As is so often the case, the chatterers in Washington and New York have fixated on precisely the wrong question with precisely the wrong set of facts in an otherwise valuable debate over the supposed tragedy that is the sale of The Washington Post.
Ross Douthat of The New York Times kicked this parlor game into high gear on Sunday by declaring the Post's fatal sin as an alleged failure to fully embrace the internet and deploy the sort of kinetic, report-every-bowel-movement coverage of official Washington that has turned Politico into a juggernaut. The Post's business model, he insisted, didn't need to fall apart when its classified ads evaporated or its regional circulation plummeted; evidently a flood-the-zone approach to politics would've prevented those unavoidable fates.
The trouble is, Douthat misunderstands just about everything about the business of journalism and, more saliently, the business of Politico. What's more, he never asked the key question I was left with when I finished his column: Why would we even want The Washington Post to be Politico?
This is no slam on Politico, where I worked as a technology policy reporter until last week. Politico is a niche publication that does a terrific job focusing on a topic of great and growing interest. But it does not pretend to want to cover all of the myriad and important topics that a general-service newspaper does, nor should it.
The Post's mission and mandate is to serve an entire and diverse community; Politico's is to serve a homogenous and specialized one. The Post sends reporters to far-flung, godforsaken places; Politico's cover almost everything from behind desks in Rosslyn, Virginia, or traipsing around the Capitol, with a select group heading outside the Beltway to follow candidates, the president or, occasionally, other officeholders. The Post, unlike Politico, must satisfy the cravings of everyone from the mom whose kid is playing varsity lacrosse to the immigrant concerned about the coup in her homeland. And the Post still buys into the old journalism-school mantra of giving voice to the voiceless; Politico rarely quotes people without, in the newsroom's parlance, "skin in the game."
More than being fundamentally different, though, the suggestion that Politico is so profitable that it could conceivably support the breadth and depth of the expensive journalism the Post does is absurd. Repeatedly in my time at Politico, we were told that the serious money didn't start raining in until about two years ago, with the launch of the hyper-niche-y and often overlooked portion of the site known as Politico Pro. Pro offers verticals that focus intensely on such areas as health care, energy, or technology for subscribers — typically lawmakers, lobbyists, corporations, and activists — who pay thousands of dollars for inside intel. A fraction of what is produced for Pro ever crosses the transom to the main site.
In other words, the really popular parts of Politico may break even, but they are the dessert that established the brand. The vegetables, served to those hankering for a very particular form of nutrition, pay the bills. Had Post owner Don Graham funded John Harris and Jim VandeHei's vision for Politico in 2006 when he had the chance, his family might co-own an increasingly valuable media asset. But unless the Post stopped being the Post and actually became Politico, it wouldn't have had any serious bearing on the Post's current circumstances.
The shakiest leg of Douthat's wobbly premise is the claim that The Washington Post Company failed to embrace the internet. With the possible exception of The Guardian, the Post was — or at least seemed, for a moment — one of the world's most forward-thinking of the dead-tree news brands, as proved by its trove of EPpy honors in 2005 for both the Post's site and that of Slate, the online newsmagazine it bought in 2004.
You know what else the Post did in the Jurassic era of 2005? They hired a 29-year-old named Chris Cillizza to start a little something called The Fix. In other words, they gambled on a wunderkind and granted him a startup-like berth to build what became the major political blog brand. Is there any prototype for Politico quite as obvious as what Cillizza did and still does, right down to his canny understanding of the importance of piquing interest and driving traffic via constant TV appearances? And as recently as 2009, the Post did it again by launching Wonkblog a week after Ezra Klein turned 25. What political-journalism star did the Times launch through its website? And who at Politico is doing anything substantially different or more innovative than what Cillizza, Klein, and their staffs do?
This isn't to say the Post executed a flawless strategy. The original sin, some critics say, was separating the newsroom from the web operations by the Potomac River, and surely there could have been a way to build and integrate one without isolating and antagonizing the other. But to the average reader, these distinctions and missteps are meaningless and invisible and can't possibly be blamed for the Post's financial woes. The reader also has no idea that the Politico newsroom was originally riven with division and misunderstandings between its main and Pro sides; editors have made great strides there to fix that, but it's probably a normal hallmark of any significant change in standard operating procedure. What Graham and the Post Company did not do was simply ignore the internet, as Douthat implied.
The utterly boring truth is that there is no human villain to pin the necessity of the Post's sale. It is, Douthat's dismissive suggestion notwithstanding, the times we inhabit and the agonizing pangs of a once-flush industry in transition. There was little the railroads could do, no matter how cleverly managed, to fend off the rise of the automobile other than, perhaps, build cars. The Grahams did better, in fact, than the Times' Sulzbergers, who shrank $1.1 billion down to $70 million in the form of The Boston Globe. Graham got more than triple that for a paper with only about double the circulation.
There's a reason why Jeff Bezos doesn't arrive at the helm of this storied newspaper with a five-point plan: It's a really, really hard puzzle to solve. The broad public good served by the Post is not the same as the narrow, insular goal of Politico. To accomplish all the Post tries to — and that society should want them to — costs far more than the old newspaper business model can handle.
"For The Post to thrive again, Politico must lose," Douthat concludes. But we already have a Politico, and it's a good thing. If the Post becomes Politico, we all lose.
Steve Friess is an Ann Arbor-based freelance journalist and former Politico Pro senior writer. Follow him at @SteveFriess.