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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
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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.”