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December 6, 2006

"A Collection of Journalists Who Have Distinctive Signatures." That's What John Harris Has in Mind.

He and Jim VandeHei will soon open their new franchise in political news. (No name yet.) "The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work, who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents." Our Q and A...

On November 20, people who follow Washington journalism were jolted by word that John Harris, political editor, and Jim VandeHei, star correspondent, were quitting the Washington Post to start a new “multi-platform” political news operation bankrolled by Allbritton Communications. Explaining this investment, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., the president of Allbritton, said the future demanded that journalists travel “without the baggage of a long-term print institution.”

“We’ll only attract people who are at a point in their career where they want to start something new,” Harris told the New York Observer. “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.” (UPDATE: columnist Roger Simon of Bloomberg and reporter Mike Allen of Time Magazine have joined up.)

On Nov. 22, I wrote my own commentary on the announcement that Harris and VandeHei were striking out on their own. There was a lot that I didn’t understand about their plan, especially: what’s changing?

So I got in touch with John Harris (I’ve interviewed him before about Dan Froomkin’s White House Briefing column) and he agreed to do this Q and A. It’s about his and VandeHei’s press think. I mean, what else would it be about?

Jay Rosen: I understand from other statements you have made that your leaving the Post should not be seen as a criticism of the Washington Post as a news organization, or Len Downie as a boss. Rather, it was the chance to start something new, at a time of breakdown and breathrough for journalism on the Web, that drew you away from what most would consider a dream job as national politics editor— and to be able to do it with top professionals, backed by a company willing to invest.

It sounds very reasonable to me. I think if you’ve been a writer or editor for someone else and gained a bit of confidence, it is very common to dream of starting something of your own. When the opportunity comes along, you take it. Or you keep working for somone else.

However, more than this must have been involved in your decision. Clearly, you sense an unmet need, which must in some way mean a market in political news that isn’t being served. News from the Hill and from inside official Washington is a crowded marketplace. Yet this appears to be the business you want to be in. Roll Call, The Hill Newspaper, and National Journal are very much in the game, along with the big newspapers and networks and others. The Note and Hotline compete in the space online, along with skads of bloggers and tip sheets.

I’m not asking you to divulge trade secrets, or preview your tactics for beating the competition. Rather, from what I have read so far, you see yourself as setting out in a new—or at least different—direction, marking the boundaries between one form of political news and another. But it’s not clear to me: what is this direction, and what unfilled need does it correspond to in people, in the marketplace as you see it? “Multi-media” doesn’t tell us much. There has to be more to it than that.

John Harris: I left The Washington Post—a place I worked for 21 years and a newspaper I love— for a mix of personal and journalistic reasons that were closely intertwined.

We live in an entreprenurial age, not an institutional one. That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work—who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents—rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for. In your own way, you are an example of this with PressThink.

There are certainly examples of people fashioning this kind of entreprenurial career within the Post. Woodward is the most famous, but more recently Tom Ricks and Dana Priest are good examples, as are talented writers like Laura Blumenfeld and Dana Milbank.

But in general organizations like the Post or the New York Times have been insulated from the spirit of the age— precisely because they were secure and prestigious places to work. Once people got a job there, they tended to stay for years and even decades. Most of the people in those newsrooms are creative, and in my experience they tend to think of themselves as individualists and even iconoclasts. But the reality for many (including me until two weeks ago) is that they have careers that are more reminiscent of the 1950s, when people got hired at General Motors or IBM and stayed put. I believe that for people who want this type of stability, journalism is not going to remain an attractive profession for much longer. But people who adapt will thrive and end up having more fun than in the old days.

Jay Rosen: I agree with you about the way to have the most fun in the profession. But is there an audience you have in mind that’s under-served and feels that way, or does it not know (yet) that it needs your thing?

John Harris: Journalistically, Jim VandeHei and I are placing a bet. We believe that if we assemble a group of reporters and editors—some young people and some in mid-career—with energy and talent, then create a work environment where ideas are nurtured and sharpened, we”ll have the essential elements of a very interesting publication. Robert Allbritton, the publisher of our enterprise, believes in this bet and has made clear he is willing to support it. Again, the key is trying to create a collection of journalists who have distinctive signatures—by virtue of their personalities or source networks or ability to connect the dots in illuminating ways. The reordering of the media universe because of the Web has created opportunities for journalists of this sort that did not exist in an organization-driven age.

