Journalism business models collide in former reporter’s debut thriller

In the six years it took Mimi Johnson to finish her debut novel, “Gathering String,” she moved one of the protagonists from a job at a prestigious but money-losing daily newspaper in Washington, D.C., to a Washington-area website that aggressively covers politics. “No good comes from forcing Politifix to suck hind tit,” an editor tells Sam Waterman, a reluctant refugee from print, before forcing him out to the boondocks to cover an Iowa governor who gave the story of his presidential announcement to The Lindsborg Journal.

“Politifix” might sound familiar. Besides its go-go, no-hind-tit culture, it’s housed in a building with a fabulous view of the city of Washington, much like the executive suite in the Arlington, Va., building in which Politico’s main newsroom resides. Waterman, looking out the window, marvels at the view: “In the morning sunshine the Potomac sparkled 22 stories below, and across the river ran the unmistakable line of symbols that marked the nation’s capital: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome. Everyone who came on business or to tour the offices of the popular, and surprisingly profitable, political news website asked to see this view. In fact, a picture shot from the room’s east wall of windows was stripped across the top of the site’s homepage, a visual brand.”

Reached by phone in Montreal, Johnson allows that she knows about that view because her husband, Steve Buttry, used to work at a website owned by the same company that owns Politico, the Allbritton Communications Company. (I worked at the same website.)

“Anything about how Politifix works, I made up,” Johnson says. What she didn’t have to imagine was how small-town newspapers work; she is an Iowa native who’s worked for newspapers throughout the Midwest, including writing columns for the Journal Herald in Shawnee, Kan., and the Daily News of Minot, N.D.

In the book, which I’ve only skimmed so far, Johnson draws a neat distinction between Sam, a wounded warrior in the journalism wars who laments that “it’s different at Politifix. Good writing is fine, but it’s just not enough. Now I have to blog, I have to fucking tweet,” and Jack Westphal, the publisher and editor of The Lindsborg Journal.

“The print product’s days are numbered,” Westphal tells a visitor, “but Iowa is full of old folks who still like to hold a paper to read their news, so for now we’ll keep it going. Meanwhile the website is booming, and I’m focusing on working in more interactive stuff. There’s always something new to learn, new to try. It’s fun now, watching it all come together.”

Johnson says that “the little grain of autobiography” in her descriptions of the small-town paper is that she and Buttry both started out at the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. And, of course, Buttry is the community engagement chief at Digital First, a company trying to turn papers like that one into Web-forward operations.

Johnson had tagged along with him to Montreal, where he was conducting workshops at the Montreal Gazette. “Jack found that it really suits going digital first to update the website all through the day and then pull the print edition together from that work,” one character says. “The traditionalists who don’t read online get fresher news and they usually have more time to read it in the evening after work. He’s actually had an increase in subscribers.”

“I think it tells you a lot about the characters,” Johnson says. “One is very energized by the change. And one of them, the older guy who works at the Washington website, feels very uncomfortable with it.” (Sam “hated ‘digital first,’” Johnson writes. “He scorned ‘community engagement.’ He was appalled at the idea of building a ‘personal brand.’ And leaving print felt like he was amputating his own arms.”) Sam, Johnson says on the phone, “worked very very hard to get into a really, really good print newspaper, and he watched it crumble under him.”

There’s actually a story in the book that doesn’t rely on comparing news organizations’ business models: Sam and Jack both love the same woman, and both circle around a dark secret in the governor’s campaign that could have great ramifications for all three. Johnson stresses that she’s hoping readers will find the book “a light and entertaining read” and says she’s very nervous about how it will be received.

“I kind of feel a little naked that I put that out there, and people can say, ‘Oh what a silly woman,’” Johnson says. “I really hope it’s entertaining for the average reader, and I hope that journalists who read it will be entertained by the struggle” the main characters are going through.

And no, she says, Jack, despite his enthusiasm for newspapers’ digital future, is not based on Buttry. Jack’s taller than Buttry, Johnson says, and he used to be a basketball star. Didn’t Buttry play basketball? I ask. “He was on the JV team, but I didn’t know him then,” she says.

And she says, Buttry’s well-documented disappointment in how his involvement with Politico’s parent company turned out doesn’t figure in the book. “Sam is convinced at the end of the book that he’s losing his job,” she says, but Politifix is still going strong.

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