Story location:

November 22, 2006

This Just In: John Harris and Jim VandeHei to Pull Back the Curtain on Official Washington

"What VandeHei and Harris are saying is: game is up, guys. Those deals are news; we know how it works. And we don't have the 'institutional bias' that permits the Post and the Times and the Journal to tolerate the gentleman's agreements, which after all are agreements to bury the story..."

There’s one thing I don’t understand about this week’s shock-a-roo in big league journalism: the Washington Post’s political editor, John Harris, and one of its top correspondents, Jim VandeHei, are leaving to start a new political news operation for Allbritton Communications, owners of WJLA-TV—the ABC affiliate in DC—and a 24-hour news channel. (Allbritton also owned the deceased Washington Star; apparently the dream of toppling the Post was never abandoned.)

The new venture will be web-based and multi-stream; delivering political news on any device people want to use. Platform agnosticism: I get that.

It will correspond to a new Washington newspaper, the Capitol Leader, which will publish three days a week and only when Congress is in session. This is the further unbundling of the metropolitan newspaper; I get that.

This new political news organization has struck a deal with an old one— CBS News. The press release boasts of a “unique partnership will include carriage of stories, interviews and regular features on Face the Nation and CBS This Morning as well as CBS Radio.” Harris and VandeHei, who are losing visibility by leaving the Post, will get it back through a deal with CBS News, which puts them on the air as analysts and prognosticators and gives their reporting a broader audience at critical times of the day.

I hope reporters on the media beat will find out more about this “carriage of…” part, because if the contract calls for guaranteed carriage of stories that’s an important detail. How guaranteed is it? If editorial control for segments lies with Harris and VandeHei, and they have time slots that are pretty much theirs, this is very different from contributing stuff to a broadcast produced by others who like your work and buy some of it. Are Harris and VandeHei suppliers of material or producers of politics on television?

I would need to know more but I get it: access to a network audience means sources have to deal with you. It means stories you break using the Internet won’t be confined to the Internet. It means you can lure top people with promises of being on TV. (Though not everyone is swooning.)

Harris is 43, VandeHei, 35. Their new employer’s announcement spoke in openly generational terms about the departure from news norms. This is from the press release:

Tying these traditional media together, the new platform will be anchored on the web, pushing the next generation of political journalism: more conversational, more interactive and more transparent in taking the audience behind the scenes of how news happens and how it gets reported. “We believe many of the old ways of journalism do not fit the new demands of modern media,” said Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., President of Allbritton Communications.

Now we’re getting to the part I don’t get. I get that by starting from scratch on the Web you can correct for all the legacy thinking built into a newspaper organization, despite the best efforts of people who clearly see that their future is online. By pouring a new foundation you can design a better house. In Katharine Seelye’s story for the New York Times—bizarrely, the Washington Post decided not to cover the announcement—Ryan said the future was in a multiplatform approach to news, “without the baggage of a long-term print institution.”

If I were an investor in this deal, I would want to know way more about the baggage Ryan has in mind, and why being free of it matters to the new site. The part I don’t get is the “next generation” talk. Political news that is “more conversational, more interactive, more transparent.” Okay, but how? The big idea seems to be “taking the audience behind the scenes of how news happens and how it gets reported.”

Harris and VandeHei note that their move is tied to a new vision of political reporting. It uses every medium on the web — text, video, and interactivity — to pull back the curtain on political stories and narrow the gap between reporters and their audience.

Hold on, there’s been a curtain around politics? And the big new idea in political journalism is (are we ready for this…) to pull it back?

Correct me if I’m wrong: does this not try to frame a very old, in fact cliched image in media criticism—of Toto the dog pulling back the curtain on the Wizard and revealing the secrets of the spectacle—as something generationally, block-bustingly new? I say it does. That tells me they have a very specific idea but have chosen some very lame and general language to advertise it with. Pulling back the curtain on political news, and narrowing the gap between what people know about and what political reporters talk about? Does anyone at Allbritton Communications watch the Daily Show?