You are right in some ways that political news is a crowded marketplace but in other ways I think are you are not right. When I was at the Post, I noticed that a certain kind of story would tend to echo on the Web, staying atop the “most e-mailed” list for days. These were usually stories that somehow shined a light on a back story beneath the news. They illuminated motives, ideas, or personalities that offered critical context to the news. The publications you mentioned do this type of story, but I would not say they are organized around doing them consistently. Quite appropriately, they are organized around covering the front story. The “skads of bloggers and tip sheets” you mentioned do to tend to be very interested in the back story, but with few exceptions they are not bringing reporting resources to the job of illuminating it.

So we think there’s a niche. If we live up to our goal of being interesting, we’ll find an audience, through our own promotional efforts and through the partnership we are building with CBS News.

Jay Rosen: What kind of partnership are we talking about? Is that a fancy term for… Harris and his people are featured as (informed) talking heads on CBS shows? Or is your shop actually going to be a television producer, making news that is carried by CBS?

John Harris: We expect our staff to be making appearances on Face the Nation, and perhaps other CBS News shows. We are also making a major commitment to be on campaign airplanes this year, and on those occasions when we are present and CBS is not we will be in position to help be eyes on the scene for them. They were intrigued by the idea behind our project and the team we are assembling, and we obviously are thrilled to be associated with an enterprise as distinguished as CBS News. So it seemed clear there was a partnership that could benefit both sides.

Jay Rosen: You guys said Allbritton was sold on your “non-traditional” approach to news from political Washington. What traditions will you be breaking with to produce it, and why would you depart from them?

John Harris: I have long puzzled over a phenomenon about many reporters, one that I am sure is true for me also. They tend to be more interesting in conversation than they are to read in the paper. I think one reason for that is that the typical newspaper story continues to be written with a kind of austere, voice-of-God detachment. This muffles personality, humor, accumulated insight—all the reasons reporters tend to be fun to talk to. When it’s appropriate—not in every story but in many—we’ll try to loosen the style and in the process tell readers more about what we know, what we think, and why we think it.

Jay Rosen: The announcement from Allbritton said “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.” I would be curious what you see as the “generational” element here and how that factors in, but also: If your political news will be more interactive… how so? A few blogs with comment sections is what some people mean by more interactive. Is that a buzzword Allbritton’s PR people threw in because its sounds avante-garde, or do you have a notion here about how people will interact with the site— and thus with your journalism?

John Harris: Jim VandeHei and I have a rough division of labor in this new enterprise. His job is to uncork the champagne and serve notice that we are going to take on the world. My job is to keep an eye on how much people are drinking and cut them off before anyone gets too high on expectations. Both jobs are necessary.

We are going to launch late next month. We will come out of the gates with an interesting publication, in print and on-line. I do not believe that we will create something revolutionary on the first day or the first month.

We will, however, put experimenting with different ways of storytelling on the Web at the center of our thinking and daily routines. Jim and I are hardly Web experts, and know enough about what we don’t know that we won’t even try to sound avante-garde. But we will be working with people who know a lot. Over time, these people will help take us into interesting and I hope even uncharted territory.

We had experience with the potential of this kind of story-telling at the Post (where Jim Brady at and others have done good work pushing the newsroom to think anew.) VandeHei and another reporter hit the road in September for a trip through several competitive districts in the Ohio River Valley. They had a videographer with them. They filed dispatches for the paper and for a blog on the Web. They produced video dispatches, did radio interviews, and answered questions from readers on-line. None of those things alone is novel, but doing them in combination—especially if it becomes a matter of routine—is a pretty abrupt departure from how things work at most newspapers. While the Post likes this kind of experimentation, it is never going to be central to the daily mission; The task of putting out the traditional newspaper is how people organize their day and their thinking.

We have a chance to start from scratch so we can organize ourselves differently.

Jay Rosen: The Capitol Leader appears to be the name of a new newspaper from your shop that will descend on politics in Washington in January. As you know, in the European tradition of political journalism, a “leader” is an editorial, an argument written with the news. Newspapers once distinguished themselves that way— by the quality of their leaders. Is your newspaper, your news site going to be an argument? Will its talent in argument matter to its fate as a news vehicle? What place does argument have in your scheme? Isn’t that a way to influence insiders, and isn’t influence the coin of the realm?

