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Since Jim VandeHei and John Harris proved most everybody to be idiots, VandeHei can only hope that reflexive suspicion of his new gambit again proves to be entrepreneurial bliss.
The two journalists famously pitched the notion of an all-politics digital product to their then-employer, The Washington Post. The paper didn’t get it, so they split, persuaded the young heir to a media fortune to be their sugar daddy and invented Politico.
Most people thought it was a fool’s errand, myself included, but it became crack for politics junkies. I’ve been in U.S. senators’ offices as they bitched to me about its feverish superficiality — while checking their cellphones to see what it was reporting.
An unhappy VandeHei left earlier this year with chums to start something new of some sort. There was lots of echo chamber speculation. A story in Vanity Fair and a Recode conference proved launch pads yesterday for the basic notion: a news operation whose mission statement is, “Media is broken — and too often a scam.” (Vanity Fair)
The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among others, are “sitting on a hyper-expensive and extensive blob of technology that is outdated, that is filled with archives and so much information about your customers that you can’t get rid of it,” he told Sarah Ellison. Such operations “are reliant on a type of advertising that you know is going to die, but you can’t leave it because it’s short-term revenue.”
He was similarly unencumbered on various digital newcomers, like Business Insider. “’Just give me a lot of traffic, I swear to God I will find a business model,'” is his rhetorical caricature of them.
I was scanning such comments while attending a debate on the future of the Euro at the University of Chicago between Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz and Princeton’s Markus Brunnermeier. I’m glad they broached Greece’s role because VandeHei’s gambit is called Axios, Greek for “worthy,” which leaves scant doubt about the startup’s self-image of imperious high-mindedness.
Is there a market?
Well, there is the irony that Politico accelerated some of the same hyperkinetic dynamics in journalism that the upcoming venture sees itself in opposition to. Politico does terrific work (Harris is top-notch, and I’ve dealt with A-list editors on several freelance pieces). But there remains lots of breathless folderol. This morning one gets “Goldman Sachs Poised for Return to Power in Trump White House,” even though the Obama administration had many alums. (The National Review)
More telling, is there a problem with insufficient accurate news sources in a world driven by clicks and eyeballs? Yes. But what VandeHei has joked will be The Economist mating with Twitter does seem, at least theoretically, to fall short of outlining a solution.
So distribute quality stuff in bite-sized portions. Fine. But that’s far from new. There are lots of smart aggregators and analysts out there — and have been for a long time — doing de facto clip jobs with high-end editorial oversight.
Can you get folks to pay serious money for it without the subsidies of media heirs and ego driven private equity bettors? VandeHei told Johana Bhuiyan he’d like to hit folks up for $10,000 subscriptions, no Bernie Sanders-like populist he. (Recode)
With a solid, if not dazzling, $10 million in initial investment capital, VandeHei’s pre-launch declarations suggest a self-confidence verging on needless condescension, especially with the great work being done by The Post, The Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. And he won’t come close to having their resources, which allows them to already produce very good newsletters and sophisticated, if bite-sized stuff imbued with sophistication.
One wishes him and whirling dervish partner Mike Allen the best and the hope they go well beyond offering another take on native advertising, pricey corporate intelligence services and clickbait disguised as arch attitude.
But, as is the case with the country and Donald Trump, the media is at sea without much of a compass as it peers into the future. So who the hell knows?
Attack of the malicious apps
“Malicious software disguised as legitimate apps for Android smartphones and tablets has seized control of more than one million Google accounts since August, according to research from security firm Check Point Software Technologies Ltd.” (The Wall Street Journal)
The hot air of Trump’s air conditioning deal
“The Farce of the Deal, Carrier Edition” is the headline on Brooke Sutherland’s take in Bloomberg on the deal to be heralded Thursday by Donald Trump and Mike Pence back home in Indiana. Just wait for the cable news live coverage of Trump selling his snake oil (and one of them to hereby beckon Sutherland as post-Indiana/Carrier Corp. pundit).
Trump “can’t micromanage his way to a manufacturing revival in America…Appearing to protect U.S. jobs is a lot easier than doing it again and again through one-on-one negotiations with companies about specific facilities in individual states.” (Bloomberg) Yes, but she does miss the beneficial politics of the Trump deal.
From the God Help Us Dept.
“‘Torture Lobbyist’ Paul Manafort Still Advising Donald Trump on Cabinet Picks — Paul Manafort left the Trump campaign back in April, or did he? Sources confirm to The Daily Beast that he’s back advising the president-elect.” (The Daily Beast)
The morning babble
CNN’s “New Day” was all about spitball fights over Trump’s early Cabinet choices, the issue of Trump’s business holding and his trek to Indiana to formally announce a jobs-saving deal at Carrier.
Ditto MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which focused on predictable criticism by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of the Treasury Secretary nominee. Pundit Steve Rattner, himself a Wall Streeter dropped into D.C. to briefly help the Obama administration, offered a tsk tsk about a lack of D.C. background for some early picks. But normally blowhard ad executive Donny Deutsch and co-host Joe Scarborough had it right, namely about the pragmatism displayed by Trump, and being wary of getting bollixed up in Trump ditching some of his “drain the swamp” campaign rhetoric.
