What is 'Politico' Up To?

Many months ago, top Washington Post political reporters Jim VandeHei and John Harris left their real newspaper to go be partners in a multimedia cross-platform Web 2.0 venture called Politico, which is actually a tiny little newspaper in Washington, DC. And a website. They lured a bunch of other top reporters over there too, with promises of lots and lots of Internet money, just like the Huffington Post gets, and promises of expansion and fame. It's been a huge success! Maybe! The Observer reports today that Politico is now turning into a TV show, which makes sense, because they are owned by a company that owns TV stations, but there's still not any word on whether this venture is actually making any money, for anyone. Which we're kinda curious about! Is it, as it appears to be, a big vanity project?

Politico is owned by Allbritton Communications. If you haven't heard of Allbritton Communications, it may be because you don't watch channel 41 in Harrisburg, PA, or channel 60 in Tulsa Oklahoma, two of the 8 mostly small-market local ABC affiliates that make up the rest of Allbritton's holdings. 8 TV stations and a hype-ful New Media political news organization, from a company that made its fortune with a bank that once laundered money for Augusto Pinochet. In the 1970s, they bought and killed the Washington Star. That was the end of Allbritton's newspaper daze until this Politico thing.

The Politico is now, apparently, launching a weekly television show, which will air on most of those Allbritton TV stations (though not in New York). It will be fast-paced and hard-hitting and EDGY.

"When we think of Politico, we're always talking about, well, it would be nice to build the ESPN of politics," said Mr. VandeHei. "I think part of that would be treating politics like sports, blending in more stats, dusting down the numbers and getting inside the strategy."

Except ESPN makes money, doesn't it? There isn't, we're told, a lot of advertising money, on this Internet, for pure political coverage. Denton describes political reporting as "toxic to advertisers." And what money there is for it will dry up once this presidential election is done. HuffPo is raking it in, supposedly, but there's a good reason why they're expanding their lifestyle and health sections—and trying to be seen as less of a rabidly partisan left-wing niche political site.

So this whole Politico thing? We've been skeptical since day one, primarily because representatives like Mr. VandeHei sound like terrible parodies of hype-spewing hucksters when they talk about the revolutionary new way they cover politics (they HAVE A WEBSITE and SOME AMATEURISH VIDEOS everything is different now!), but they hired enough talent to produce a good product. It's just not a money-making product, on its own. Which means, since they continue to throw more resources at it, that it's a vanity project. For someone. We're just not sure who! Because Allbritton, as amusing as their history is, has not exactly demonstrated a strong interest in becoming a BIG MEDIA PLAYER.

And once the presidential thing is done, Politico will have to go back to what we thought it'd be in the first place—a wonkish, Roll Call-like little trade paper for Congress-watchers and DC insiders. In real newspapers, the political reporting is subsidized by the "fluff." One cannot build a profitable brand on politics alone.

So if anyone smarter than us at this money thing wants to take a stab at explaining to us the economics of Politico, we're all ears.