Teaming Up

The complicated reality of their simple vision chilled Harris and VandeHei’s enthusiasm considerably. Both had their hands full at the Washington Post as the 2006 midterm congressional election approached. Capitol Leader Editor Tolchin, meanwhile, had recruited a small staff of about a dozen writers—mostly young reporters from The Hill and Roll Call—and a few editors for Allbritton’s newspaper, but still sought an executive editor. Allbritton’s planned start date in November now seemed impossible. Tolchin convinced Allbritton to try to recruit VandeHei himself. They set up a meeting for early November.

VandeHei by then had a clear idea what kind of publication he wanted to start, and how he hoped to staff it. He did not find Allbritton’s plan for another Capitol Hill newspaper compelling. In his view, it would be a mistake for Allbritton to launch a primarily paper media product in a multimedia world. “Why do it?” he recalls asking. “If you’re going to do something… spend four times that amount, and I’ll give you something that really would sort of change this market.”

Allbritton was intrigued by VandeHei’s ideas, but not willing to abandon his own entirely. He didn’t see as much potential for profit without a paper product—online advertising was priced too low to support a publication on its own. “You can get infinitely more advertising money if you have a print product,” Allbritton noted later.[1] Allbritton proposed merging his newspaper with VandeHei and Harris’ website.

VandeHei returned to the newsroom and told Harris that their project might have found a backer. Harris met with Allbritton the next day. By November 9, Allbritton had given Harris and VandeHei an offer: He would fund their website; they in turn would run his newspaper. He would provide them with the resources to offer high salaries to top reporters. Those reporters would appear frequently on Allbritton television stations to discuss their stories and promote the website. Allbritton had also struck a deal with CBS News to give Capitol Leader reporters regular appearances on CBS news programs, including its Sunday political talk show, “Face the Nation.” Suddenly, says Harris:

All those questions… [about] the business plan, all those were answered… We don’t have to worry about getting office space, we don’t have to worry about hooking up computers… We would be in a new venture with all the possibility of a startup but within the context of an established and profitable venture, i.e. Allbritton Communications.

 



[1] Kathy Kiely, “Politico Mojo,” American Journalism Review, February/March 2007.