t a stunningly interesting insight.” There was no epiphany. No fraught deliberation. Just a recognition, as he remembers it, that people wanted something new from the news.

“It used to be that what drove a conversation was what the New York Times and the Washington Post said was important on a given day,” says Harris, Politico’s editor-in-chief. And he would know, having spent more than two decades at the Post. Those mainstay publications still set the terms of political discussion in Washington and nationally. But now so does Politico. And increasingly, that conversation is taking on the characteristics of the publication itself. It’s relentless, it’s obsessive, and above all, it’s very specific. Politico has become a nationally recognized journalistic brand by going deeper into political coverage, and delivering such coverage much more frequently, than its competitors. The focus is on speed rather than deliberation. And Politico has proved there’s a market for micro-coverage of Washington beyond the Beltway.

“The era of broad platforms,” as Harris calls those bastions of general-interest reporting and commentary, the newspapers, “is in its sunset phase. We’re in an era of niches.”

This week, Harris and his Politico cofounder, former Post reporter Jim VandeHei, are launching their nichiest venture yet. It’s called Politico Pro. And while the name awkwardly suggests that the original product was some kind of amateur operation, it fits. “Pro” is a fateful step in Politico’s evolution, from a scrappy start-up initially dismissed as folly by the established Beltway media players into the most ambitious and arguably most important political news organization in Washington. Politico Pro is actually a collection of three news organizations, each devoted to covering the “politics behind policymaking,” as Harris and VandeHei put it, on health care, energy, and technology. Politico’s founders are betting that their rapid-fire, buzzy approach to news reporting can rev up the metabolism of the historically studious game of trade reporting and make in-depth looks at key policy fields an essential read. It’s a gamble, but one they’re willing to take in order to grow their brainchild and make the Politico enterprise more competitive beyond its traditional base of politics-and-campaigns coverage.

A Politico Pro marketing brochure makes clear that the new publication is defining itself largely in opposition to veteran Washington news operations such as National Journal and Congressional Quarterly (CQ), which have been reporting the inside story of policymaking, unchallenged, for decades.

“Other policy publications offer dry recitations of hearings and meetings or leave you searching through transcript excerpts and databases for the nuggets of news that matter,” the brochure says. “We’ll cut through the clutter and deliver the human intelligence you need to do your job better.”

The bravado of this project has been part of Politico’s ethos since its founding, a take-no-prisoners approach to Washington journalism that seeks to elevate Politico’s stature by tearing down its competition. But there’s little doubt that Politico Pro is on to something: There are an awful lot of dry recitations and recaps out there.

People also pay for them, and handsomely. Subscriptions to National Journal and CQ, which merged with Roll Call in 2009, range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars per year. The high-end news market isn’t a new market, but it’s not one that Politico positioned itself as part of. It has never charged for content—until now.

A Politico Pro subscription starts at around $2,500 a year for one coverage area and then $1,000 for each additional area. That makes the publications competitive on price with many of National Journal and CQ’s offerings, which include daily news, weekly magazines, and in CQ’s case, an extensive database system for tracking legislation and political spending.

The advertising in Politico’s print edition reportedly provides most of the organization’s revenue, a supreme irony considering that most of Politico’s readers know it only as a Web site or from its reporters’ appearances on television. But while Harris asserts that “we make a lot of money off the Web” and that the entire Politico operation is “robustly profitable,” it’s not making enough to satisfy the company’s grand ambition. “We want to be the dominant news organization in Washington,” VandeHei says.

According to VandeHei, there are plans to send reporters overseas to cover wars. He also wants to plunge into investigative reporting. These endeavors will cost considerably more than Politico’s bread-and-butter beats—covering Congress and the minutiae of the President’s daily schedule. In order to grow, the company needs another revenue source besides ads. “The only other one I know is subscriptions,” Harris says.

Deciding to Go Pro

Politico Pro has been a long time coming. VandeHei and Harris were thinking about how to get readers to pay for their journalism as early as 2009, when VandeHei hired Mike Riley, the former Congressional Quarterly editor, as a consultant. Riley had lost his job that summer after CQ was acquired by the Economist Group, which merged CQ’s daily and weekly news operations with the newspaper Roll Call, which covers Capitol Hill in depth.

Riley was an obvious source of knowledge, given his experience editing a policy publication. That’s why he was also consulted (though not paid) by Bloomberg, the financial news giant, which was interested in starting its own subscription operation in Washington.

