(c) 2015, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON — Politics. Politics. Politics. Politics.
And more politics.
Forget about 2016. With the presidential campaign just getting started, the race for the White House figures to be the most covered, and perhaps the most over-covered, story of 2015. Major news organizations have all but made that official by engaging in an arms race of sorts to hire more political journalists. The staffing binge comes as many in the news media are cutting back in other areas.
Over the past few months, Bloomberg Media has added two dozen people to a new unit dedicated to national politics, headed by two editors recruited with annual salaries reportedly in excess of $1 million each. CNN and its Web site, CNN.com, have been building up a similar operation, with 20 new hires and 20 more to come this year. Politico, which floods the policy and political beats with a 180-member newsroom, intends to add a half-dozen bodies to just its campaign team.
Political staffs have been growing at other news organizations, too: the Huffington Post, the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News, Vox, BuzzFeed and Fusion, a cable network and website aimed at English-speaking Latinos that will be covering its first presidential race this year.
“This is the biggest story we know of that we’ll be covering in the next two years,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. He adds, “We’ll spend more money on the 2016 campaign than on any campaign in history.”
But of course. Like the 2008 election, the Democratic and Republican races are both open, with no incumbent on either side. That augurs well for the sort of ratings-spiking, traffic-goosing news that drives campaigns — debates, primaries, strategies, etc. Presidential campaigns tend to be a bonanza for the cable news networks, in particular, but news sites get more clicks during each cycle, too.
It’s also true that the people most interested in national politics are generally better educated and wealthier than average, making them the kinds of people that advertisers like.
But with so many people covering the same turf, it’s likely that any news about the campaign will quickly become commodified. That makes the cost-benefit relationship of all the hiring a bit fuzzy. “There are way more political writers than political news,” said a prominent political editor, who, in classic political fashion, asked not to be identified so that he could opine without repercussions. “Tons of companies don’t seem to care about profit; they only care about their profile.”
This editor, whose political staff is expanding, laments that the bidding for reporters has driven up salaries, even for young and relatively unseasoned journalists. Some younger, promising reporters have received offers in excess of $150,000 a year, far more than they would have commanded just a few years ago, he said. “It’s a very good time to be a political reporter if you’re any good,” he added, “but the salaries being kicked around are absurd.”
The most high-profile hires so far have been at Bloomberg, which last year poached Mark Halperin and John Heilemann to lead its new Bloomberg Politics brand. The group is part of the sprawling financial news and information empire controlled by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York. Halperin and Heilemann, the co-authors of the best-selling 2008 campaign book “Game Change,” reportedly were lured from Time magazine and New York magazine, respectively, with seven-figure deals. Heilemann won’t comment on those reports.
Echoing Feist, Heilemann said the presidential campaign “will be the biggest story of any kind in America” over the next two years. He suggested that Bloomberg — never a major player in the niche — felt compelled to reinforce its coverage. In addition to supervising text, broadcast and digital-video reporting, Heilemann and Halperin are the hosts of a nightly political show, “With All Due Respect,” that is carried on Bloomberg’s TV network and streamed over its website. (Heilemann and Halperin had been commentators on MSNBC before joining Bloomberg.) The new program is attracting about 55,000 viewers, a modest audience but twice the number who watched the business show that was previously in the time slot.
To stand out in an increasingly crowded field, Heilemann said his group is seeking to integrate television, digital text and digital video reporting. The editorial mantra, he said, is to be nonpartisan and “not dumbed down.” The idea is to offer a sophisticated take on events, not just “inside baseball” fare for political junkies. “I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I don’t believe anyone else is doing, or attempting to do, what we’re doing,” he said.
Actually, it seems that a number of news organizations have pretty much the same idea.
CNN, for example, has long had a popular website but it is trying to forge more interaction between its digital and TV sides in its political coverage. Last summer, it hired Politico’s managing editor, Rachel Smolkin, to beef up its digital political reporting.
Smolkin has raided Yahoo News, the Los Angeles Times, Politico and Agence France- Presse, among others, to build her staff, which she expects to double as the campaign heats up. Attesting to Smolkin’s elevated prominence, her office is located next to Feist’s in CNN’s 350-person Washington bureau.
The political expansion began just as the network began a cutback in other areas that will pare about 8 percent of its workforce, or about 300 people, through buyouts and layoffs.
Smolkin’s group recently produced an exclusive digital video and text report by correspondent Chris Moody about how Republican officials were secretly sharing internal polling data on midterm races with outside groups via anonymous Twitter accounts, potentially running afoul of campaign finance laws. Moody also appeared on CNN to discuss the story — an example of the kind of multimedia “integration” CNN and others are hoping to achieve. “The line between digital and TV doesn’t exist,” declared Feist. “If it’s good journalism, we’ll put it out on both platforms.”
The political-journalism boomlet has caused Politico, which pioneered the fast-twitch reporting of incremental developments, to change its editorial model. The website that was known for bursts of mini-scoops is now placing an emphasis on longer, in-depth magazine-style and explainer stories, said Jim VandeHei, its chief executive and president. In recent months, it has hired veteran journalists from Time and Reuters, among other mainstream publications, to add muscle to its reporting.
The goal, said VandeHei, is to distinguish Politico from the encircling competition by being both “fast and furious” on the news as well as authoritative about it. “We caught people flatfooted when we first started” eight years ago, he said. “We were fast and edgy and almost everyone else was slow and dull. Now everyone is fast and edgy, and Twitter is faster than all of us.”
Casting an eye toward his rivals, VandeHei suggests that more coverage doesn’t necessarily equal better coverage. “There’s a finite amount of talent, and it’s being spread around 20 websites instead of the four or five (news organizations) that hired people 10 years ago,” he said. “I think there’s a dilution in the overall quality of political writing.”
Politico, however, has leaked talent as well as attracted it. Since Smolkin left in August for CNN, she has been raiding her former shop. Earlier this month, she hired Hilary Krieger, Politico’s deputy White House editor, and Web producer Daniella Diaz. Politico also recently lost Maggie Haberman, a star blogger and reporter, and senior political reporter Alexander Burns, both to the New York Times. White House reporter Jennifer Epstein left as well, lured by Bloomberg.
The Post, which has long been synonymous with political reporting, has been in an expansion mode, too, under new its new owner, Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos. The newspaper’s national political staff turned over almost entirely between the 2008 and 2012 elections, but — like its many competitors — it’s in a growth phase. The newspaper plans to hire several people to its team of 35 before the campaign hits full stride, according to senior politics editor Steven Ginsberg.