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July 15, 2009, 8 a.m.

Is Politico a news organization, a meme organization, or what?

Bill Wasik begins his book, And Then There’s This, with a “plea to future historians.” Well, when the early history of online news is written, a crucial document will be the memo distributed at a Politico staff meeting on July 21, 2008. Written by the news site’s chief White House correspondent, Mike Allen, a veteran of Time and The Washington Post, it read in part:

We are not the AP or The New York Times…If we ONLY do what those two great organizations do, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE AND WE WON’T HAVE JOBS…OWNING THE MORNING is vital to our prosperity. Early links have a longer shelf life, and our journalism has more of an opportunity to shape the Washington agenda. We’re online by 5 a.m., promoting your stories and looking for fresh opportunities to drive conversation.

Later in the memo, Allen posed several criteria for determining whether a piece of news qualifies as a “STRONG POLITICO STORY,” including:

a) Would this be a “most e-mailed” story?…
d) Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?…
g) Will my competition be forced to follow this?

By all of which, Allen meant: Will it spread?

In the video above, Wasik, whose book on viral culture we’ve been discussing this month, agrees with my suggestion that Politico is as much a meme organization as a news organization: intensely focused on creating content that maximizes pageviews. Just as Wasik describes the meme-driven Internet as “an economist’s dream of the free market,” so is Politico intent on “OWNING THE MORNING.”

But while I’m frequently dismayed at Politico’s sense of news, I’m hardly as critical as Wasik, who interviewed the site’s two founders for his book. He sees in Politico the dominance of decontextualized and overhyped news, while my sense is that the site represents a challenge for better news organizations to act more virally. All of the available evidence that only “tawdry” political news will spread on the Internet is, I think, skewed by the reluctance of most newspapers to play that game at all.

The required background reading on Politico — in addition to Wasik’s book, of course — includes Gabe Sherman’s piece in The New Republic, which is the provenance of that epic memo, and Michael Wolff’s more recent treatment in Vanity Fair. A full transcript of our video is below, and if you’re into Wasik’s ideas, check out the previous installments of our book club.

Bill Wasik: In the book I interview the guys who founded the Politico, so — you know, John Harris and Jim VandeHei from The Washington Post. And this was just as the site was launching, and they were describing their sort of road-to-Damascus moment about the Internet. And when both of them were at The Washington Post, they looked at the most-emailed stories, and they realized something that was very positive about them, which was, people were not responding to a lot of what they called the “obligatory duty” coverage that the Post was doing. So, for example, George W. Bush has a press conference. You know — sure, something interesting might get said at the press conference that needs to get reported on, but for the most part press conferences, you know — the idea is you send somebody there because, as a sort of comprehensive news organization like the Washington Post, you feel that someone needs to be there and someone needs to report on it. You just — you go through the motions of doing it.

Their point was, you know, look, the audience is as smart — the audience is smarter than we are because they’re not emailing these stories around. They understand that this news is already old by the time they get it — certainly by the time they get it online, you know, even by the time they get it online. And so the audience is responding to stuff that’s more kinetic, you know. They’re also not responding entirely to stuff that’s scurrilous or just empty controversy. People do respond to really great investigative pieces that, you know, push forward a big issue in some way.

That having been said, though, you know, in my sort of traveling through this world, particularly with politics, I feel like that the stories that tend to excite the audience tend to be the stories that can be used as, you know, clubs in the partisan warfare. You know, where a story’s gonna give ammunition to one side or the other, and that side is going to, you know, send it around and it’s going to become, you know, a tool of motivation and activism among the bloggers and among the sort of email universe and among these very, very balkanized partisan readership.

So for better or for worse, and in — my argument in the book is, unfortunately, for worse — I feel like that a lot of what’s going viral online in the political space is stuff that is just sort of kindling for this, like, big, big war that’s taking place, you know, between political factions. And that if you can, you know, if you can feed those factions in any way, you know — maybe it’s with something that’s very, very substantive. But maybe it’s with something that is very, very, I don’t want to say scurrilous, but something that’s a little bit, you know, tawdry.

And my concern about the Politico, which I voice in the book, is that I feel like that if you think about doing media in terms of going viral, you often tend to lump those two together in a way that I think is a little distasteful. So they talk about an example of a story where, you know, one representative called another representative a whore, and this, you know — this story posted on the Politico, suddenly it was on Drudge and then suddenly the Colbert Report’s doing something about it. And, you know, as they’re describing this to me in the interview, they’re saying, “you know, we need to find a way to get more stories into that kind of a pipeline.” But to me on the outside, you know, that instinct is a worrisome instinct, and I think that if you’re following the culture of the most-emailed list, then I worry that’s the instinct that you develop.
 
Zach Seward: Fair to say they’re as much like a meme organization as a news organization?
 
