The Post exodus, part II.

Media criticism.
Nov. 22 2006 6:35 PM

Post Exodus, Part II

… as long as I'm on the subject.

Ever written a piece and regretted it the next day? I don't mean regret as in, "I shouldn't have written that," but as in, "I wish I'd said more on the subject."

That's how I feel about my column from yesterday, "The Post Exodus," which attempted to place in context the defection of political aces Jim VandeHei and John Harris from the Washington Postto a new multimedia political-news organization. So, permit me the indulgence of a rambling sequel.

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To my ears, the one-stop-shopping-for-political-news extravaganza promised in the Allbritton Communications press release reeks of oversell. Allbritton is a second-rate media company whose local station, WJLA-TV, isn't even the city's news leader. The Capitol Hill newspaper that it's about to launch, the Capitol Leader, is the third entry in that market (after Roll Call and the Hill). In an earlier incarnation, the company owned the Washington Star, which it unloaded on Time Inc. before it folded.

A sane media organization would be approaching the saturated niche of political coverage with some trepidation. Never mind for a moment the reams of conventional and often excellent coverage produced by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (a shout out to David Rogers!), and the various Washington bureaus. You've also got the National Journal and Congressional Quarterly chasing the story, as well as Time, Newsweek, and the weakling newsweekly, U.S. News & World Report. On the Web, The Noteand Hotline deliver the political skinny, Real Clear Politics aggregates the best of the best, and several squadrons of bloggers advance the story. Talking Points Memo and its shit-disturbing sister site TPMMuckraker show that politically identified journalism can rise above pure partisanship to break stories. Over on the right, Hugh Hewitt, PowerLine, and Redstate do similar—though not identical—service.

Second-rate news organizations can succeed for the reason that first-rate news organizations often fail. Does anybody remember the debacle that was Washington Post Co.'s Sport Illustrated knockoff, Inside Sports, which it unloaded in 1981?

Deep pockets that collect the best talent (which is the Allbritton strategy) don't necessarily guarantee success, either. In the early 1990s, the National, a national sports daily, poached some of the biggest names in sportswriting with big bucks as it ran through more than $100 million during its disastrous 17-month run.

Some of VandeHei's hype—which has earned him the abuse of Michael Sokolove—sounds like the sort of stuff people said when they breathed the gas emitted during the Web's first explosion. (VandeHei has since exhaled. See his attitude correction in Romenesko.) Does anybody remember Lou Dobbs' dramatic departure from CNN for Space.com, which he founded? While I congratulate VandeHarris.com for achieving escape velocity from their wage-slave positions at the Post and wish them light-speed success, I hope they've absorbed the Dobbs lesson. Back in 1999, as billions in Web investments burned brightly, even sensible observers like John Ellis caught the fever. In this June 10, 1999, Boston Globe column, Ellis writhed on the ground and wet himself in a Web-triumphalism seizure:

When Lou Dobbs, the consummate inside player, dispenses with the old model, the rules of the game really have changed. The battle for talent is being won by the Web. The challenge for traditional companies will be to reverse this trend. Money alone won't work. Corporate culture will have to change as well.

After a couple of years in orbit, where the only aliens he encountered were green and flew superior spacecraft, Dobbs returned to his CNN chair.

******

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