City Paper is not for tourists
Washington staffers of Voter.com feel like so much hanging chad.
Washington media players have often observed that the glass-and-marble building at 400 North Capitol St. NW is the epicenter of political punditry in Washington. Upstairs on the eighth floor are the MSNBC studios, where Hardball With Chris Matthews is taped. Fox News broadcasts from the fifth floor. C-SPAN is on Floor 6.
Until two weeks ago, 400 North Capitol St. was also the Washington, D.C., home of Voter.com. On Monday, Feb. 5, a dozen or so D.C.-based employees shuffled into a newsroom where the paint job is less than a year old and the carpet still smells brand-new. There, alongside a bank of computers that sit exactly perpendicular to a camera-ready rendition of the Voter.com logo painted on the wall, they learned what many of them had suspected for several weeks: Voter.com had cast its last ballot.
Out of money and unsuccessful in finding new investors, the 14-month-old Web site, named last summer as one of the best political pages on the Web by Forbes magazine, shut down that day. Voter.com’s 45 employees (down from a peak staff of 100 last August and shared between the Web site’s Boston headquarters and its Washington office) lost their jobs immediately.
“It was terrible, if not unexpected, news,” says Robert Schlesinger, Voter.com’s chief congressional correspondent. “We had known for a few weeks that Voter was looking for new funding, and we were hopeful that something would turn up.”
Within hours, Voter.com’s familiar blue-and-white home page was stripped of its graphics. In its place, a two-paragraph Dear John letter was posted on the site in Courier fontthe most typewriterlike and unglamorous script of all.
“[W]e are closing down,” the note read. “Quite simply, we were not able to secure sufficient funding to maintain the quality site that you have come to expect and that earned us our reputation as the top political site online.”
Created to tap into the energy, media attention, and money that surrounds America’s elections, Voter.com was forced to concede to harsh market realities. Other political sitesincluding Grassroots.com and SpeakOut.comare trying to stay alive by reorganizing or rethinking their business models and shifting their focus away from voters and elections to selling their analysis of voter trends and software packages to lobbyists and nonprofits.
Voter.com, too, was hoping to diversify. Just before Election Day, Justin Dangel, the site’s 26-year-old founder and CEO, announced plans to raise $40 million in additional capital that was to be used to purchase two political lobbying firms: the Dewey Square Group in Boston and DCI/New Media in Washington, a firm that assisted Microsoft in its recent antitrust battle.
But when one of the investors, Interpublic Group, a New York-based advertising and marketing company, backed out of the deal at the last minute, Voter.com’s financial situation went from bad to worse. By late January, according to insiders, the company had taken out a loan to make its payroll for the month.
When the ax did fall, there were few, if any, tears shed in the Washington office. Though a year and a half of work went down the drain in an instant, the employees cracked open a few beers, and someone cued up Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” on Napster.
“We just sat there, just hanging out,” laughs Bob Vanasse, Voter.com’s vice president and editor in chief. “I don’t mean to make light of things, but the moment, it was just perfect in a very bittersweet way.”
At the outset of the last campaign cycle, in mid-1999, the new hot business on the Web was politics. The idea of making a profit from political discourse and news online attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture capital and dozens of old-school political heavyweights eager to put down roots in the increasingly trendy online world.
Just 25 years old at the time, Dangel, a Duke University grad who had worked for a London venture-capital firm, dreamed up a Web site where voters could go for one-stop shopping for news and poll numbers as well as information on candidates, issue groups, and legislation, whether the realm was local, state, or national. (Dangel did not return phone calls for comment on the demise of Voter.com.)
Dangel and his investors reasoned that the bills would be paid by advertisers hoping to access a politically astute demographic. Voter.com, as the site was soon named, would also make money from candidates and trade groups wanting access to that audience. For a small fee, the site also would sell space to political groups that wanted to publish newsletters on the Net, raise money, and recruit volunteers.