“Fox & Friends” wondered about “TONE DEAF DEMS?” re-elected Nancy Pelosi as the House leader, seeing the choice as backing the “Establishment as Americans Demand Change.” And, when it came to his Indiana visit at Carrier today, it caught what will surely be the positive political impact for Trump in making good on a jobs-related campaign pledge.
$10,000 for a copy of Newsweek?
If you think that four or five bucks is enough, even if you’ve got time to waste on a train, consider. “They were supposed to be destroyed, but copies of Newsweek featuring a beaming Hillary Clinton under the headline ‘Madam President’ are being hawked online for as much as $10,000.” (The Hill)
Dan Klaidman, deputy editor of news at Yahoo and former Newsweek managing editor, tells me that he can recall a Howard Dean cover that was set to go but ditched “when we captured Saddam. It was the only time that a Newsweek publisher made the call to ‘stop the presses’ after getting the green light from Don Graham.”
But, he concedes, he doesn’t think that would fetch ten grand — unless Dean, rarely shy when it comes to publicity, would want it that much.
Sadly missed by many
Well, lots of assignment editors knew of Fidel Castro but it’s unfortunate how few clearly knew of Harry Flournoy, who died in an Atlanta hospital Saturday at 72. He was the co-captain of the historic 1966 Texas Western NCAA championship basketball team, the first all-black team to win the tournament. the finale was at College Park, Maryland, right in The Washington Post’s circulation sweet spot.
As The El Paso Times put it, “That team, guided by Hall of Fame coach and El Paso icon Don Haskins, is credited with changing the face of American sports.” It really did by defeating all-white Kentucky led by coach Adolph Rupp and star player Pat Riley, now the top executive with the Miami Heat. (El Paso) The New York Times did a short obit, but the guy deserved way more from an often history-deficient press.
A generally thumbs-down analysis of media election polling in the political science blog Monkey Cage at least absolves the press of ideologically driven bias in screwing up.
“If a pro-Democrat bias were responsible, poll-based models would have performed poorly across all the states that Clinton lost. This didn’t happen.” (The Washington Post)
“For example, the Huffington Post model fared the best of all methods in Arizona and Iowa — two states that Trump won. However, those wins were more than offset by worse scores in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. So overconfidence seems to be the main factor. By contrast, Daily Kos did better at the state level, mostly because it picked up on uncertainty in North Carolina, Florida and Ohio and produced less confident forecasts in those states.”
The Lunch Guys
Imagine a bunch of guys getting together every Thursday to have lunch for the past 20 years. And just shoot the breeze. It happens in San Francisco’s Mission District, with the crowd including former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Frank Viviano, former Chronicle illustrator Dan Hubig and former Mother Jones editor Jeffrey Klein, among others (when they can’t do it for an actual lunch, they make it sort of virtual and email).
And the alternative Austin, Texas Sun decided to run a tale on the Lunch Guys Talk Trump (Hubig is from there). For example, here’s Viviano during a post-election confab:
“For most people, the purpose of both journalism and politics today is no longer enlightenment in any sense. They are branches of entertainment with a sideshow in religion, meant to provoke, amuse or terrify, with little or no factual content. When an outright lie makes the rounds, it is absorbed by millions of people within seconds. When it is challenged in what remains of the infrastructure that serves rational discourse, the rebuttal reaches no more than an infinitesimal fraction of that audience.”
Rather heavy! Now, pass the ketchup. (Austin Sun)
It comes amid a change in the hierarchy there and her own unease about campaign reporting. “For all the exceptional journalism produced by national media over the course of 2016, we did not reach or represent an America that exists outside of Washington, outside of New York. And in my next job, I want to be part of a newsroom that has the ability to speak to and serve a non-Washington audience too.”
Trump’s pick for Deputy Commerce Secretary
The national press reflexively refers Todd Ricketts as “Chicago Cubs co-owner” (Politico) or “co-owner of the Chicago Cubs.” (The Washington Post) The Cubs are actually run by a savvy older brother, Tom.
One might, instead, refer to him as “a suburban Chicago bike shop owner who’s rich as result of the accident of his birth.”
Yes, he benefits from the TD Ameritrade fortune of his dad. But, in fact, the guys runs a bike shop in Wilmette, Illinois. (Higher Gear) Oh, alas, alack, he’s on the board of dad’s TD Ameritrade.
Maybe Bill O’Reilly will check it out
There probably won’t be many journalists, other than A-list national TV talent, hanging out at the first of nine high-end United Airlines passenger lounges, opening Thursday at O’Hare in Chicago. You have to buy a premium cabin ticket on United or one of its partners to enjoy what aims to replicate a four-star hotel within 12,000-square feet replete with concierge services and marble floors. (Crain’s) You also get:
12 individual restrooms; six extra-big bathrooms with showers, fancy towels and slippers; relaxation suites with for naps; A self-serve buffet designed by Oprah chef Art Smith; fancy upholstered chairs; a long bar with craft beers on tap and higher-end wines; and 14 cocktails developed by fancy bartenders, including the “mixologist in residence at the Art Institute of Chicago.”
Hey, New York, does the Metropolitan Museum have a mixologist who can service media executives as they cool their heels at Hell on Earth, namely LaGuardia?