Unsolicited Advice for Jim Brady
Upon starting a local news site in D.C. for the owner of Politico.
Who doesn't adore Jim Brady, the former executive editor of the Washingtonpost.com? Even I like him, and I don't like anybody. He's proved himself as a reporter, a manager, and an executive, and unlike most people in the business, he's not especially full of himself. And if I'm wrong and Brady really is full of himself, he doesn't let on.
That Politico owner Robert Allbritton of Allbritton Communications has hired Brady to lead a new local Washington, D.C., news site indicates a willingness to go head-to-head in competition with the Washington Post. Allbritton already competes with the Post for political news with Politico, whose founding editors also came from the Washington Post Co. By adding a native-to-the-Web news organization to this portfolio that includes Politico, a local ABC affiliate (WJLA-TV), and a 24-hour cable station (News Channel 8), Allbritton will have surrounded the Post on four sides.
There's a back-to-the future quality to Allbritton's assault on the Post. His father, Texas real estate and banking millionaire Joseph L. Allbritton. got the Washington media bug in the 1970s, purchasing not only WJLA—to which he donated his initials—but the now-defunct Washington Star. Papa Allbritton ultimately unloaded the Star on Time Inc. in 1978 to placate a Federal Communications Commission that didn't want single enterprises to own TV stations and newspapers in the same market.
"Joe Allbritton loved the Washington Star," said Dean Singleton—a former Allbritton employee turned press mogul—to the Post in this nicely turned 2004 profile of father and son. "For the first year after selling the Star, he was almost in grief over it."
But enough about the Allbrittons, and more about Brady: What should he do with his new site?
Most of the news coverage about Brady's forthcoming site assumes a hidebound sense of what a local Web news site should be, i.e., city council meetings, murder, traffic, weather, etc. For example, the Washingtoniansurmises that the local news niche may already be overpopulated what with the Post, convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, Philip Anschutz's Examiner, the Washingtonian, and the various broadcast properties all playing in the space. But I've got a sense—based on nothing but instinct—that Brady will shake up the D.C. media scene by doing something radical.
Most newspapers place the sports section at the end of the caboose, forcing you to page your way to the baseball and football news. To command Washington eyeballs, Brady will turn that convention inside out by putting the sports "section" on the site's home page, and putting local news in the first back seat, and business news and national news in the third row. Just as Politico has made inroads on the Post's political coverage, Brady should steal the sports beat, making it the foundation of his site.
I come by my intuition from three directions. First, Brady is a jock-sniffer from way back, having earned his journalistic stripes as a Washington Post sports reporter from 1987-95.
Second, Washington is a sports-mad town. Everybody knows about the region's passion for its Redskins, but area fans have so much pent-up energy for quality sporting events that they went snake-eye crazy for NHL Washington Capitals in the 2008-09 season, just because the team played well enough to advance to the conference semifinals. Hockey is not an easy game to like—the ball is called a puck and it's invisible. That fans embraced the Caps is a testament to the local hunger for sports. Were the hapless Washington Nationals to put together a .500 season and Gilbert Arenas stopped limping around and helped the Washington Wizards put a few more wins on the board, the Brady site could report the absolute hell out of the teams and attract a reader base upon which a dominant general-news franchise could be built.
Third, ESPN.com has launched local sports sites in Boston, Chicago, and Dallas, and—according to Sports Business Journal—it plans to start one in New York City. You know Washington has got to be on ESPN's early roll-out schedule. It would behoove Brady and Allbritton to hustle into the space as quickly as possible and loot the Post's immense sports franchise before ESPN gets a chance. (In Chicago, the ESPN site already bests the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times' sports sites for unique users, according to Sports Business Journal.) Brady and Allbritton should poach the Post sports section's stars, starting with the incredibly Webby Dan Steinberg before moving on to the Post beat reporters they fancy and reporters from elsewhere.
My unsolicited advice to Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli is this: Sports hasn't been a dish best served the morning after for a long time. If you want to kill Brady's sports-centric D.C. site before it gets a chance to hatch, have your sports editor to do for sports what Politico has done for politics by expanding Politico's motto, "Win the morning, win the afternoon," to "Win every goddamn minute of the day."
I think it's a good plan, but will Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei screw it all up by convincing Allbritton to make the Green Bay Packers the site's home team? But given the screwedupitness of the Redskins team, that might not be such a bad idea! Damn you, VandeHei, and all of your Dutch, cheese-eating relatives! Send damnation letters to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen to me make gas music from Jupiter on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)