While other traditional news organizations are cutting back on resources and their commitment to political journalism, Allbritton is planning to invest heavily in the next generation of journalism.

Multi-platform: we get that. Born on the Web: we get that. Harris is 43, VandeHei 35 and we get that. VandeHei: “We will put together the best political reporting team in country today and deliver the news the way people want it: fast, fair and first.”

Again that sounds extremely traditional, not next-ish but the very game we have now. And as Patrick Gavin at Fishbowl DC said in his announcer post, “Their venture seeks to be a new, more conversational, more provocative and more interactive way of delivering political news that is truly down the middle of the political spectrum (i.e. without inherent institutional biases).”

It can’t be that two journalists as intelligent and clued-in as John Harris and Jim VandeHei think that “truly down the middle” political news is next generational, a leap in thinking that allows their new site to compete with the Times and the Post. Can it? It’s not possible that the former Posties believe a new vision of political reporting results from hiring Adam Nagourney (or his equivalents) to be fast, fair and first in a multi-platform way.

That can’t be the vision because that is too lame. I think the next generation, new vision talk rests (so far) on a single idea, which comes out in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage: (via Fishbowl DC)

“They were intrigued by our idea of using the Web and the notion of covering politics in a nontraditional way,” said Mr. Harris, who is also the author of a biography of Bill Clinton.

Mr. VandeHei, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, said he hoped that the venture would knock down some of traditional journalism’s “state secrets,” such as how stories get leaked and whose motives are served by certain political stories.

“Journalism’s state secrets.” Now what could those be? It’s a kind of insiders’ code. VandeHei and Harris are serving notice that they won’t be bound by certain gentleman’s agreements that have settled over political reporting in the big leagues, the most important of which is: you don’t name your sources, and you don’t try to name the other fellow’s either. There are deals cut all the time: exclusive information in exchange for reporting only part of that information. All players are dirty.

What VandeHei and Harris are saying is: game is up, guys. Those deals are news, we know how it works, and we don’t have the “institutional bias” that permits the Post and the Times and the Journal to tolerate the gentleman’s agreements, which after all are agreements to bury the story of who leaked what and why, to what effect. This, I believe, is where they think they can blow the lid off the political reporting game and generate some shock and awe for their new venture.

It is an idea only an insider can love. But since this is partly a play for the insiders in Washington it’s easy to see how it became the selling proposition, the “edge” generator, alongside duller and awesomely conventional ideas like: multi-media… “pull back the curtain on…” truly down the middle… fast, fair and first… dream team of political reporters… no institutional biases. I would call some of these notions baggage.

Of course they also said: “more interactive.” Several times, in fact. But I could not find a single detail about it in the small flurry of coverage this week. If the strategy is to be “more interactive,” John and Jim are keeping the strategy a state secret for now.

On their dream team of political interpreters would John Harris and Jim VandeHei ever put Digby? Of course they wouldn’t. Because their dream is the same dream every generation of mainstream political reporters has had: to pull back the curtain and show how things really work in this town.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

From Economic Principles, a blog by a journalist:

Their paper will compete with two well-established political dailies, Roll Call and The Hill. But the heart of the new enterprise will be an as-yet unnamed Website, similar, perhaps, to The Hotline (owned by National Journal), The Note (owned by ABC) and other online portals that in recent years have modernized political coverage by agglomerating and commenting on it. Some new businesses can grow quite large. The all-time champion entrant in new media is Michael Bloomberg, now mayor of New York and potential presidential aspirant, who, starting in the 1980s, turned a database of bond prices into a media juggernaut to rival Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. With 1600 editors and reporters in 94 bureaus around the world, Bloomberg says it is the third largest news organization in the world, after the Associated Press and Reuters.

