Politico finds 'more is better' for its audience with Giffords shooting coverage

Journalists at Politico are used to going all-out on the expected big political stories, such as the midterm elections. But Saturday's shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was the biggest test yet of the four-year-old news organization's ability to respond to a major, unplanned news event, said Editor-in-Chief John Harris.

Yet about 50 reporters and editors swiftly moved into action after the first reports of the shooting in Tuscon, and within four hours of the shooting they had published dozens of stories and blog posts on Politico.com.

“I left here at 1 a.m. [Sunday] and the newsroom was still far from empty,” Harris said. And it was buzzing again by 6 a.m., he said. "We're on a sprint, and I imagine we'll be on a sprint for several more days."

If this had happened when Harris was at The Washington Post (where he worked for 21 years before starting Politico) he would have been confident in the paper's track record covering events such as 9/11. At such places, he said, “there's a structure in place, and people have gone through a number of things like this over the years.

"That's not true for us.”

Still, “within short order we had basically the entire organization” -- he figures it was more than 50 of the 100 newsroom employees -- “fully engaged on what quite obviously was an enormous story for us, a story with huge national political implications.”

Harris said Congress reporter Jake Sherman first called his editor, Marty Kady, after learning of the shooting; the two sent out Politico's initial breaking news alert. That's how Harris learned of the shooting, around 1:26 p.m. ET.

Sherman and veteran reporter Jonathan Allen put together the first skeletal story, Harris said. Others raced to the airport. (Three reporters ended up going to Arizona.) Meanwhile, staffers were e-mailing back and forth, offering to step in. Some started working the sources on their beats; others helped however they could.

“I do think that is part of our DNA, and is reflective of a young and entrepreneurial news organization, where people recognize this as a responsibility to be all over every dimension of this story,” Harris said.

“People do feel a real sense of devotion, and maybe even zealotry, in staying on top of the news," he said.

Along with several other staffers, Danielle Jones, Politico's managing editor for online, was at an American University men's basketball game, where Jones' husband was coaching. (American defeated Lehigh University, 82-75.) Harris said Jones ended up running the site for a while from the coach's office.

Politico has built a reputation for exhaustively covering politics in the nation's capital, and the staff stuck with that approach over the weekend.

“When you're a target or a niche publication like we are, more is better,” Harris said. In addition to a traditional, newspaper-style summary story, reporters and editors “tried to throw story after story up -- get every possible scrap of information in real-time, and throw it up under its own headline.”

All that evolved into a comprehensive report that by Sunday included stories about the relationship between the shooting and hyper-partisan politics, updates on Giffords' condition, details about the suspect, political finger-pointing (particularly regarding Sarah Palin), a description of how the shooting occurred, a story about Arizona's gun laws and an examination of incorrect media reports of Giffords' death. (Politico was not one of the outlets that incorrectly reported that Giffords had been killed, Harris said.)

Politico tries to be discriminating in its use of video, Harris said, and over the last two days the site has used video to highlight important events -- "the most interesting parts of what was said at the news conference,” for instance.

“I'm very proud,” Harris said of his staff's performance, adding that even young journalists were “sure-footed under very chaotic circumstances.”

Site traffic was about double that of a typical weekend, Harris said, but he stressed that that didn't factor into the all-hands-on-deck approach.

“The reason this was a major story was to serve our core Capitol Hill audience,” which was interested in the story from a human-interest perspective and a political one. “It wasn't important to us to be riding a huge traffic wave in terms of our national audience.”

Staffers used Twitter extensively over the weekend, and Politico.com did get more traffic from Twitter than normal, Harris said. That was also true of Facebook referrals, though it wasn't as dramatic.

Politico was already planning to publish a newspaper on Tuesday, when Congress will resume. The paper will most likely feature stories of interest to the Capitol Hill audience, such as security issues and the impact on congressional staffers.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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