One of the great rivalries in Washington political journalism is over—at least for now: Victory to Brand X, as the Washington Post refers to the New York Times.
With this week’s loss of Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris to a web-based news venture, the Post barely can field a team in the political arena. Add David von Drehle’s move to Time magazine and the Post has lost the core of its political coverage as the 2008 presidential begins to gather momentum.
The New York Times, meanwhile, seems to be getting stronger.
Veteran Times White House correspondent David Sanger just moved up to be chief Washington correspondent. John Broder has returned from Los Angeles to cover politics. Jeff Zeleny recently left the Chicago Tribune to join the Times and now covers money and politics.
“I’m not going to take pleasure from good people leaving the Post,” says Times bureau chief Phil Taubman. “I have great respect for the paper. The better the Washington Post is, the better the L.A. Times is, the better the New York Times will be.”
But at least for now, the New York contender will be much better.
The Post can still go head-to-head with the Times in congressional coverage. Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray make a formidable duo against the Times’ Carl Hulse, David Kirkpatrick, and Kate Zernike. And the Post can still play even in White House coverage, with Peter Baker, Mike Fletcher, and Mike Abramowitz up against Jim Rutenberg and Sheryl Gay Stolberg. Dan Balz at the Post matches up with Adam Nagourney at the Times as the top political writers.
But the competition ends there.
The Post has no match for Robin Toner, who can cover anything well. Anne Kornblut has the Hillary Clinton beat. The Post has no one.
Did I mention Mark Liebovich, who the Times lured from the Post earlier this year? Von Drehle was supposed to fill Liebovich’s political beat in the Style section—until he moved to Time. And Tom Edsall was the Post’s experienced hand in covering money and politics—until he took the recent buyout.
Liz Spayd, who has overseen the Post’s political coverage as assistant managing editor since 2000, is leaving her job to become editor of washingtonpost.com. With Harris and Spayd gone, the Post has to break in two editors to run political coverage.
Add to it all that the Post's star political essayist Dana Milbank is sidelined on book leave.
“It’s [Dan] Balz and Baker and pray for rain,” said one former Post writer.
The drain from the Post—and other newspapers—might have just begun. Allbritton Communications, which is starting up the Internet-focused political news organization that has taken Harris and VandeHei, also has offered a contract to Post writer Chris Cillizza.
Cillizza works for washingtonpost.com, writing a blog called The Fix, but his stories often appear in the print newspaper, and he is often held up as a model of the kind of reporter the Post seeks to hire and promote.
VandeHei, a national political reporter, and Harris, the Post’s political editor, seem to have started a stampede toward the Internet. Writers from the L.A. Times, USA Today, the wires, the Post and television news operations have inquired about jobs at the new online venture.
Neither Harris nor VandeHei said they left the paper because they were unhappy with their jobs or the direction of the paper and its web site.
“Jim and I are eager to be associated with something new and build it from the ground up,” Harris told The Washingtonian. The Allbritton venture—the Albritton family once owned the Washington Star newspaper and still owns WJLA-TV, the ABC outlet in Washington—will include a web site focused only on politics. It will be affiliated with The Capitol Leader, a new Capitol Hill newspaper scheduled to start publication in January. Harris and VandeHei also will have a partnership with CBS News.
Harris and VandeHei took their idea for a new political web site to the Post, and the Post was interested in creating such a venture.
“That was one option,” says Harris, who has been at the Post for 21 years. “We thought long and hard about it. At the end of the day, the appeal of starting something wholly new, where we could make decisions and have influence from the beginning, won the day.
“It’s not impossible to accomplish this within an established institution,” he says, “but it is harder. What we are doing is riskier but potentially more rewarding.”
No matter how the paper spins the loss of Harris, VandeHei, and von Drehle, plus Edsall and Liebovich, it seems clear that the Washington Post is no longer the preeminent source of political news in Washington. The L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal have strong political teams. USA Today can depend on Susan Page, long time bureau chief; Kathy Kiely and Andrea Stone covering Congress; David Jackson on the White House; Jill Lawrence for national politics; and investigative reporter Pete Eisler.
In their memo announcing the defection of Harris and VandeHei, Post executive editor Len Downie and managing editor Phil Bennett ended by professing a desire to “increase the number of readers for whom The Post is the essential guide to American politics.”
Given the paper's losses this year, the essential guide is now the New York Times.