Politico Says Off-the-Record Chat with Obama Results in Better News Coverage

The list of media outlets invited to an off-the-record chat with President Obama last week reads like a roll call of newspaper and wire-service powerhouses. The Washington Post. The New York Times. Los Angeles Times. The Wall Street Journal. USA Today. The Associated Press. Reuters. McClatchy newspapers. Bloomberg.

And then there was Politico, which has only been around since 2007. It could be interpreted as a sign that the newcomer has arrived — or sold out.

After all, Politico was founded, according to Editor-in-Chief John Harris’ bio, “to find fresh ways to attack the best political stories in and around Capitol Hill.” Part of Politico’s promise was to break out of the traditional methods of covering politics.

But its editors welcomed the chance to have a seat at the table with Obama, even if they couldn’t share what they heard with their readers.

“We were certainly pleased to be included,” Craig Gordon, the White House editor for Politico, told me in an interview. “I hope our readers will find a way to benefit from it. We have tried very hard to put ourselves in the mainstream of journalism here [in Washington].”

Of course, it was the off-the-record nature of the meeting that has received the most attention.

The New York Times opted not to participate because the news organizations were not permitted to report what Obama said during the session. Peter Baker, a reporter for the Times, told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post that such sessions are “to be avoided if possible. It can too easily turn into a substitute for on-the-record.”

 Many of the news outlets that took part in the meeting have declined to talk about it, either to me or other journalists seeking comment.

Politico had no such qualms about sitting in on the session. Gordon said it was not the first time Politico had been invited to take part in such a gathering.

“Anytime you’re offered the chance to sit down with the president, to get insight into his thinking, you really should take advantage of that,” Gordon told me. “It will make our stories better even if we can’t use some of the information.”

Gordon said the decision to take part came down to one word: context. He said that such a session with Obama will enable Politico to provide better context when writing about many of the complex issues the president deals with. “It helps inform the stories,” he said. “It helps the readers. It helps us do our jobs better.”

Politico took a different approach in February 2009 when former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe asked if a speech he was about to give at the National Press Club could be off the record.

Harris was scheduled to moderate the event, but backed out after hearing Plouffe’s request. He said at the time that Politico was not “in the business of sponsoring, or co-sponsoring, an off-the-record talk with a newsworthy person.”

Gordon told me the different circumstances warranted the different responses.

“Plouffe was asking us to take an entire speech to a room full of people off the record,” he said. “There’s a difference between a lunch of 12 people and a speech in a room with a few hundred people. It seemed like a material difference which made the Plouffe situation something we didn’t want to be a part of.”

It’s tempting to view Politico’s decision to take part in the Obama session as an example of an upstart new media company selling out, taking the same insider path traveled by many in the mainstream press. But Politico has never positioned itself as a renegade, or outsider, simply because it is relying primarily on the Web to reach readers.

“We’re trying to provide the clearest picture of what’s happening here in Washington that we can,” Gordon said.

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