Can high-flying Politico hope to breach fortress New York?
The decision by Politico publisher Robert Allbritton to purchase Capital New York is a game-changer
IS NEW YORK'S media world about to experience its David and Goliath moment? An until very recently obscure multi-media operation from Washington, Politico, announced yesterday that it had bought an even more obscure organisation in New York, Capital New York, with intent to breach the fortress.
The consequences could be enormous.
New York is home to a media establishment bigger even than London's. Newspapers range from the New York Times and Murdoch's Wall Street Journal to the Village Voice and local papers published in Korean, Chinese, Arabic and Urdu.
The city is also home to the great network TV conglomerates - ABC, CBS, and NBC, whose skyscraper graces the skyline at the Rockefeller Centre and is also houses the studios of the hot left-leaning MSNBC cable news.
It is, as the media analysts are saying, a crowded market. It is also an industry still employing legions, with a capital base in the billions of dollars.
What chance does Politico have of carving its niche?
When Amazon's Jeff Bezos stunned the media world last month by buying the Washington Post it became clear that the Post had in fact been a wounded giant for years. It had shot itself in the foot when it decided that the way to survive was to play up its role as a local newspaper, making, say, DC suburban schools as important a story as the day's debate on Capitol Hill.
Among the consequences was the decision by two of its star political correspondents to quit.
John Harris and Jim VanderHei figured that the Post's real market was not the city of homes and businesses and so on but the city that is the nation's capital, and that their job was to feed the obsessive appetites of Washington's political junkies.
They started Politico as an on-line information sheet on a shoestring in 2007. It was an overnight success. The idea was to be first with the news and to provide the fine details and arcane gossip at high speed, around the clock. By the end of the election year of 2008, Politico had become the house journal of Capitol Hill.
It seems at the least to be an enlightening coincidence that Politico should announce its first major expansion so soon after the Graham family finally gave up and dumped the Post in Bezos's lap. It's a case of "new media" getting it right.
Politico is still a tiddler. But not only is it established as the fastest source of political news, it now "feeds" numerous television and radio news operations around the country. Its reporters always carry video cameras. Its stars are top picks for the TV talk shows, and these days it hosts presidential political debates, which is a sure measure of political clout.
It is partly financed by ads, allowing the website to operate on two tiers - the main site being free while a subscription is required to get into the second level Politico Pro.
And this summer it picked up a load of cash when Robert Allbritton, who had become majority owner and publisher, sold his family's seven television stations, including one in Washington, for $1 billion. He wants to focus on digital and the purchase of Capital New York is the first foray.
"I have very big ambitions for this publication: to do in New York what we did in Washington with Politico," Allbritton said in an e-mail message to Politico staff. "I believe powerfully that non-partisan publications with an intense focus on a specific set of topics can break though quickly, editorially and financially."
Capital New York was founded by two former editors of the New York Observer, Josh Benson and Tom McGoveran, who will be staying in their posts. Their idea had been to adapt the Politico model to focus on New York's money, media and culture.
At least they have survived. Politico founder VanderHei will be taking over as President, and bringing with him the budget to expand the staff from eight to 30.
VanderHei is confident enough to have picked up a phone call yesterday from the organisation which will surely be his arch-rival Goliath, the New York Times.
"I know people will say it's so crowded and competitive there," he told them. "But I don't think the areas we seek to own are as well-served as some might think. I fully anticipate we will make quite a splash with our hires and unique approach."
New York will be watching. ·