Fishbowl DC (Nov. 28):

Marty Tolchin, who has served as Capitol Leader’s editor-in-chief from the beginning, sent the following email to staffers yesterday:
With the advent of John Harris and Jim VandeHei, the first phase of my consultancy draws to a close. John and Jim are superb journalists, uniquely qualified to lead the Capitol Leader and create multi-media siblings that will greatly enhance our influence. I wooed Jim at lunches beginning in September, and I’m delighted that he agreed to come on board. John and Jim have exciting ideas about how to make this newspaper the gold standard in Capitol Hill coverage, and I’ll give them all the help I can. I’m especially proud of each and every member of the staff, handpicked from more than 150 applicants. Last week’s dry run was impressive, and every single staffer made a significant contribution. Now we’ve been given the gift of time, to do in-depth stories and develop sources. We’ll discuss some ideas at tomorrow’s meeting. Go get ‘em. marty

Now, does this specifically saying he’s leaving? No. But Tolchin only signed on for about a year anyway (and Harris will become editor-in-chief and VandeHei will become executive managing editor) and sources within Capitol Leader’s Rosslyn building tell us that, yes, he’s basically easing himself out.

Chris Nolan, founder of Spot On: “For me, Harris and Vanderhei’s move is triggering a long over-due recognition that the way in which we in the news business deliver information has nothing to do with the quality of that information.”

Scott Rosenberg, who lit out for the Web in 1995 (from the San Francisco Examiner). “Journalists aren’t abandoning newspapers for the Web; rather, newspapers are abandoning journalism to the Web. Not all newspapers at the same pace, of course, and not all at once, and not without lots of fights. But the process is real, it has been underway for over a decade, and though it will take decades more to unfold it shows no sign of being reversible.”

“Loss of Harris, VandeHei, and Von Drehle puts Post at a strong disadvantage,” writes Harry Jaffe at Washingtonian. “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.”

Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review: “There’s little question we’re in the midst of a period of profound change, and the moves by Harris and VandeHei are a fascinating reminder of that fact.”

From the New York Observer’s coverage by Michael Calderone:

“We’ll only attract people who are at a point in their career where they want to start something new,” Mr. Harris said. “There’s a lot of people who are like me, coming up on mid-career, who recognized the world as we know it just doesn’t exist any more. The world of journalism that I came into in 1985 is changing.”

“I’m 43,” Mr. Harris said, “so I’m sure there will be a lot of 23-year-olds to help.”

‘I’m hoping that we’ll have the flavor of working for the college newspaper, where everyone pitches in,’ he said.

“Harris also compares the new venture to putting together a college paper.” (Wonkette.) “We cannot fucking wait.”

At Romenesko’s Letters. (Sokolove, a veteran journalist, is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.)

From MICHAEL SOKOLOVE: Memo to Jim VandeHei: In a mere 48 hours you’ve gone from a guy doing an interesting thing to a guy I can’t wait to see fail. Your victory lap before you’ve written a story or cashed a paycheck — your boast that you’ll be better than the New York Times and Washington Post — your revelation that the Post came in with an “unprecedented” offer to induce you to stay but you told them to stick it — and especially your gloating that big-name journalists have come “begging” for jobs (and the ones lucky enough to be hired will be on TV, too!) is really, uh, classless. It’s bad out there if you hadn’t noticed. Count your blessings on this Thanksgiving, and difficult as it may be, try not to enjoy all that groveling too much. (Resume not attached.)

VandeHei replies.

Jane Hamsher: “Tears… tears… oh lordy, it’s just too funny… I can just hear the sales pitch for this future dinosaur (probably the same one they made for Hot Soup): “We’ll tap the great untapped center, the people who are sick of partisan politics. Blogs are written for wacko political extremists, and nobody is speaking for the common man… the little guy in the middle… just ask Joe Lieberman. We’ll own the internet.’”

The Hot Soup comparison is relevant.

Mart Potts, who helped start, thinks didn’t beef up enough in its online political coverage, and that led to the defections: “When your franchise is politics and you don’t do everything you can to build on that on the Web, you leave yourself vulnerable, not only to competiton but to frustrated insiders heading out on their own to do it themselves. That’s what’s happening here.”

Jack Shafer wrote two columns that are pretty skeptical. The Post Exodus and Post Exodus, Part II.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 22, 2006 4:00 PM