Why would someone leave a pretty good reporting job at the nation's biggest newspaper to join a startup niche news organization? "Adventure," says Bill Nichols, managing editor of The Politico. At the beginning of this year, Nichols (pictured below) left his cushy digs reporting at USA Today to take his current post at the Washington-based newspaper and website. The Politico has since become a force for breaking news in the capital and on the campaign trail.
In terms of business models, the publication straddles the line between the old ones and new. Founded in January by East Coast media mogul Robert Allbritton, The Politico is probably best known for its website, a colorful combination of political features, blogs, breaking news and video, all of which aesthetically looks a bit like Salon.com or similar online news pubs. But most of its revenue comes from its print edition, which is published at different frequencies depending on whether Congress is in session. In The Politico's case, its print edition serves the company really well because groups who want to lobby Congress are willing to spend big money on ads. In journalistic terms, that means more money for solid reporting.
Almost a year into it, Nichols tells me during an e-mail Q&A, he's glad he made the move. He's having fun. He's getting to try new things. In a way, he says, the experience has been like his wild days of college newspapering. And that's a good thing. "There's not a lot of fun being had in the MSM right now," he says.
Text & Ideas: You left the largest newspaper in the nation that has more than 2.2 million subscribers for a startup that reaches, according to its website, about 25,000 people in print. What made you decide to give up the big budget and recognition of USA Today for the untested Politico? Was it the title bump? The chance to be in charge?
Bill Nichols: I had a lot of mixed feelings and remain a huge fan of USA Today and the concept behind it. But at this point in my career, an adventure seemed like it would be fun, and it seemed like I was fast exiting the stage of my life when I could still responsibly have an adventure. I think for a lot of MSM journalists, there's also an almost irresistible urge to see what life on the Web is really like. It's been a great move; absolutely no regrets.
Text & Ideas: What advantages does an outlet like The Politico have over one like USA Today?
Bill Nichols: We're a startup, so we don't have the burden of institutional history that many of our competitors do, even a publication as young as USA Today. Which means, if we want to try something new, we just do it. We're also structured in a very entrepreneurial, non-bureaucratic way, so we don't have focus groups or corporate pow-wows to contend with. If we want to do something, we just do it. If it works, we keep doing it. If it doesn't, we don't do it again. I think that's a big advantage, given the speed with which the technology of the Web changes and the speed with which the news cycle now moves. We're a lean, mean fighting machine.
Text & Ideas: What disadvantages does it have? Smaller budget? Smaller staff?
Bill Nichols: There are definitely times that all of us who worked at bigger, more established places miss some of the creature comforts and the luxury of bigger numbers and more support. We certainly have people working an awful lot of hours. But those staff numbers are coming down throughout the MSM -- and we're proud at Politico that our owner, Allbritton Communications, has chosen the novel approach of actually spending money to improve the product, rather than retrenching. It takes courage to do that in the current environment.
Text & Ideas: With printed newspapers on the decline and the traditional advertising model seemingly broken, other new publications have chosen to be online-only. Why did The Politico decide to invest in a print edition?
Bill Nichols: Part of the reason is that the idea for Politico began as plan to put together a third Capitol Hill newspaper, then morphed into something much more ambitious. So the infrastructure for a newspaper was already in place. But the larger reason is we feel that print advertising can carry us through out early years, as the environment for on-line ads becomes more mature.
Text & Ideas: What were the early days like after the publication launched in January?
Bill Nichols: Imagine the wildest days at your college newspaper. I came in after the publication had actually launched, so I missed some of the most harrowing stretches of all-nighters and 20-hour days. But within that chaos was also a lot of fun -- which is one of the main reasons I got in this business in the first place. There's not a lot of fun being had in the MSM right now, and at Politico, we try to make that a priority. We don't want to be another insurance office.
Text & Ideas: What kind of response have you gotten from fellow journalists both inside and outside the Beltway since you started at The Politico?
Bill Nichols: We've really gotten great response. We feel like our voice has become part of the conversation within the world of Washington. And we've established partnerships with the four flagship papers in the early primary and caucus states -- New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina -- which has helped us establish the brand out in the country. Most, if not all, of our colleagues who thought we were crazy less than a year ago seem to have changed their tune.
Text & Ideas: The publication has been running for about 11 months now. What will it look like a year from today, and do you expect to have more competition?
Bill Nichols: We'll have more people and probably even more platforms; we've already begun establishing new projects that explore the intersection between Washington and Wall Street and the politics of Hollywood. As for competition, I hope we're cornering the market on smart and revelatory coverage of Congress, lobbying and the world of politics. If not, we welcome all comers who want to set up shop in our corner of the new media world.
Coming next week: Questions for Andrew Donohue, the executive editor of Voice of San Diego, a newspaper without the paper.