John Harris: We are considering possible name changes for the paper. There is nothing wrong with the old name but it was conceived before VandeHei and I came aboard and we are seeking to define our mission somewhat more broadly. We’ll see.

In any event, we’ll have a place for well-turned arguments in print and on-line, but we have no wish to define ourselves by an argument that the publication as a whole will stand for and try to advance. There are plenty of places that do this already.

You are just baiting me, I feel sure, but trying to “influence insiders” is not the coin of the realm for us. Our aim is to have interesting things to say in the daily conversation about politics, in Washington and for a large audience of politically minded people outside of Washington. Along the way, we hope also to add to the conversation about where journalism is heading during a period of intense upheaval and creative possibility.

Jay Rosen: How about an editorial perspective? Got something like that? I know better than to ask you if the Capital Leader and its Unnamed Web Vehicle, in addition to covering politics, will actually have a politics, some political standard or let’s say a vision of American society against which events of the day stand out as significant (or not). That’s too close to the European tradition for you, I am guessing.

I would love to be corrected, but I am pretty sure that when it comes to the politics of the news operation you’re launching with Jim VandeHei, you’re going to go with, “nope, we cover politics but we don’t have any ourselves we can tell you about…” and stay within that rhetorical universe— which, to be fair, is where the Post and National Journal and ABC would be too.

But I ask you, John… is “straight down the middle” going to cut it, ya think? Does a description like that—-or Jim VandeHei’s “fast, fair and first”—qualify as more transparent? How good is it at “taking the audience behind the scenes of how news happens and how it gets reported” at the Capitol Leader? (To me it seems no more transparent than competitors. Len Downie would say the same things.) And is that the best you can do in describing the angle of vision that Harris, VandeHei and company will offer us in reporting on politics? Down the middle. Without bias. Professional. Non-partisan. Not only what’s happening but why. Inside story. Expert analysis. From the best in the business. Sure, no one can be objective but we try very hard to be fair… That’s your basic gambit, right? Or am I hearing you wrong?

John Harris: I think I understand the Rosen worldview: Journalism that tries to stay divorced from point of view is at best bland and at worst fraudulent. Traditional newspaper conventions about neutrality often are an obstacle to truth-telling. Reporters and editors should be confident in trying to describe not just the world as it is but as it should be.

I get why you think all that, but I do not get why you are so fixated on it. Certainly the great growth in recent years, especially on the Web, is in journalism that lives precisely by these advocacy values.. Why are you concerned that most traditional newsrooms do not organize themselves around ideology, and that our new newsroom won’t either?

As you know, there are areas where I agree with you about how some news media conventions are limiting. We often allow partisans to make statements that are demonstrably true or false and make them seem like matters of controversy. A more conversational and self-confident style, for instance, would allow us to say plainly who is telling the truth and who is not when it is obvious.

Even as we try to be more innovative in telling stories, however, there is more need than ever for a journalism that is, as I have said before on this page, detached from the fight for power. Increasingly, we live in a time when there are no shared facts and therefore no authentic debate. Instead, every news story is greeted by partisans as either weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. There is simply no way you can convince me this trend has lead to a more civilized or constructive politics that is more likely to illuminate real issues or solve genuine problems.

As far as transparency—reporters should stop pretending they have no views—I’ll tell you what I can. VandeHei is my friend and I used to edit his work. He’s my partner in this new enterprise and we spend virtually all our workdays by each other’s side. I can honestly tell you I have no idea what his political orientation is.

I am less opaque, but I still don’t talk about my views much for a variety of reasons. By temperament, I don’t hold my opinions so intensely. It is genuinely pretty easy for me most of the time to see things from different points of view. In addition, to the extent that I have a political perspective it is not a terribly interesting one.

Jay Rosen: Do you think the political press has a “political perspective” or would you say that on the whole it doesn’t?

John Harris: In my experience, the vast majority of political reporters approach ideological questions with what you might call centrist bias. They are instinctually skeptical of what they see as ideological zealotry. They believe activist government can do good things but are quick to see how those aims are distorted by partisan corruption or bureaucratic incompetence. They tend to have a faith that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.

