The Post Counteroffers

On November 10, Harris told Washington Post Managing Editor Philip Bennett that he was considering leaving the newspaper to start his own publication. The timing was awkward. Managing Editor Bennett and Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. had been planning to have a discussion with Harris soon about organizing the Post ’s coverage of the 2008 election, both online and in print. They hoped to add staff to the Web side and place a heavy focus on

Now the Post editors had to try to convince Harris and VandeHei, two of their top political correspondents, to stay at the newspaper. Bennett, Downie, and Publisher Donald Graham had frequent conversations throughout the week of November 13 about what it would take to keep Harris and VandeHei at the paper. They offered to hire the reporters Harris and VandeHei wanted to recruit, and give the two of them substantial autonomy running’s politics coverage.

Harris was tempted to remain at the Post and try his and VandeHei’s multimedia experiment there. For one thing, the brand name of the Washington Post would be more likely to attract the journalists on which the enterprise depended than would a new news venture with no brand of its own yet. Harris, having spent his entire career within the Post , also found the idea of leaving the newspaper personally wrenching. His colleagues were some of his closest friends and mentors. Editor Downie in particular had nurtured Harris as a writer and reporter from the beginning. Now Downie was urging him to stay. Harris recalls: “These were all people that I looked up to intensely, so all these conversations were difficult for me.”

Downie also drew Harris’ attention to other online political publications that had started and fizzled. and were both online political news sources that had started during the 1996 presidential campaign and failed to last beyond it. [1] Downie recalls:

I pointed out that the television station that [Allbritton] had, Channel 7 here, was struggling in the ratings. I didn’t know how it was doing financially. And that these sorts of things had not succeeded in the past once the election was over. It earned a lot of splash during the election, and a lot of money up front. And you’ll get some extra money out of it, but what will be your career trajectory? Will this thing last beyond the election campaign? [2]

Over an agonizing three-day period, Harris and VandeHei debated what to do. The discussions culminated on Saturday, November 18, when VandeHei visited Harris’ house in Alexandria, Virginia. The two walked to Harris’ favorite coffee shop, about a mile from Harris’ house. Harris designated himself the devil’s advocate to temper VandeHei’s entrepreneurial zeal. VandeHei recalls: “I desperately wanted to [start a new website]… I agitated for it.” VandeHei thought it unlikely that the Post would radically shift its attention to the Web in its political coverage, and that his and Harris’ planned Web venture would be overshadowed by the Post ’s tradition of newsprint. VandeHei felt that the Post was “a newspaper that also happens to be a website,” and that the institution was not equipped to take full advantage of the Web’s possibilities for interactive multimedia material. [3]

But Harris pointed out that launching the site within the Post would protect their jobs if their site’s traffic plummeted after the election. Harris and VandeHei knew the Post , and the people who ran it, well. They had known Allbritton for only a few weeks. Could they really trust him? More broadly, could their plan succeed and have the kind of impact they envisioned, or were they miscalculating? What was the advantage of breaking free of the Post , other than the excitement of starting a new publication from scratch? Harris says:

I basically by the end of that walk had taken Jim [VandeHei’s] enthusiasm and optimism and turned it into doubt and pessimism… And it really wasn’t my goal, it was just really in the spirit of let’s think of everything. Let’s really kick the damned tires on this. Are we sure?

VandeHei returned home and shared his newfound doubts with his wife, who insisted that he would regret it if he missed the opportunity to launch his own publication. She wrote the same thing in an email to Harris and his wife. On Sunday, both men decided she was right.

On Monday, November 20, 2006, Harris and VandeHei announced that they were leaving the Washington Post to turn Allbritton’s Capitol Leader newspaper into a multi-platform purveyor of political news. [4] Later that day, Editor Downie and Managing Editor Bennett sent a memo to the staff. The memo explained the Post ’s plans for covering the 2008 presidential election on the Web and acknowledged Harris’ and VandeHei’s departure. It said in part:

We had hoped that John Harris and Jim VandeHei would help lead this effort on the web, but John and Jim have decided to join a new politics website. We will feel their departure keenly. John and Jim have been valued colleagues and friends to many of us. We're grateful for the fine journalism they've contributed to The Post . [5 ]

[2] Author’s telephone interview with Leonard Downie, Jr., on March 16, 2009. All further quotes from Downie, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[3] Matthew Barakat, “Political paper and website launches,” Associated Press via USA Today , January 24, 2007.

[5] Patrick Gavin, “BREAKING: VandeHei, Harris Leave Washington Post to Start New, Multimedia News Venture.”