February 20, 2015

Monday is the first day for Kate Bennett, Politico’s new gossip columnist. When Politico editor Susan Glasser announced Bennett’s hire earlier this month, she promised “a great read multiple times a week” in the mold of Diana McLellan, whose column “The Ear” was called a “must-read” in her New York Times obituary.

But how to make a gossip column stand out in a city where juicy scooplets suffuse the news reports of many outlets, from the pages of The Washington Post to the insider-focused coverage of Fishbowl DC?

For Glasser, it’s simple: The column must contain original reporting, eschewing phony grip-and-grins and cocktail parties put on primarily so journalists can record them. Rather, it should be a chronicler of Washington’s “tribal rituals,” pulling back the curtain on the ways the capital’s power brokers interact.

“I think it’s certainly mining the social life of Washington, as well as its political and official life,” Glasser said. “It’s trying to understand and contextualize: Who are these people? How are they interacting with each other? What are their networks?”

Although the column will be informed by Bennett’s voice and perspective, it will not be a place for “social punditry,” Glasser said. It will also be held to the same standards as other Politico content.

This isn’t Politico’s first foray into gossip. Former Politico gossip columnist Anne Schroeder Mullins left in 2010 to found her own communications firm. Politico’s Click blog, which carried the motto “people watching in Washington,” was shut down at the end of 2013.

Click wasn’t the only gossip hub to take a hit, said Patrick Gavin, a former Click staffer. He counted the cuts in May for a Washington Post column titled “Washington gossip is dead. Long live Washington gossip.”

“Yeas & Nays,” The Washington Examiner’s gossip offering, was closed in 2013 before being revived at Red Alert Politics. “Washington Scene” also folded, Gavin writes, and Roll Call’s “Heard on the Hill” staff was cut by half.

The cuts at these places have been offset by the rise of gossip reporting in other places, Gavin said. Some of the staples of the Washington D.C. media scene, including Mike Allen’s “Playbook” and ABC’s “The Note,” have taken drips and drabs of information that were typically within the purview of gossip columnists and elevated them to new prominence. He cited The Washington Post’s recent item on Rep. Aaron Schock’s Downton Abbey-inspired office as an example of traditional gossip gone mainstream.

“It’s true at Politico and for other reporters around town — a lot of the good stuff ends up being taken by the quote-unquote serious reporters,” he said.

Mark Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine chief political correspondent whose stories are filled with colorful details that might be fodder for a gossip columnist, says the column should work, provided Bennett can land juicy stories in the social media age.

“TMZ and Twitter and stuff have sort of made the stand-alone gossip column tougher to pull off, but I think it’s still doable,” Leibovich said in an email. “The key is, obviously, getting good items.”

If there’s anyone who can pull it off, it might be Bennett. A Washington native, Bennett began her gossip reporting career for the Las Vegas Sun before becoming editor-in-chief of Vegas Magazine. She also did a stint as editor-in-chief of Capital File, which she says gave her a perch to make the kind of connections a D.C. gossip columnist needs.

Bennett tells Poynter she doesn’t intend to use her column as a soapbox to rain invective on the capital’s elite, rather as a place to trace whispers and innuendo and figure out what they mean for the machinations of D.C. It doesn’t have to be malicious or nasty to be newsworthy, and she doesn’t intend to approach it that way.

“Sure, there are times when exposing a secret or making an implication is uncomfortable for some, but I think the overall philosophy about gossip is that it needs to reveal the social anthropology that is often the glue in a powerful place like Washington,” she said in an email.

Bennett sums up her philosophy on gossip by quoting columnist Liz Smith, who called it “news running ahead of itself in a red dress.”

“It sounds hokey, but today’s cocktail party whispers can be tomorrow’s front page,” she said.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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