I sometimes think that if Washington political reporters ran the government their ideal would be to have a blue ribbon commission go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force base for a week and solve all problems. It would be chaired by Alan Greenspan and Sam Nunn. David Gergen would be communications director, and the policy staff would come from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. They would not come back until they had come up with sober, centrist solutions to the entitlements debate, the Iraq war, and the gay marriage controversy.
It took me a while to realize how this instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics can itself be a form of bias. It is ideologues, rather than Washington technocrats, who make history. On the right, ideas about free markets that a generation ago were exotic are now mainstream. More recently, what started out as the left’s critique of the Iraq war increasingly defines the center.

I think this constant churning of the terms of debate should be chastening to journalists, and even to you as you urge a more advocacy-driven approach to covering news. Who needs a bunch of reporters popping off with their views? It is hard enough—and honorable enough—to aim to report and analyze politics fairly and with a disciplined effort to transcend bias. That is what we will do in this new venture.

Jay Rosen: To answer one of your questions: Why am I so concerned that most traditional newsrooms do not organize themselves around ideology, and that yours won’t either? I am neither demanding it nor expecting you to organize around an ideology. I was asking about the politics that is built into newsgathering in the way the political press has learned to do it.

I am happy to report that we have some common ground. The “instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics” can indeed be a form of bias. A “fixed idea” as Joan Didion says. Extreme centrism (as I would call it) is about hogging rationality to itself. (See Atrios on it.) This is the default form politics takes in the way the mainstream press conducts its reporting and explains the world to us. It’s software the system runs on. Maybe you plan to un-install it, or put it out of commission. That would be a development I would watch with great interest.

Let’s wrap this up. In my earlier post (Nov. 22) I tried to read between the lines of something Jim VandeHei told the Wall Street Journal: that he hoped your shop would knock down some of traditional journalism’s “state secrets,” like how news is leaked and whose motives are served when certain political stories come out. Here’s how I saw it: “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.”

Is that the basic drift of it?

John Harris: We will not be burning our sources, or trying to burn other people’s. That is not ethical or necessary.

We will be trying when we can to demystify political news, and also to narrow the gap between the audience and reporter—to personalize the relationship to some degree.

What does this mean? I go back to my earlier comment about how reporters sometimes can be more interesting to talk to than read. I have had this experience during campaigns when I show up as an outsider on the campaign plane. It turns out all the reporters have certain understandings—who is really running the campaign, for instance, or the fact that the candidate has a thick book of policy proposals that he has not read, and staff members all hold their breath every time he gets a hard question. The natural question is to wonder why more of this insight is not getting into stories. There are probably lots of reasons, but I think the biggest is the constraints of traditional story-telling. Those are worth pushing up against, and we’ll do it. In the bargain, I think we’ll have more fun covering the campaign and be more fun to read.

Jay Rosen: John, thank you for taking the time, and answering my questions.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Dec. 13: Harris and VandeHei reveal more of their plan. The New York Times reports that their enterprise now has a name — “The Politico, which is its newspaper, and, its Web site. The name supplants The Capitol Leader, which had been its working title until it broadened in scope. Both the newspaper and Web site are to begin publication on Jan. 23, the date of the president’s State of the Union address, one of the most-covered rituals on the Washington political calendar.” VandeHei told Katharine Seelye what John Harris told me:

“What we can add is fact-based content, and that’s what people on opinion pages and blogs feed off of,” he said. He said Politico reporters would travel on campaign planes, write with a conversational tone, send back video and tell readers things that traditional reporters tend to talk about but not to write about. The staff will also make appearances on CBS News.

Virgina Postrel says Harris “exactly identifies how journalism is changing” when he observes that big prestigious news organizations have been “insulated” from the entrepreneurial spirit of the times. “The WaPost has adapted better to this shift than the NYT, which desperately wants to deny it.”

Atrios comments:

Harris reveals more than he intends to here. Note that the range of opinions runs from people who occupy what is generally called (rightly or wrongly) the center of political opinion to the extreme right. David Gergen is a Republican. Sam Nunn is a conservative Democrat who likes to run around with Warren Rudman telling people the Social Security is DOOOOMED. Alan Greenspan is an extreme conservatarian freak. Brookings prides itself on itself on straddling the political center, and hosts such grand contributors to our current mess as Kenneth Pollack, while AEI is a right wing freak show filled with hackery of epic proportions.

In other words, as I’ve long said, the range of acceptable positions in Official Washington range from the New Republic to the Free Republic.

Stephen Spruiell of National Review’s Media Blog says that the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan commission, is a classic case of what John Harris called an “instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics” among Washington political reporters. And he’s got video of Tim Russert to illustrate.

