This is part one of a two-part article. The second installment will be published on Friday, April 22.
Robert Allbritton ’92 doesn’t have the celebrity status of Michael Bay or Joss Whedon. But the Politico founder, publisher, and namesake of the Allbritton Center has had more of an effect on the average University student’s life than either of them. By the account of New Republic, he has “reshaped the way we follow politics,” providing high-end policy analysis and political coverage in a technologically savvy model worthy of the internet age.
Once named one of “Washington’s Most Powerful, Least Famous People” also by New Republic, Allbritton is no clandestine figure. He is someone with a practical approach to journalism who is trying to forge a compromise between the BuzzFeeds of the world and the New York Times. Allbritton sat down with The Argus to talk about Politico’s success in an increasingly competitive industry, how the University influenced him, and what the future of political journalism looks like.
On Wesleyan and the Business of Journalism
The Argus: How did your time at Wesleyan influence your career path? Were there particular classes or teachers that had a great impact on you?
Robert Allbritton: There were so many; I probably can’t add them all up. Bob Wood, who was a government professor who previously worked in [President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s (L.B.J.)] Cabinet. Actually, later, I was on the Board of the L.B.J. Trustees, and they had some big gala reunion thing and Bob was there and I was like, “Hey, Professor Wood. How are you doing?” And he said, “What the hell are you doing here?” and I told him I was on the board now. He just stared at me and said, “What the hell? How did that happen?”
Also, Martha Crenshaw, who used to teach a course on terrorism, which was huge—we’re talking like 1990, and it wasn’t a thing yet. Oh, and [Peter] Rutland, who’s still around. I took a course on Eastern European Politics with him right before the Berlin Wall fell. I made some arguments that basically the East and West would reconcile and they’d move on, and he said I was completely wrong and that the two cultures would never come back together…. I was just like, “Yeah, O.K.” Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. Time is a wonderful thing when you’re right.
A: While you’ve made a career on the business and publishing side of media, did you ever consider becoming a journalist yourself?
RA: Absolutely not. Honestly, when I left [the University], I thought, I’m a pretty good writer but I’m not a great writer. And I hang out with these [journalists] now, and in like thirty minutes they can pop out a thousand words, which are absolute poetry. I mean it’s just beautiful.
I can’t do that, [and] it’s really frustrating. It’s annoying is what it is. I’m like, are you kidding me? These guys need ten minutes to collect their thoughts and they just pound it out.
But it’s just muscle memory, right? You’re going to write a lot now and for the next two years, but when you get done, if you’re not in a position where you keep writing and keep going…it’s like language. If you don’t keep it up, it kind of fades even though it’s still there somewhere.
A: So do you think that ability is a learned skill or something you’re just born with?
RA: Probably 50-50. It’s like being a great musician: you have to have some inherent DNA that says, “This is what I do,” but you also have to hone that skill and keep it fresh. The fact of the matter is some of the best reporters are crappy writers. They can go get the facts and dig up the information; they can get people to talk. But if you don’t have the right editor who can actually turn it into something that people can read, it’s toast. This whole thing of, “Oh and now I gotta go talk to my editor”—it’s real.
And I kind of feel for the editors of the world because they are the unsung heroes of the whole process. Most people don’t make the connection, like, “Oh that piece is edited really well.” All the glory goes to the reporter.
On the Future of Journalism
A: What do you think are the challenges in the future landscape of political journalism then?
RA: So, the world’s really changing again. I think content creators are at the center of that. There was a time when, if you were working at a major metropolitan newspaper, it wasn’t really that different from borderline tenure faculty at a University. You had a schedule, you had to produce—I wouldn’t say it was a leisurely place, but it allowed time for reflection and doing things in a very thoughtful and meaningful way. And then the internet comes along, and it’s all about speed and how prolific you are.
A: How does that affect the writing?
RA: Well it’s not like we don’t know how many people are reading a writer’s piece. We know at what word they stop reading—like, do they make it all the way through. It’s crazy. So, this is really dangerous information.
Because, at the same time, there’s still a human touch to this whole thing. You still have to create stories that people engage with and find interesting, or it’s all for naught and what’s the point.
And I think this is where we are kind of ending up with this lowest common denominator journalism out here. It’s why the world is becoming nothing but Kardashians and Donald Trump and listicles and cats. It’s whatever draws the biggest number. And it’s not necessarily helpful. It doesn’t help to advance conversation and it doesn’t help to advance ideas very much.
A: Does this shift in the way you evaluate content creation also impact the business side of things?
RA: Well, the economics of it have changed drastically. Back in the day, you had big newspapers and they had presses and huge subscriber lists and it was really hard to start something. The amount of capital and time it took to develop a reputation was very long. Now if somebody has an idea, they can pop up and try it and see if it catches on.
