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Can Politico Win Again?

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

Ben Smith | Photo: Axel Dupeux

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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.”

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