Wasik: Well, yeah. I think if you’re, if you are — and if you’re doing an online news organization and traffic is your goal, then it’s almost inevitable that you begin to think in those terms, which is, you know, “how do I get my stories into this, this pipeline of, you know, getting them talked about in this kind of churning conversation?”
 
Seward: Right, because you do also say that memes are, could be seen as just an expression of the free market. […]

Wasik: I mean, it’s tough. Because I absolutely see where Harris is coming from. You know, as he put it, you know, the Times and The Washington Post, they see themselves as reality-defining or reality-creating enterprises. By which they mean, they do wake up every morning and say, you know, what’s the news that’s fit to print? Not meaning, you know, that they’re going to censor the rest, but that, you know, what they will be presenting in their pages is their best attempt at a definitive, authoritative take on what’s happening in the world on that day.

And obviously, they would never pretend that they always get it and they always get it all, but that they’re they’re trying to refine it and they’re trying to get, you know, the best comprehensive picture. And, you know, as he says in the book, like, first of all, you know, that’s a terrible burden for them. And second of all, there’s an argument that it doesn’t work anymore, that it’s not relevant anymore, because people don’t rely on a single source of news. Certainly in the kinds of readers that a site like the Politico has, they’re going to be ranging all around, they’re going to be creating their own set of information streams that will form their daily news diet. And so — so I wouldn’t necessarily say that the Times model is a model that organization like the Politico should follow, and I’m not even sure they could follow it. And arguably, that model is going away.

What does worry me is the idea that with the decline of that model, that we’re entering this great new world of a news converstion where we can look at the most-emailed list and the most-blogged list and which stories are getting the most comments, and we can feel very comfortable with the idea that that’s where we should be going as journalists. There’s a blitheness to that way of thinking that I heard with Harris and VandeHei that bothered me. I’m not saying that I think they should endeavor to do the reality-creating thing because it’s not — it’s just not possible any more, and I totally see where they’re coming from. It’s just, I would like to see them become a little bit more judicious than they were in the way they talked about those things with me. I should say that there were moments during the campaign where they would talk about these processes, you know, about the news cycle and about the use of these like tiny little smear stories and all that in a way that definitely shows that they get it, that they understand that that process is going on. But I feel like in the heat of it, these online-centric news organizations, it’s hard for them not to be driven by these like very sort of traffic-focused concerns, and that is a little bothersome.

Seward: Certainly, there was, as news organizations that were traditionally in print moved online, there was always aversion to focusing on the stats. The most-emailed list was pretty much the best — the most public indicator and maybe the only thing that the reporters saw about whether their content was popular. That’s certainly not the case at Politico. I wonder — I mean the aversion to, to looking at the stats seems misplaced to me. I mean, it seems like, if you care to operate on the web — regardless of the question of, you know, does it produce good or bad journalism — ultimately, you can’t be operating, there is no way to produce online journalism that is true online journalism without knowing whether what you’re doing is popular?

Wasik: No, I absolutely agree. My only point is that it is a Pandora’s box and that as much as you sort of, you know, you look in the box and then you say, well, “I’m only going to use this knowledge in a very judicious sort of way.” I think that that’s possible, and I think that’s what all of us in the journalism world that have opened the box, you know, should strive to do with that information. You know, to keep our heads about us about what exactly that means.

What I find more troublesome is the way that there’s this — I keep coming back to this word “conversation” because I feel it’s this great big euphemism in journalism right now, where what we’re supposed to be doing online with the readers is creating, you know, engaging them in conversation over social media. And if a story gets emailed around a lot and read a lot and blogged about a lot and commented a lot, then that means we have somehow, you know, tapped into this sort of touchy-feely idea of conversation.

To a certain extent, it’s a whitewashing of the age-old thing of give people what they want to read. You know, if you told a newspaper editor 20 years ago that, you know, what you should do is run the stories that make people buy the newspaper, the editors of certain newspapers would have said well, that’s crass. But today if you say to the same people, well, your job is to engage the readers in conversation over social media, well then, you know, you’re the VP of online development. […]

It was the ignorance that almost, that saved journalism for so many years. You know the idea that — okay, you put a story on the cover, and you might have a sense for how that story does or doesn’t, you know drive people to pick up the paper and buy it. But today, what we know is all the way down into the deepest, deepest section of the newspaper, you know, what’s getting read — at least by the online audience, what’s getting read and what isn’t getting read. You know, what’s getting forwarded along and what isn’t getting forwarded along. So again, it’s like when, before maybe the market for — because all we had was data about — all we thought we had was data about the cover stories, then, you know, that was all the data you could use. And now that we have the more data, we use the more data. And again, I think you’re essentially right, which is that it’s hard to imagine that any organization is going to get that data and not use it. And so I don’t think the answer is not to use it. I just think the answer is to, to think hard about what this data-rich environment really means for journalism.

POSTED     July 15, 2009, 8 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Lab Book Club: Viral culture
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