David Neiwert, ex-newsroom type who went stand alone on the Progressive side (and is quite good at it…) says about extreme centrism: “This kind of approach to journalism is not merely about ‘hogging rationality to itself.’ It is, at its core, bad logic and thus nearly certain to lead to misjudgments, miscalculations, and misconceptions.”

Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner, thinks he hears something in… they have careers that are more reminiscent of the 1950s, when people got hired at General Motors or IBM and stayed put.

This echo of the “man in the grey flannel suit” critique of the 1950s’ uniformitarian corporate culture explains to some degree the prevalence of liberal herding in major newsrooms. The typical newsroom is a bubble in which an insultated group of people from generally similar demographic, political and cultural backgrounds reinforce each other’s views and perceptions. comments:

Former Washington Post editor John Harris makes news by telling Rosen that “political reporters approach ideological questions with what you might call centrist bias”—something FAIR has said for years, and if you look at Harris’s definition of the center, you’ll see that, like FAIR, he is really talking about a spectrum that extends from the center to the right.

PressThink regular Steve Lovelady, formerly managing editor of the CJR Daily and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other stops, e-mails:

Harris’s epiphany is not a new thought, but it remains a provocative one.

I first heard it decades ago from a brilliant reporter, then an editor, named Bill Blundell, who was my mentor when I was a young kid at the Wall Street Journal, and who remained my mentor for many years after I left the Journal. It was Blundell who observed that if you traveled around the country and dropped in on bars that reporters frequented (back in the days when reporters actually frequented bars) in Memphis or Denver or Oklahoma City or New York or wherever, you would hear a frankness and insight about the news of the day and the newsmakers that you would never read in the newspaper.

Reporters off-duty have voice; put the same reporter in the newsroom and the voice is stifled, as he or she reflexively reverts to the institutional tone that, as Harris notes, does not permit “personality, humor, accumulated insight.”

This is not so true of columnists (witness Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, whose one enduring guideline for himself and others is “to cut through the bullshit)” or of magazines (witness Henrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker) but it remains true of all too many newspapers and their employees.

The explosion of the Internet, where you have a cacophony of voices, only highlights the difference.

What Harris is rebelling against is, as he puts it, “that kind of austere, voice-of-God detachment” that dominates the Post’s front page. More power to him — but surely he must realize that he is very late to the game, and he is going to have to run very hard and very fast to catch up to the train, which left the station a long time ago.

Eugene David spots a premise he doesn’t buy.

How many news hacks have “distinctive signatures”? Mr. Harris argues that “the system” irons them out. We argue that most hacks have no style to begin with. Oh yes, there’s the occasional genius who can come from nowhere — Ernie Pyle is said to have been a bland, uninteresting feature typist before he found his voice in the war — but most writers are sterile soil from which no flower will grow. And the “professionalizing” of the biz, the incessant demand that the public treat it as a respectable occupation just like law or medicine (!), drove the eccentrics away. So we’re stuck with the flat, neutral voice of flat writers in flat newspapers that are flatlining.

Gene again: “By the way, am I the only one who notices that ‘PressThink’ suggests ‘GroupThink’?” No. You’re not. The connection is drawn in my Q & A about the blog’s POV.

From an interview with Jim Lehrer of the Newshour on PBS, who along with Len Downie of the Washington Post is the most extreme centrist in journalism:

He has his favorite politicians. “Not the most brilliant people but they are public servants who want to get things done. If the parties are smart, they’ll turn to these people,” including Jack Danforth, Warren Rudman and David Pryor.

From the comments, where I write:

I think they can certainly bust out of formula coverage. If they just do that, their operation will be of benefit to political journalism. We need more ideas of how to go about it on the Web, not less. We certainly need theirs.

There’s a lot of promise in their plan, and a good deal of idealism. I also think Harris could inspire a young generation of political journalists if he lets them be themselves and makes them effective on the Web.

Rod Dreher, editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, responds in his column at BeliefNet: “I can think of five or six blogs on both the left and the right that I could click on right now, and find more interesting opinions and lively, challenging, provocative thinking and writing than in almost any newspaper today. It really shouldn’t be all that surprising to career MSMers like me why people don’t want to read us: we’re boring them.” He thinks Harris and company could shake this up.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 6, 2006 12:35 AM