Gotta say, TNR’s Isaac Chotiner is on a roll today. Aside from raising solid doubts about Marco Rubio’s investment in the ultimate success of comprehensive immigration reform, he’s got an interview with Politico co-founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei that is by turns illuminating, disturbing, and hilarious.
You should definitely read the whole thing, but what grabbed me was the rationale Harris and VandeHei offered for Politico’s upcoming foray into the long-form format under the direction of former Foreign Policy editor Susan Glasser. Chotiner tries with mixed results to get the duo to explain just why Politico needed a magazine:
JH: We are great at scoops that drive the conversation—about the meeting where someone told someone else to go screw themselves. That is catnip for our audience. We can drive the conversation, but often in a very in-the-moment way. I think it is within our reach to produce journalism that is not ephemeral and moves the conversation in more lasting ways. The article we have frequently invoked was the Anthony Weiner one in The New York Times Magazine. That was very much a Politico story. It drove a lot of coverage and conversation. But the honest answer is that we are not currently well organized to land the type of story that involves several weeks or months of reporting. That is not something Politico can routinely do. I think now we will be. A story that might appear in The New York Times or New York magazine or The New Yorker or The New Republic or The Atlantic—we want to be part of those conversations.
IC: Are those the publications you see as your competition for your new long-form team?
JH: I think it’s important to note that we are not trying to enter the national magazine distribution derby. We do not have some insight that we think makes us smarter than Newsweek or something like that. You can buy The Atlantic or The New Republic in Seattle. You are not going to be able to buy our glossy in Seattle. But we do have success at a certain business model that works very well in our niche, and the biggest component of that is advertiser-supported content. This is going to make us more attractive to certain types of advertisers. By the way, we have done glossies on a smaller scale before and made money.
IC: But what is your ultimate goal? Is it more than to drive the conversation in D.C.?
JVH: Your questions come from the premise that we run The New York Times in 1995. We are a publication for and about Washington.
JH: You seem to have a frame that something is important if it’s dull, and you make the reader eat their spinach. I don’t approach the question that way. I just think: That was interesting. The reporter took me for a ride and I was glad I went. The piece that The New York Times did on Weiner was interesting. It was long and interesting. I read it. The larger political world read it. It served as a marker. I didn’t read all of [Steven] Brill’s piece on health care. But it wasn’t ephemeral. I am not that worried that people should be reading about price supports, and they’re not, and that it’s a big problem for democracy. People who need to read about price supports will.
IC: You think politics is just people talking about things that are interesting?
JH: It’s more than that, but it is that. It’s that.
Regular readers know that I’m not a Politico-hater; I think the site serves a legitimate reporting function and sometimes does it well and other times at least covers a lot of landscape that might otherwise escape attention. It’s when Politico tells us what it all means or tries self-consciously to drive narratives that it gets into trouble, often to the point of self-parody.
But I’m really struggling to understand the kind of audience that just can’t get enough of Politico coverage of Washington and needs a regular long-form fix, since it’s clear Harris and VandeHei think length will be the main and perhaps the only differentiator of the new long-form outlet. Is the idea to create enough content in different formats that the Washingtonian can satisfy all his or her reading needs from Politico? Is this all based on an addiction model? I shudder to think so.
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