Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ever since Allbritton Communications announced in the fall it was adding a political news startup to its media empire, skeptics have wondered if Washington can support another Capitol Hill publication.

But pose that question to the Politico’s executive editor, Jim VandeHei, and he will say it doesn’t apply.

“I just do not see it that way at all,” said Mr. VandeHei, who left his job as national political correspondent at The Washington Post to help steer the venture. He said Politico will distinguish itself from major newspapers and those that “cover the bowels of Capitol Hill” with its staff of seasoned political reporters writing for the decision-making elite as well as everyday readers.

“I don’t think there’s that many places that are assembling a big group of people with experience covering politics, doing original reporting and doing it for both the compulsive political consumers here and the casual political consumers throughout the rest of the country,” he said.

The Politico debuts tomorrow in print, online and on the air.

It’s because of this multimedia approach, Mr. VandeHei said, that the Arlington-based Politico is just getting started while newspapers across the country are shedding employees and shutting bureaus.

“Most media companies will say, ‘Yes, we’re multimedia, we’ve got a newspaper and we’ve got a Web site,’ but most are built around the newspaper,” he said. “They’ve got a newspaper; they’ve dumped the newspaper online. We’re trying to build it from the other way.”

The Politico has signed partnerships with all-news WTOP-103.5 FM as well as CBS, which will feature its stories and reporters on “Face the Nation” and other CBS news programs. In addition, the startup will have its own 30-minute TV show that will air weekdays on NewsChannel 8, a sister Allbritton property whose newsroom it shares with WJLA-TV (Channel 7).

The newspaper will publish 30,000 copies to be distributed free of charge three days a week while Congress is in session, and one day a week during recess. The Web site, which also will be free, plans to be rich in video and is aimed at readers across the country.

“Will it be the only destination [for political news]? No, but there’s no reason we can’t be at the top of the list,” Mr. VandeHei said.

Newspaper analyst John Morton said the Politico is a reflection of the “segmentation of the newspaper business.”

Whether there is enough room for so many political news sources depends on the product, said Mr. Morton, president of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Spring.

“There does seem to be an almost insatiable appetite for political news in the Washington market.”

With a staff of about 60, including 24 reporters, the Politico is taking on political news sources of all shapes and sizes, from blogs to Capitol Hill publications such as Roll Call and the Hill to major daily newspapers.

“I don’t think we’re inventing some radically new form of journalism,” said John Harris, the Politico’s editor in chief, who left his job as national political editor at The Washington Post. “We’re going to write with more voice and analytical edge.”

Mr. VandeHei and Mr. Harris have persuaded an all-star cast to join them in a bet on the future of journalism. Since arriving at the Politico in November, the two have plucked Mike Allen from Time magazine, former Bloomberg News political writer Roger Simon and Ben Smith from the New York Daily News.

“There’s no claim to the status quo as it existed,” Mr. Harris said. “The urgent task is the same: defining what the future is for this business. This was an opportunity to start something from scratch, to hire people in pretty significant numbers and to define a journalistic product from the beginning.”

The Politico will draw most of its advertising dollars from issue ads funded by interest groups targeting lawmakers. Robert Allbritton, chairman of the parent company, said he expects the venture to turn a profit in 18 to 24 months.

“That’s a pretty realistic time frame for a startup,” said Mr. Allbritton. If it takes longer, “it’s part of a larger organization” and wouldn’t run out of money immediately.

Mr. Morton said it will be interesting to see which Capitol Hill publication attracts more advertisers.

“Are they just going to all start sharing ever-smaller pieces of a fairly static advertising environment?” he asked, noting that the continued prosperity of interest groups and lobbying firms is fortunate for political publications. “That’s the part of advertising that’s growing.”

Roll Call and the Hill Newspaper did not respond to requests for comment.

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