Can Politico Win Again?

Blogger Ben Smith helped the site dominate the 2008 election cycle—but Twitter’s encroaching on its turf

Ben Smith has a problem.

If there is such a thing as the prototypical political news blogger, then he’s it. Smith didn’t quite invent the form, but over the six years he’s been blogging—first for The New York Observer, then the New York Daily News, and now for Politico—he’s helped make it what it is today. He is, in the words of Kevin Sheekey, the head of government relations and communications for Bloomberg L.P., “the father of political blog journalism.”

Now, though, Smith is concerned that blogging may not have much of a future. Since the early days of the 2008 campaign, Smith has distinguished himself by being first to the news. Having a jump on the competition of even just five minutes has made all the difference, he says. But a lot has changed since 2008.

Twitter, Smith says, is “sort of draining the life from the blog.”

“Where people were hitting refresh on my blog because they wanted to see what my latest newsbreak was, now they’ll just be on Twitter, and I’ll tweet it out and they’ll see it there,” he says. “What I’m doing right now is just incredibly old school. I might as well have ink all over my fingers and be setting type.”

Smith isn’t the only one who has reason to be concerned about the rise of Twitter. Politico as a whole was built around the kind of fast-paced work that Smith does. Its operating principle and unofficial motto, “Win the morning,” has been widely mocked, but the phrase sums up its philosophy: be the first to every big story; define the news before anyone else can. It was this strategy that very quickly transformed Politico from a small upstart into Washington’s most influential news organization.

By winning the morning every morning, Politico won the 2008 election the way network television won in 1960. For decades, the networks dictated the pace and structure of political campaigns. Cable’s dominance, especially with the rise of 24-hour news, was much shorter. Politico made its mark just as the Web was becoming the established medium, and for the last four years, it has been the “must-read” not just for political insiders but for the national audience as well.

“Washington has always been fast,” NBC News political director Chuck Todd says. “What Politico did was take it mainstream. They slapped a headline on the movement of the wire, the incremental movements of Washington, and created a competition among other news organizations.”

But the rise of social media puts the competitors on more equal footing and presents Politico with a greater challenge this time around.

“There was very little competition when it came to speed four years ago. There were the wires, and there was us,” Jim VandeHei, Politico’s co-founder and executive editor, says. “Now, there’s no way that we’re going to win every single landspeed race on every single story. Everybody’s fast now.”

Twitter has leveled the playing field in terms of speed. It may have launched before Politico—it debuted in 2006, Politico in 2007—but its influence on reporting and news distribution has only really taken hold within the last year or so. Its rapid growth presents a threat to Politico’s dominance and has become a matter of concern for its founders, who are now thinking about ways to change their editorial and business model.

“Each election cycle brings some kind of new twist, some kind of innovation that’s the signature of that particular cycle,” says Politico co-founder and editor-in-chief John Harris, who hired Smith. “It would be naïve to think that [Politico] cracked some kind of code in 2007-2008 that represents a permanent comparative advantage.”

On April 1, 2009, VandeHei and Harris sent out a company-wide email called “Winning the Dawn.” In it, they told all of their reporters they’d need to file at least one story by 6 a.m. each day, then turn their attention to the morning news shows before getting geared up to “Win the Evening” as well.

“As you know, at Politico we live by a ‘Win the Morning’ philosophy,” the email began. “On the Web, a gap of even a few minutes in posting breaking news can be the difference between tens of thousands of people reading a story and Politico getting credit for an exclusive, and a story simply getting lost in the noise.”

It was an April Fool’s joke, but not everyone got it: some even broke down and cried. It simply rang too true. What VandeHei said about winning “every single land-speed race on every single story” isn’t hyperbole—it’s Politico’s mission in a nutshell and a philosophy now embedded in the psyche of a Washington press corps that for a while found itself playing catch-up.

The question is whether or not Twitter now hurts Politico’s traffic—and not just because of the new competitive dimension. Some news items just don’t need more than Twitter’s 140-character limit. “You wonder how many clicks they’re losing to Twitter,” says Ryan Lizza, who covers Washington for The New Yorker. “Every journalist on Twitter is hosted by Twitter, not by their own news site. So anything they break on there, the clicks are going to Twitter, not to the site.”

Smith admits that the possibility of Twitter thieving traffic from his blog “stresses me out.” The idea that Twitter could be a promotional tool, driving traffic back to his blog and to Politico, doesn’t reassure him. “I now have as many followers—40,000—as the number of unique visits I get on a slowish, average day on the blog,” he says. “At what point do I have more people reading my tweets than reading my blog? I don’t know.” (He actually has almost 50,000 Twitter followers, which may answer the question.)

Harris thinks Smith is overly concerned, but VandeHei acknowledges that Twitter may ultimately have profound effects on Politico’s strategy.

“I’ve had this discussion with Ben, and I think what Ben is wrestling with is, ‘Are blogs as viable and essential today as they were four years ago, or is Twitter in the process of replacing blogs?’” VandeHei says. “Can a blog still thrive as robustly today as it did four years ago? The answer might very well be ‘No,’ that it’s much harder for a blog to get and keep and cultivate that audience today than it was four years ago because of that competition, of Twitter pulling away that conversational immediacy element from the blog world.”

Knowing they can’t rest on their laurels, Politico has been working on a strategy for coming out on top in 2012, and beyond. But this time around, the strategy is remarkable not because it is radically new, but rather because, for the current environment, it is so radically old.

“I have thought about this theory that there is going to be a big resurgence of long-form journalism,” VandeHei says. “If you can’t punch through as easily with speed as you could in the past, the one thing you can do is you can punch through with quality.”

Politico has already made some moves recently to diversify its business by adding more ballast. In February, it launched Politico Pro, a separate publication with a high-cost subscription plan that focuses on policy in specific areas of government and industry, including energy, technology, healthcare, and defense. Then, in late June, Politico announced that it was partnering with Random House to publish a series of four ebooks about the 2012 campaign, between 20,000 and 30,000 words each. The first of them will come out this fall. “The ebook is an experiment,” VandeHei says. “It still remains to be seen whether there’s a high-growth market for political ebooks done in short time frames, if there’s a growing market for meatier journalism that’s done faster than it would’ve been done in the past.”

And Politico’s blogs—there are six others besides Smith’s, covering Congress, the media, courts, and gossip, among other things—could undergo changes as well. One already has. Until a couple of months ago, the site’s “2012 Live” blog aimed to keep track of every relevant development in the campaign. It has since been renamed after the blog’s two reporters, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns. The idea, Harris says, is “to build up a relationship with the individual authors,” and hopefully boost reader interest that way.

“Is blogging the best way to utilize your most talented reporters, or are there other ways to best utilize them?” VandeHei asks. “[Twitter] does make you think through the role of blogs on your site. Do you still need them like you did four years ago? . . . Because this campaign, technology wise, will make the last campaign look like a manual typewriter.”

Smith’s blog is likely to change in some ways as well. There is a part of him that would welcome the chance to focus on longer, more substantive pieces. He envisions a blog that is “more like a column,” with an emphasis on his perspective and analysis, rather than his ability to post breaking items faster than the competition.

“In some ways,” he says, “it’s a luxury to be relieved of the I-can-transcribe-faster-than-you thing.”