As the election season enters its final stanza, WJLA Washington, D.C., is enjoying a political perk that no other station in America can boast—the Allbritton station shares its massive newsroom in suburban Virginia with the growing Politico newspaper and Website.
Nearly 100 Politico staffers are situated a few strides from their WJLA counterparts, giving the ABC affiliate a cadre of Beltway obsessives to vet tricky policy matters and go on-air to expound on the latest twist in the McCain-Obama pas de deux.
WJLA management says the extra brainpower has enabled the station to compete with mighty NBC O&O WRC for the news crown in the No. 9 DMA.
“We're separate entities in the newsroom, but we derive enormous benefits from having them there,” says Bill Lord, WJLA's VP of news. “We use each other constantly.”
Allbritton launched Politico in January 2007. It was conceived as a multiplatform effort to cover national politics—a thrice-weekly newspaper (initially known as the Capitol Leader) and a lively Website, sharing resources with cable's NewsChannel 8, radio and WJLA.
Run by a pair of former Washington Post political reporters, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, Politico has grown into a significant player in the nation's heated political dialogue; Allbritton President/Politico CEO Frederick Ryan says the site gets about 60 million page views a month, according to WebTrends (Ryan acknowledges that Nielsen's traffic numbers for Politico are considerably lower). Politico.com recently jumped into the top 10 newspaper sites nationwide, according to Nielsen, with more than 3.6 million unique visitors for August—a 156% boost over the previous August.
Politico will hardly pack up shop when a new president is named next month. Allbritton actually plans to add staff, print the paper a fourth day per week, and launch a standalone site called “44” (Barack Obama or John McCain will be the nation's 44th leader) to focus on the new administration. Ryan says Politico, which also derives revenue from providing political content to other major news outlets, recently “turned the corner” to profitability. “In terms of traffic and advertiser interest, it's exceeded our expectations,” he says.
Managers at WJLA and Politico say both have benefited from the partnership. The two paired for a co-branded special the night before the so-called Potomac Primary (involving Washington, Maryland and Virginia) last winter, when Sens. Clinton and Obama both showed up. The end product was an hour-long special on WJLA, a batch of videos on Politico.com, and a bevy of analytical stories and blog posts in the paper and on the Web. “Either of us would've had trouble landing both candidates on our own,” says Politico Editor in Chief John Harris.
The two also banded together to score an on-the-spot interview with Beltway pundit Robert Novak not long after he'd struck a pedestrian with his car in July; the WJLA/Politico branding sits atop the video, which turned into something of a YouTube sensation. More recently, Lord says WJLA benefited from Politico's considerable foothold at the political conventions.
WJLA executives say the enhanced newsroom has translated to a ratings boon. WRC, which lost news chief Vickie Burns to WNBC New York's soon-to-launch cable news channel, tallied 143,000 viewers at 11 p.m. in May (using People 2+ ratings), with WJLA close behind with 139,000. WJLA's 70,000 viewers in 25-54, however, topped WRC's 61,000. “It's an enterprise-wide goal of ours to be the No. 1 news station in town,” Ryan says. “Politico is certainly one of the things that have helped us.”
But rivals say WJLA has failed to capitalize as the election moves closer, posting third- and fourth-place finishes in 25-54 in September's weekly news races. More than one Washington source wondered why WJLA's ratings seemed to slip at the time when interest in presidential politics is off the charts.
WJLA was runner-up in the revenue race in 2007, according to BIA Financial, its $114 million trailing WRC's $135 million. But WJLA likes the position it's in with the nation's—and much of the world's—eyes on Washington as Election Day approaches, and when the new administration moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Says Lord: “We'll never want for a pundit again.”