How should we read the defection of political journalists John Harris and Jim VandeHei from the Washington Post to Allbritton Communications, where they'll head a new "multimedia" Web news platform to cover politics? Their site will incorporate the D.C.-based Allbritton's local TV station, its local cable news station, and its forthcoming Capitol Hill newspaper, and they intend to hire a half-dozen well-known reporters. Another Post ace, David Von Drehle, is bound for Time magazine.
Are journalists leaping from the newspaper ship before it sinks?
If swarms of midlevel reporters were making this exodus instead of senior aces, I might draw that conclusion. But Harris, VandeHei, and Von Drehle have been bid away for top dollar, which makes it hard to view them as survivors awaiting rescue. Even if Harris and VandeHei weren't worth the fantastic salaries they've been said to negotiate (My opinion? They are.), Allbritton has already recouped its premium with loads of positive publicity in the press.
So, while I wish Harris and VandeHei great success—if only because it will encourage my bosses to think that I'm worth twice my salary—let me offer these cautionary notes about their new venture.
Both Harris and VandeHei are stars, but let's admit that some of their luster came by their association with the Post, the premiere source for political news from Washington. The newspaper's brand is so strong that I've known journalistic midgets who, upon becoming Post reporters, suddenly towered over their competitors like Yao Ming. If you're an Important Thing in Washington, a phone call that begins with "This is Tiny Squat from the Washington Post" is either the last thing or the first thing you want to receive in the morning. Either way, you'll pay attention to what the reporters says, and if you know what's good for you, you'll return it and talk.
Of course, Harris and VandeHei will get most of their calls returned without dispensing Post pixie dust, but they won't necessarily be at the head of the line in their new gig. Washington and New York are the only places in the country where the number of good reporters exceeds the number of good sources, which gives sources leverage.
The Harris-VandeHei-Von Drehle departures rob the Post of great institutional memory, as do the most recent buyouts, which 86ed such veterans as Thomas B. Edsall, Guy Gugliotta, Jerry Knight, Paul Blustein, and Albert B. Crenshaw. Also gone are Steve Coll (to The New Yorker), Mike Allen (to Time), and Mark Leibovich (to the New York Times). All of these losses weakened the Post, but with the possible exceptions of Mike Royko and Mary McGrory, nobody in American journalism is irreplaceable. The Post has always had a strong bench, and there's never been a scarcity of experienced reporters in Washington or talented minor leaguers out in the provinces dying to play for Team Graham. Advantage: the Washington Post.
The Allbritton raid does, however, serve notice to the Post that it can no longer take its status as the leader in political journalism for granted. The Allbritton press release promises that the new package will offer "unmatched, web-based, one-stop-shop for political news coverage. They will challenge the traditional media for dominance in covering national politics and Congress." Bloomberg News is expanding its Washington bureau out, and it wants both the Post's lunch and dessert. The real question for the paper is how best to maintain its position. Some say we've entered an era in which content is king, but Slate's history has taught me King Content ain't going nowhere unless Queen Distribution gets him there. In Microsoft, Slate's first owner, and the Washington Post Co., its current owner, Slate has had two superb distribution engines to fling its copy at readers. It won't do VandeHarris.com much good to break the news of the second, third, and fourth comings of Christ unless Allbritton finds a better distribution partner for the site than its own properties and CBS.
Inside the Post newsroom, reporters are less anxious about the exits of reporters and launches of new competitors than they are about the top editors' failure to map a coherent battle plan for the future. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. issued a Nov. 14 memo to the staff, which was supposed to soothe the fretful, but reading it is like wading through a field of wheat paste. I don't even work at the Post,and I wanted to commit suicide after I trudged through its final, gloomy paragraph.
Among VandeHei's expressed reasons for leaving the Post was a hunger for a journalistic scrap and the bragging rights that come with building something new. "This is not a statement about the Post," he told the New York Times. "It's about having a rare opportunity to be given what it takes to build your dream news organization."
With his comment, VandeHei reveals the deep, dark secret of the quality journalist: He's not an incurable cynic, he's a goofy idealist. Political reporters—at the Post and elsewhere—want their editors to pour some of this VandeHei oil on them and rub them until they bleed. They want editors to climb up on desks and tell them how the elections have cleaned the slates up on Capitol Hill and that with new leadership installed in both parties, the journalistic game has been reset. They want their editors to tell them that in the Internet era, politics doesn't belong to the Post anymore: It's up for grabs. Reporters want to be told to get their asses up to the Hill, rebuild their source lists, break stories, and pack their bags for the presidential campaign, which is approaching liftoff.
At the Post, reporters are waiting for editors to tell them to break VandeHarris.com's back in a million pieces, string its body on a chain-link fence, and eat its decaying flesh. Who at the paper has the gumption to tell them that?
Addendum, Nov. 22: If you haven't read enough on this topic, see my sequel.
Godaddy.com reports that www.vandeharris.com is available. Disclosure: Von Drehle is a friend, although he would probably deny it if you asked him directly. Win my friendship with e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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