City Paper is not for tourists
Over the past year, politics-oriented Web sites have attracted record amounts of Internet traffic, and the Washington Post has apparently concluded that it’s not commanding enough of it. Top thinkers at the paper are currently discussing a brand-new, semi-autonomous site that would package the Post‘s politics reporting, multimedia offerings, and other stuff.
“We’re exploring whether or not it would be feasible or advisable to create a niche Web site on politics in parallel with our political coverage on washingtonpost.com,” says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
Users could find it all at Postpolitics.com.
But just what they would find isn’t clear. “I don’t know what it is yet,” says Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com.
Whatever it is, it all bears some resemblance to a concept advocated two years ago by Post politics veterans John Harris and Jim VandeHei. They wanted the paper to have a strong and separate identity on politics, a refuge for junkies uncluttered by weather reports and stories on the region’s latest double murder. “This sounds similar to what Jim and I had proposed,” says Harris, who left the Post along with VandeHei in 2006 to launch the Politico.
The Post project may gain some clarity in high-level meetings this week, as Brady and others sprint to flesh out their options. If a new product is launched, it has to be ready in time for the conventions later this summer. The goal would be to create something with greater appeal than the site’s current politics front page, which gives the reader an inventory of the Post‘s work in this realm. Today’s iteration, for example, presents a story by staff writer Eli Saslow on false rumors about Barack Obama in the country’s heartland, links to Post.com bloggers, and a display of polling numbers.
Says Brady: “The question is, basically, that we already have a politics page that kind of aggregates everything we do in politics.”
Not exactly a full-throated endorsement from the company’s Web boss. Though embryonic, planning discussions on the politics page pack all the ingredients of a classically divisive Washington Post Web venture—and help explain why Publisher Katharine Weymouth is looking at ways to mesh the D.C.-based main newsroom and the Arlington-based Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI).
The revival of a separate politics site reportedly originated from talks on the D.C. side of the Web divide, with Weymouth and Downie insistent on exploring its possibilities, according to knowledgeable sources. A June 20 memo from national desk honchos Bill Hamilton and Rajiv Chandrasekaran drives home the point that “[t]he site has to feel new…” “It cannot simply be a version of the current politics page, now also called Post Politics.”
In seeking uniqueness, Hamilton and Chandrasekaran propose a great deal of same-oldness. Their outline of the site advocates, for example, “News and analysis…”; “Emphasis on our best political enterprise stories”; all kinds of archival functionality; “More photography…”; “Video—with an emphasis on quality and exclusivity over quantity”; and, my favorite, “Interactivity: Regular chats and online interviews with newsmakers.”
The memo’s indirect slight toward washingtonpost.com lies in the history: Many, if not all, of the specified functions are things that the dot-com troops long ago instituted, in some cases over the protests of the newsroom staffers.
And its direct slap-in-the-face to the Web site comes in this passage: “Many of WPNI’s resources are currently tied up in their re-design. We need their best designers on this project. That did not happen with The Trail….,” reads the memo, referring to the online campaign diary launched last summer.
The memo’s weirdest part states that the Post is a “late entrant into this field.” What field would that be? Semi-autonomous news sites by the paper of record in Washington, D.C.? Coverage of politics? Having a Web site? Writing?
Who knows. What is clear is that the Post has choked on campaign 2008. Though departed top national editor Susan Glasser put together some nice pre-primary candidate profiles, the newsroom has come up short on the sort of scoop-driven coverage that would do more to drive traffic than any fancy Web apparition. Too often the Post has been scrambling to follow its competitors.
And not just on the news-breaking front, either.
Around the time that operatives at Albritton Communications were working on the launch of Politico, they went on something of a bender in terms of registering domain names. Along with purchasing all kinds of URLs relating to Politico, a staffer at the paper’s Web-hosting outfit had the bright idea of registering Postpolitics.com.
The Post Co. found out months later about this instance of legal identity theft. At first, says a source, the Post people said they didn’t particularly want the name. Later, they said they did.
After some negotiating with the the Albritton/Politico folks, the Post paid around $20,000 to secure its very own franchise.