Which is good; it allows for younger competitors to kind of come in. But it also winds up where everyone is kind of chasing traffic, which I think is for naught, because at the end of the day we have a traffic goal to get to in this business; say it’s 20 million hits or something. As soon as you get to 20 million, the whole market will go, “No, no, no, you have to get to 30.” As soon as you get to 30, it’s 50. When you get to 50, it’s 80. You get to 100 and its like, “Well, what is your dwell time on site?” It never really ends. It’s really a game that only works for Google and Facebook.
A: Has the calculus for evaluating performance changed with all this new data? How do you set fulfilling goals or find a way to meaningfully evaluate journalists?
RA: No, we are kind of back to the good old days. Honestly, we look at it and we say: “What’s the ability of this writer?”, “How plugged in are they?”, “What kind of moves do they have?”, “Can they get the interview?” Our model is a little on the different side.
We get half our revenue from high-end subscriptions. A large portion of our business now is providing policy and political professionals essential information for them to do their jobs with something like 17 or 18 sub-publications. We dive deeply into individual industries and areas of policy, be it agriculture or finance or defense or health or whatever. And each one of those publications has probably two to twelve people assigned to them, and they produce facts on a regular basis that’s kind of nugget news.
Now, they may only be writing to a small crowd of a couple hundred or thousands, but these are the guys who are making a lot of decisions. And they are delivering to people information they need to do their jobs and they are willing to pay in the thousands of dollars a year to get this stuff. It’s not unlike what Bloomberg does with the terminals. A Bloomberg terminal is 25 grand, but you got to pay it because that’s the only way you get access.
A: Is that frustrating for the writers?
RA: What happens is you create this niche journalism, but occasionally some of this stuff bubbles up to the top. And when it does, we put those articles out on the free site and we have all these experts in all these different fields and you have a small army working down there.
It just makes it a little tougher hiring guys, because most journalists want themselves read, and it’s hard to explain to them, “Well yeah, you’re going to be read by a thousand people, but they are the ones who matter the most.” You are speaking to people who can make decisions, you’re not just speaking to mass numbers of people.
On Politico’s Business Model and Success
A: So you have a different model than BuzzFeed’s and the Huffington Post’s then?
RA: Yeah, the traffic number does not matter as much as it does for other people because our revenue is not as dependent on it. But I don’t know how many models are like that. There are very few. To a certain degree the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, the Economist has a group subscription base.… But we are almost getting two classes of citizens out there: you have the haves and have-nots.
The reality of it is the 1 percent of readers pays for the other 99 percent of journalism that is out there. You’re putting out articles that do have an impact on the country and on the world. That kind of progressive tax system of journalism works. Where I’ve seen a lot of other theories say, we will do a non-profit where people will pay ten cents to read an article and I say, “Are you kidding me? No one’s going to do that.” If you’re looking for a charity, you’re only as good as your last round of donations.
That’s not a way to have professional careers created. It’s so fundamentally unstable. And that’s what I keep preaching to our guys. “Look, we want to do good journalism, but it’s gotta be sustainable. There’s gotta be a business behind it where this is a return, or otherwise, Why are people doing this?”
A: Or with The Marshall Project or ProPublica, you’re only really going to reach niche markets with that approach as opposed to something broader.
RA: Yeah, and you’re right, there’s some out there that keeps on working. You look at what Poynter does. But don’t forget, Poynter ran on the back of the Tampa Bay Times, so there was something else to back that. Or these other guys who get endowments to back them. I don’t know of any of the startups that have that kind of backing behind them. It’s a really hard model.
A: So from what you’re saying, because you compete to put out high-end content and attract a high number of subscribers, do you really see your main competitors as the [New York Timeses] and Washington Posts of the world as opposed to the BuzzFeeds?
RA: Sure, I mean everybody is a competitor; we are all shifting and changing. We are about to shift and change again. I think as a lot of these guys realize they’re about to not make enough clicks anymore, everybody is now talking about video. Why are they talking about video? Because you get paid more off of video than you do off of clicks. So, there’s going to be a stampede in that direction over the next six to eight months. Mashable just came out with this thing yesterday where they said, “Hey we are laying a bunch of people off, but we are going to do video now.” It’s like, “Good luck with that one.”
And every time these guys try and do, they wind up shuttering…. I think that’s kind of the danger of this thing. Everyone’s kind of floundering around looking for the solution without thinking: “Who is my audience? How am I trying to serve them? What value am I giving them? And, how am I going to get paid off of it?”
It’s so damn reactive and I don’t think they’re necessarily in a position to be proactive.