Animal PoliticoThe Model: Recent Changes in Political Journalism

Politico is one of the leading political news Web sites in the United States and, as such, is frequently cited as a successful example of a new model for journalism. Newspapers, the chief venue for political journalism in the 20th century, have seen the basis of their financial viability--advertising--shrink in recent years, at the same time that the internet has distributed the ability to produce news to a greater number of groups and individuals.¹ Politico is, according to the New York Times, "one of the nation's most popular online sources of political news,"² and in the words of Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff it has defied "all reason and expectations by continuing to prosper beyond the election season."³ However, as Politico is increasingly looked to as a model for aspiring providers of political journalism, it is worth asking: what is the model and what qualities have made it successful? What challenges and potential problems are inherent in this model?

The Model: Fast, Exclusive, and Parochial has thrived because of the particular approach to journalism taken by its managers. Politico's mission statement describes three primary areas of interest that they cover: Congress, the 2008 presidential campaign, and lobbying and advocacy.⁴ The 2008 campaign is, of course, ancient history in the minute-by-minute news cycle in which Politico operates. However, the inclusion of coverage of the campaign as a primary objective of Politico indicates an important part of the model: the site's popularity ebbs and flows in response to events, such as political campaigns, that Web sites are uniquely able to cover. Politico's focus on Congress and lobbying (and, more importantly, lobbyists) is the result of a desire to communicate not only about the policies and politics of Washington, but the personal drama and gossip behind the scenes. Thus, some of the qualities which have enabled Politico's success have been:

  • An Eye to the "Backstory": Politico's founders emphasize the importance of stories that "illuminate the personalities, relationships, clashes, ideas, and political strategies playing out in the shadows of official Washington."⁵

  • A Chatty, Personal Tone: The writing on Politico follows different conventions than the more traditional, staid style of conventional print newspapers. The speed with which Politico's reporters can react to events encourages a more rapid, almost breathless tone. Similarly, the attention given to the personalities and gossip of Washington politics encourages Politico's writers to use a more casual tone than is typically associated with political journalism in the United States.⁶ Much of Politico's audience is drawn to the site because of a desire to stay informed about the latest happenings on the Washington scene, this casual tone therefore contributes to the site's image as the first place to check for the latest information.

  • "Insider-ism": Politico thrives on the impression that it's reporters have access to all of the important political operators in Washington. "Parochial" often has a negative connotation, however Politico's image as having the last word on all matters related to Washington has been an asset. In Michael Wolff's Vanity Fair profile, he describes Mike Allen, one of Politico's best-known reporters:
    "Everybody who affects Washington politics knows that Allen is up at 4:30 assembling Politico's "Playbook," the daily report hat everybody in Washington politics and media will consult before beginning his or her day. Hence they feed him any information that they want to feed other people before they begin their Washington morning."⁷

  • Reporter Autonomy: The use of reporters as instantaneous relay points of information, as well as the technical qualities of the Web, leads to a higher level of independence for Politico's reporters than is the case at traditional newspapers. Again, Michael Wolff neatly describes: "Without the processes of page makeup and composition and feedback from the bullpen, it's seconds from source to reporter to publication to effect on the world."⁸

  • A Dependence on Political Culture: Michael Wolff's Vanity Fair profile observes that Politico has benefited from a resurgent interest and glamor associated with politics and life in Washington.⁹ While Washington has suffered from a negative public image for many years as the result of the perceived corruption or plain boredom of the political business, political careers have in recent years, if not fully vindicated, been subject to increased public fascination. This shift has also benefited those who cover the professional political class such as Politico.

So What? Politico's Status as a Leading Online News Organization
Why should aspiring providers of news content pay attention to Politico and seek to emulate the qualities listed above? Politico is not only one of the most successful political news Web sites, but in a world in which traditional forms of news media are declining, Politico now dominates the medium in which the future of journalism may rest. Along with The Huffington Post, The Drudge Report, TPM Cafe, and The Daily Beast, Politico is riding a wave of excitement with the potential of the internet to fill the gap left by print media.

According to comScore, a leading internet rating company, The Huffington Post and Politico lead the pack of internet news providers, with The Huffington Post receiving 4.5 million visitors in September 2008 and Politico receiving 2.4 million visitors in the same month. This was an increase of 472% for The Huffington Post and 344% for Politico.¹⁰ Each of these new "mega" political Web sites caters to a different niche audience and is structured around varying themes and tone. While Politico favors the Washington-insider tone described above, TPM Cafe conveys an image more friendly to the "netroots" of left-leaning bloggers, while The Drudge Report represents a more conservative slant. Although each of these sites is still working out its own model, the rate of growth experienced by all of them shows why the journalistic community has been so interested to see where they go.

The model is an exciting development for a field that is scrambling to find innovative ways to remain viable. Indeed, to avoid suffering the effect of what Clayton Christensen calls the "Innovator's Dilemma,"¹¹ news organizations must pay attention to Politico and incorporate Politico's strategies where appropriate. However, as this model is untested, challenges to its sustainable implementation should be considered. Our research identified two main areas of concern:

  • benefits from a unique set of financial circumstances. Politico is backed by the Allbrittons, a wealthy family that has been involved in the Washington news business for generations.¹² This financial support has allowed Politico to weather an initial period of adjustment. Politico also publishes a print version that is distributed and read widely in Washington. This print version, which itself benefits from the cachet of the Web site, allows Politico to cultivate a network of local advertisers for the print publication and who account for a substantial portion of Politico's advertising revenue. In the words of the New York Times, "[Politico's] finances depend almost entirely on a small audience within a mile of Capitol Hill."¹³ Web sites based on a similar model, but that lack either the backing of the Allbrittons or the capacity to take advantage of local, print advertisers, may face challenges not encountered by Politico.

  • Michael Wolff contends that through its "insider" quality, Politico "arguably becomes limited to professionals and compulsives."¹⁴ Politico's founders purposely avoided the model of "general-interest" news in favor of a niche approach catering to a specific audience. The danger of this approach is that the audience is either too small to sustain the publication or that, by limiting itself to such narrow interests, the publication cannot stay up to date with developments outside of its core audience and fails to remain relevant when social change--such as a decline in the prestige of "inside the Beltway" politics--occurs. We cited Michael Wolff's observation that the success of Politico has been in part tied to a resurgent interest in politics in the United States. While political news Web sites may not need the glamor of a President Obama to appeal to a mass audience, organizations based in other contexts should be aware that part of Politico's success has been tied to the vacillations of public opinion regarding political culture in Washington.

[1] Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," Columbia Journalism Review, October 19, 2009.²
[²] Richard Perez-Pena, "Politico Intends to Expand After Presidential Race Ends," New York Times, September 22, 2008.
[³] Michael Wolff, "Politico's Washington Coup," Vanity Fair, August 2009.
[⁴] Mission Statement
[⁶] See Wolff.
[⁷] Ibid.
[⁸] Ibid.
[⁹] Ibid.
[¹⁰] ComScore, "Huffington Post and Politico Lead Wave of Explosive Growth," October 22, 2008.
[¹¹] Description of Clayton Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma"
[¹²] See Wolff.
[¹³] See Perez-Pena.
See Wolff.

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