Within months, Dangel and Voter.com investors had recruited some big names. Craig Smith, a former White House staffer, who had managed the early days of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, signed on as Voter.com’s director of Democratic affairs. Former Rep. Randy Tate, a former executive director of the Christian Coalition, was tapped as Smith’s Republican counterpart and later as the company’s vice president for public affairs. Veteran Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein was hired to be the site’s executive editor. Voter.com’s board of advisers was a policy wonk’s wet dream, featuring notables such as Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos and former Bill Clinton adviser Bill Carrick.
Equally impressive was the list of political groups and trade associations that signed on as co-founding sponsors of the Web site: the Republican and Democratic National Committees, the AFL-CIO, the Christian Coalition, and People for the American Way. “It took six months to get the DNC and RNC to sign the same piece of paper,” Tate told Washington Business Forward last May. “I think that’s the first time that has ever happened.”
Vanasse, who was in charge of America Online’s news content before his stint at Voter.com, calls the site’s coalition of supporters unprecedented. “We had a group of amazing people, including some of the most talented people in journalism and politics, to put together the site,” he says. “To play the Monday-morning quarterback, we could have saved a lot of money just from the earned media we attracted from [the hirings] alone.”
In fact, exactly the opposite occurred. Voter.com splashed out an expensive marketing campaign, slapping ads on the sides of buses, taking out full-page newspaper ads, and branding its name on the popular Battleground 2000 presidential tracking poll, which was picked up nightly by almost every major news outlet in the country.
And then there were the parties and the giveaways. During last summer’s national political contentions, Voter.com threw lavish soirees, including one in Los Angeles in honor of Democratic moneyman (and recently elected Democratic National Committee Chair) Terry McAuliffe. The Web site also gave away box after box of free toys to reporters and conventiongoers, including bouncing glow-in-the-dark balls emblazoned with the company logo and politically oriented Magnetic Poetry sets.
But the media blitzes ultimately didn’t pull in the audience that Voter.com required to turn a profit. From its November 1999 launch, Voter.com’s traffic slowly but steadily increased to a pre-Election Day high of 750,000 unique visitors a day, according to the site. In November 2000, that traffic increased tenfold, attracting 3 million unique visitors on Election Day, or about 17 million page views, a much higher volume of traffic than reported by any of its political counterparts. Yet Voter.com continued to trail behind larger news portal sites like CNN.com and MSNBC.com, which each averaged about 8 million hits an hour, according to the online ratings firm Media Matrix.
“The idea that voters would prefer going to any of these political dot-com sites for their news over Yahoo! or CNN or WashingtonPost.com just didn’t make sense,” says Jonah Seiger, a co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, a Web-based public affairs consulting group in the District. “The business model that Voter.com and these other sites were operating under was a risky proposition from the beginning. You knew how it was going to end, and for those of us on the sidelines, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.”
Not surprisingly, Schlesinger and other Voter.com proponents disagree. They tie the site’s failure to the changing economy and not the company’s business model. “It was a great idea that was two years late and four years early,” Schlesinger says. “Had we come up with this idea in the height of the dot-com boom, we’d be awash in funds right now and well on our way to another successful year. It wasn’t a bad idea. It was bad timing.”
Just outside Voter.com’s office doors, someone has posted a picture of Dangel taken at the Republican National Convention. In the photo, Dangel assumes Nixon’s classic pose, with two fingers upraised in a “V” for victory. A cartoon bubble in blue ink extends from Dangel’s smile. It reads: “I am not a crook.”
Inside the darkened offices, Vanasse sidesteps boxes full of Voter.com memorabilia, including those infamous rubber balls and other items distributed at last year’s political conventions. What will happen to them now? “I am thinking of throwing a huge party in a few weeks, where I’ll use them as party favors or something,” he says.
On this day, the offices are for the most part empty. Following the closure announcement, a number of employees cleaned out their desks and never came back. Some lingered throughout the week, using their e-mail and desks in search of new jobs.
“I think most people will land on their feet, since having Voter.com on your résumé can only be a plus,” Vanasse says, pausing to look into an empty conference room. “Clearly, there were problems, but when the history of the 2000 elections is written, I really believe there will be a chapter about Voter.com.” CP