Robert Allbritton says he’s not aiming to compete with the Washington Post.
“That’s not the plan,” he says.
But what he’s doing indicates the opposite.
Taking a page out of his creation of Politico, Allbritton has put his money on a veteran Post staffer — this time Jim Brady — to build a web site that could again strike at the Post’s heart. Politico challenged the Post’s command of national politics; the new venture will take on the Post’s coverage of local news.
“We have been talking about lessons learned from Politico in news, the web, and the economy,” he says. “Now it’s time to put something together. If we wind up competing, that’s the way it goes.”
Allbritton’s new “something” will debut in the spring, separate from Politico. “Different name, different brand, different staff.”
Same kind of leader: a journalist who bridled under the Post’s bureaucracy. Two years Allbritton convinced Post political stars John Harris and Jim VandeHei to leave the capital’s dominant daily news operation to start a new venture based on high-speed, high-intensity coverage of political news. Now he’s brought in Jim Brady to apply the formula to local news.
Brady came up covering sports at the Post, helped start the Post’s web site in 1996, went to AOL for a few years, and returned to run washingtonpost.com in 2005. A rumpled character, Brady built an award-winning web site and earned the loyalty of his staff. When Marcus Brauchli told Brady he would lose his autonomy when the Post merged its print and online newsrooms, he quit.
He drove cross-country with his wife, returned to do some consulting for Politico, and Allbritton hired him to run his new undertaking.
“We want to build the local Web site of the future,” Brady says.
How will he do that?
“We will hire professional journalists,” he explains, “but in the new world you will have to respond to people talking about your journalism.”
Both Brady and Allbritton apply the scientific lexicon of “DNA” and “metabolism” in describing a journalistic enterprise that is still in the design stages. Allbritton starts with a strong base. He owns News Channel 8 and ABC affiliate WJLA-TV. Both have web sites that will be folded into the new venture.
Like many new digital news operations, it will aggregate information, seek to break news, and try to generate the call-and-response journalism built on blogging.
“And writing with a different voice,” says Allbritton.
The real challenge will be paying for the new new journalism. Politico might hype its Web site, but its big revenues come from the print newspaper distributed on Capitol Hill and mostly funded by lobbyists.
Jim Brady talks about the new venture relative to his years at the Post.
“A smaller revenue base, a smaller traffic base, a bigger hill to climb,” he says. “Is there really revenue in the local market? How do we mine it?”
There are many miners already digging. Besides the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the DC Examiner have print and web publications. Then there’s WTOP radio and TV stations affiliated with NBC and CBS. And The Washingtonian.
Does Brady bear any ill will toward the Post?
“Not at all,” he says, “I love the Post. Don Graham is someone I admire as much as anyone in the world.”
If Brady’s new venture for Allbritton cuts into the Post’s ad revenue, the admiration might not be returned.
(Harry Jaffe, The Washingtonian’s National Editor, writes a Metro column for the DC Examiner.)