Riley eventually took a job at the new outfit, called Bloomberg Government, or BGov, in January 2010. Both Politico Pro and BGov’s editors insist they’re not competing with one another for readers. But those readers don’t have bottomless pockets, and budgets for high-priced news subscriptions are tighter than before the recession. Some of them will have to choose from among BGov, Politico Pro, and the more established outfits such as CQ Roll Call (as that combined venture is now called) and National Journal.

So what about Politico Pro sets it apart from the companies that VandeHei and Harris insist they’re not competing against? The editors struggle with that question. Harris defines Politico Pro as “what’s in our reporters’ notebooks and in their heads . . . political intelligence.” But it’s not clear how that’s any different from the news Politico reporters are already delivering at a relentless rate.

VandeHei seems to think that Politico Pro’s secret lies in its approach to coverage. He has in mind taking a group of trade reporters—nearly all the 30 Politico Pro hires have come from publications that are practically unknown outside their professional audience—and “teaching them our tricks, letting them loose.” He equates the Politico style of reportage to “the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force.” By this logic, Politico Pro will win the Washington media wars by sheer force of will, covering a subject so relentlessly and intensively that readers will have no choice but to pay attention to the publication. In other words, Politico Pro will try to imitate Politico.

VandeHei and Harris are applying the Powell doctrine to hiring, too. Politico Pro poached five reporters from the news service Energy & Environment E&E Publishing, enticing them with what one knowledgeable source describes as extravagant salary increases. VandeHei and Harris swoon over their new charges, who could be forgiven for feeling they’d just been brought up from the farm leagues. VandeHei calls Darren Samuelsohn, his new senior energy-and-environment reporter, “the Mike Allen of the energy world.”

Politico didn’t limit its raids to editorial staff. In one brazen maneuver, e-mails and phone calls went out to every member of the Energy & Environment E&E Publishing sales staff, a job offer en masse. The owners spoke to the courted employees, none of whom took the bait.

Swagger Meets Substance

Aggressiveness is a highly prized trait in Politico’s Darwinian newsroom, which is proudly undemocratic. (“All reporters are not created equal,” VandeHei proclaims.) Among the staff, perhaps no editor embodies the approach to news gathering that has set Politico’s reporters apart from their competition than Tim Grieve, a deputy managing editor whom VandeHei and Harris put in charge of Politico Pro.

Notorious for driving his reporters to physical exhaustion and mental breakdown and for berating those who get scooped by the competition, former employees have described Grieve as the most aggressive and unforgiving boss they’ve ever worked for; but they also say he’s one of the best. They describe his approach as bare-knuckled but say his editorial sensibilities and news judgment are superb.

“Probably a lot of reporters will laugh when I say this,” Grieve says, likely anticipating the reaction of several former employees. “As an editor, I don’t have to push that hard. The best reporters, I have to get out of their way.”

His bosses are on the same page. The chiefs of Politico believe they’ve hired the best for their new operation. And VandeHei believes he has the best man in charge. Grieve possesses what VandeHei calls the “Politico DNA: Write fast. Win.” Grieve himself describes Politico’s culture in binary terms: “There are places you can work in this town where speed is not essential. That’s not here.”

But it’s not clear that policy analysis can be cranked out with pithy dispatch, nor that it’s an especially competitive arena for scoops. Grieve admits that his background wouldn’t seem to recommend him for his new role: “Before I took this job, I didn’t spend a lot of time reading trade publications.”

But so far, Grieve has managed to channel the vision of VandeHei and Harris into tangible work, which may make him the obvious choice to run Politico Pro. Like his bosses, he struggles to define exactly what this new publication offers that makes it unique. “It’s really hard to describe our products in ways that people wouldn’t use to describe their products,” he says.

After mulling it over for a few moments, he offers a word that to him has always best described Politico’s essence: “Swagger.”

There’s no shortage of that in the Politico newsroom. “I don’t think you can do a job in Washington without understanding policy, politics, and personality,” VandeHei says. “We are better than anyone at understanding how all three fit together.”

If “swagger” is the operative word at Politico, “humility” must have been erased from the official vocabulary. But then, restraint didn’t get VandeHei and Harris to the top of the Washington media heap. If any two people can find a way to make bluster, ego, and unremitting confidence a reason to pay thousands of dollars for news, it’s probably them.

This story has been clarified to reflect that Mike Riley was not a paid consultant for Bloomberg before he joined the company.

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos