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February 19, 2009

The secrets of Politico's success, and democracy's failure

Gabriel Sherman's first-rate story, The Scoop Factory, takes us inside the online news magazine, Politico:

If the 2004 campaign belonged to the blogs, this year's presidential contest was defined by the rise of the Web-print venture founded by banking scion and emerging media mogul Robert Allbritton and headed by Washington Post veterans John Harris and Jim VandeHei. From the start, their aim with Politico was to combine the Web's rapid-fire capacity with the legitimacy of traditional newspapering. Journalistically, their strategy was to out-report and outpace the newspapers that dominated election coverage, to get links up before readers reached their desks and BlackBerries in the morning, and to keep the news items going all afternoon for the prime-time cable pundits to digest at night.

And it worked. Politico succeeded in muscling its way into the political journalism firmament by the sheer volume of reporting and a shrewd--some might say obsessive--focus on the gossipy Beltway scoops and gaffes that appeal to the tabloid sensibility of Drudge and cable news. Politico's readership spiked during the election, attracting 4.6 million unique readers in September 2008 (that's about one-third of the Post's online readership). [TNR]

Yup, that's Politico for you.

Sherman's story is a good companion piece to Gary Kamiya's Death of the News, which Amanda wrote about earlier this week.

Kamiya's point is that print reporting in daily newspapers generates the bulk of the raw data that sustains not only blogging, but TV reporting and most other forms of journalism. For decades, the country's newspapers have been sustaining a small army of paid information-gathering professionals, deployed in virtually every city and town in the country, filing away, day in and day out. That kind of news is like oxygen. It's not conspicuous but we'd couldn't function without it. Historian Paul Starr makes a similar point his latest article, Goodbye Newspapers, Hello Corruption.

Newspapers are dying and nothing is springing up to fill the reporting void.

Sherman explains in some detail how Politico made a viable business out of political reporting, something newspapers and most other news outlets are struggling to do. 

Here's a synopsis: Politico was conceived by two successful D.C. newspaper journalists and capitalized by the heir to the Albritton banking fortune. Some new media outlets start with the goal of producing good news and the hope of figuring out how to turn a profit. Politico never had any such pretensions. It's s strictly business over there. They haven't actually made a profit yet, but they assure Sherman that they are poised to make millions. (Maybe they're even telling the truth.)

New media outlets typically rely on young, inexperienced writers at low wages. Whereas, Politico immediately hired established journalists from traditional media outlets and paid them top dollar. According to Sherman's sources, the highest-paid Politico reporters make between $150,000 and $250,000. We're not told what the average Politico reporter makes, or the difference between the highest- and lowest-paid reporters. So, it's not clear how many of Politico's 60 newsroom staffers are pulling down that kind of money. But in this economic climate, it's remarkable that anyone is doing that well as a glorified blogger.

As you might expect, the pace of the Politico newsroom is grueling. Reporters are given laptops and Blackberries and expected to be plugged in and filing around the clock. There's not a lot of time for actual reporting, unless watching TV counts as reporting. The emphasis is on quick-hit gossipy news, like the time Joe Scarborough said "fuck" on early morning TV.

You get the sense that when Politico does break news, like the Sarah Palin wardrobe story, it's on the strength of insider tips, as opposed to shoe leather reporting. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of important news gets broken that way. If connections are Politico's main strategy for generating scoops, then its managers are wise to shell out big bucks for reporters who are already plugged in.

Many online news outlets and reported blogs are trying to do what Politico is doing. I've tried to do similar stuff myself. It's not my favorite genre, but it's the lifeblood of online media. Volume is the name of the game. You can never stop feeding the beast.

At least Politico's newsroom employs 60 people.

Politico is is overwhelmingly dominant because it invested in senior talent that came to the job fully sourced.

But these veterans weren't born plugged in. Newspapers employed these reporters while they worked their way up from school board meetings to police shootings to the Washington press corps.

Papers spent years developing the talents and connections of their reporters. Today, Politico is cashing in on that investment--which is fortunate, because those veterans might otherwise be contemplating early retirement.

If you're a talented and prolific writer, it's logistically fairly straightforward to keep a blog hopping with commentary about other people's reporting. It involves a lot of reading and writing at the computer. That's a tough job in itself, but people of all ages and career backgrounds have figured out how to make it work for a variety of media outlets.

The largely unmet challenge is finding time to report while keeping the blogging pace up. It's hard to report when you're stuck at a desk all day, frantically skimming what everyone else is writing in order to respond fast enough for anyone to care.

Blogger-reporting is more than a challenge for newbies, it's a vicious cycle. If you're expected to be filing throughout the day, you don't have time to make new contacts, or go anywhere, or see anything.

If you have a day or two to write each story, you can compensate for your lack of high-level contacts by wearing out extra shoe leather. If you don't have a tipster to alert you, you can try sifting through the public records yourself and hope to find the story on your own.

Whereas, when you have to file three or four times a day, usually on different topics, it's almost impossible to think, let alone do any serious research. A fog descends. You start to feel like you've developed occupationally-induced attention deficit disorder. As time goes on, you feel yourself getting faster, but not better.

You're not getting better because you're not learning much. Most new media outlets are run on shoestring budgets and punishing production schedules that leave little time for mentoring or training. Like most of your readers, you're sitting at the computer all day. Basically, your edge is that your boss gives you more time to surf the web.

The other day, got a chance to meet an established journalist whom I admire very much. He came up with a major daily before joining a magazine. I asked his advice on working my new beat. He asked me what my budget was to take sources out to lunch. He suggested that I ask my editor for a weekly lunch budget so that I could make lunches a regular part of my work.

Seemed like a great idea to me, but I knew I couldn't do it. I wasn't supposed to be having lunch, or hanging out. It was one thing to leave the office for a specific event or maybe an interview for a specific story, but investing face-time to build relationships wasn't an option. 

Reporting is all about hanging out, talking to people, and being part of a scene. Ask David Simon, Bill Bastone, Sy Hersh, or any great reporter who actually worked a beat. Immersion is a thing of the past. These days, there's not even time for lunch.  

Of course, there are kinds of reporting that you can do at a computer, but they're at least as time consuming as any other kind of journalism that brings new information into the public record. If you're creating databases, or reviewing hundreds of pages of campaign finance records, or analyzing months of previous coverage on a particular story, you're not filing.

Journalism has historically been a craft learned by doing. But if all you do is blogger reporting, as it exists today, you're probably never going to be a very good reporter.

I hope Politico thrives. However, if its business model is really going to be sustainable, someone is going to have to invest in training and mentoring new talent. Otherwise, the newspaper veterans will retire and the next generation won't be there to take their place.

Addendum: I was amused to see how Megan Garber of the Columbia Journalism Review reacted to Sherman's story. Her main concern was that Politico hires professional publicists to promote its content. Evidently, she thinks that's icky.

Never mind that television and radio news have always lived and died by PR. Historically, newspapers with quasi-monopolies and industrial-scale distribution networks probably haven't needed to spend as much on PR because their product was delivered to everyone's doorstep. But I'm sure that's changing.

The fact that Politico aggressively promotes its own content is about the least worrisome aspect of its business model. What's disturbing is that the content itself is pitched to to the lowest common denominator within the chattering classes. Politico is like crack. Sure, if crack had better PR, there might be more crackheads--but the underlying problem would still be the crack itself, not the sleazy promotional push.

Maybe all news outlets should hire publicists to sell their stuff, instead of holding writers and editors responsible for crafting news that sells itself. A firewall between editorial and advertising is a non-negotiable feature of respectable journalism. How about another firewall between journalism and traffic? Let the journalists follow their judgment and hold the publicists responsible for selling what the journalists create. 

Megan's follow up post is about a "doozy" of an internal Politico memo obtained by the New Republic, made available here.

I don't understand how any journalism blogger can be shocked by the memo, which consists of guidelines for Politico stories. According to this purportedly explosive document, Politico wants its reporters to write about Washington, and power, and pop culture, early and often--and it hopes bloggers will link to the finished product.


That's what newspaper editors used to call a dog bites man story, back when there were newspapers.


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The prospect of a moribund print press is pretty horrifying. As we hear the early gurgles of print journalism's death rattle, I keep hoping that some web-based or web/print amalgam will take over newspaper's function. Politico's model is better than nothing, but it has a broadcast media feel.

I'm one of the guilty parties here. I used to have newsprint scattered all over the house and now I have a tidy little laptop that isn't funneling any money to working print journalists. I also miss lazy Sunday mornings sharing breakfast and the paper with family/housemates.

It's bad that print journalism is facing the potential evaporation of its business model, but the fact is that newspapers are doing less and less of the in-depth reporting that distinguishes it from the blog skimmers.

I'm not a Politico reader … should I be? Should we as progressives 'wish it well'? Its approach to journalism sounds awful.

I'd encourage you to check out Politico.

The front page is the gossipy part that keeps the paper in business. When it's fun, it's fun. When it's not, it's insufferable.

I read Politico regularly for its lobbying section. That's the part of Politico that's like a trade paper, as opposed to a gossip magazine. It's the sort of coverage you might read in the Hill, the National Journal, or Congressional Quarterly--but you'd have to pay for most of that other stuff, it it would be just as vacuous on its face. That's the thing about reported coverage, even when you don't respect the finished product, it's still of some value, even just to hear in some detail what the industry wants me to know.

Politico's lobbying section is free and while it's not deep or especially insightful, it's at least made fresh every day. It's the kind of coverage you might expect from a traditional local newspaper in a company town where The Company is a lobbying firm. So, maybe some parts of Politico are taking over from local DC papers.

This is enough to convince me of Politico's worthlessness. I just don't understand why people like this bother writing about politics when they so clearly would prefer to be writing about Miley Cyrus and "American Idol."

One of these days, Media Matters will provide evidence for its claims beyond linking to older Media Matters articles, which link to yet older articles, and so on. Until that day comes, however, I reserve the right to take Media Matters and Instapundit with the same degree of seriousness.

Alon, I don't know what you mean: the first link in that MM piece goes directly to the article in Politico.

Yes. And the rest of the links, the ones arguing that the stories about Clinton's flip-flops and overly calculated answers are all lies, lead to Media Matters.

On another note: Lindsay, you seem to be arguing that most political blogs are crap, more than anything. Some blogs have managed to succeed without being parasitic on traditional news: Ezra Klein and 538 are two examples. 538 even did its own investigative reporting, with the On the Road series showing how demoralized the McCain campaign was.

Blogs work much like traditional newspapers in that they derive their income from advertising; the reporting is essentially a loss leader. The problem with traditional newspapers is that much of their readership got siphoned away by niche outlets: blogs for opinion, online game sites for Sudoku and crossword puzzles, ESPN for sports, and increasingly blogs again for news. This is simply a shift from one business model to another. Nor does the invocation of Seymour Hersh and David Simon mean much. We know they're good because they've been working for decades. Maybe in twenty years people will say the same thing about Sean Quinn, and everyone will laud the internet for enabling such reporters to grow.

Alon, you're missing the point.

Newspapers depend on circulation to generate advertising revenue. However, a newspaper attracts readers by making the best possible use of finite amount of space. According to Paul Starr's article in TNR, the average metro daily runs about 70 stories per day. The question is how to tell 70 stories that will make the maximum number of readers pick up the morning paper today, and tomorrow, and the next day. It's unlikely that you'd sell more papers by running 140 half-length stories instead of 70 full-length ones--and you'd run your reporters and editors ragged if you tried.

Advertising-driven blogs need to attract readers, too--but the production schedule is totally different. With blogs, there's no upper limit to how much content you can put out there. If there's a law of blog traffic, it's that more frequent updates equals more hits. So, there's intense pressure to have your blogger-reporters post as many times a day as they possibly can.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you, this schedule is not conducive to good reporting. By reporting, I mean going out there and gathering and synthesizing new information.

Reporting is very time-consuming. When I do a reported piece, I usually interview about three people for every person I quote directly. The last story I wrote, I probably spoke to five people for every person I quoted--and I talked to several of the sources more than once. Just figuring out how to reach all those people takes time. Then you have to contact them and usually wait for them to get back to you and then try to confirm what they tell you.

The bottom line is that if you want to get good scoops, you have to be engaged in whatever community you're covering. Writing and reporting are competing demands on your time. If you're constantly writing, you're not reporting.

I should add that the story with the five-to-one ratio was a feature that will appear in an online magazine. There's no way I could have done that kind of work for a blog.

what an interesting contrast Politico is to the financial fate of Pajamas Media.

the two are not to be compared and yet the sloppy might indulge in a category called "new news media" into which both are assumed to fit.

the papers who get their scoops admired and re-copied a thousand times are few. NY Times, McClatchy a few others like New Yorker but no broadcast media I can recall. LA Times is cutting to the bone and losing good reporters, The Times is taking on partners from any quarter if only they have a few billions. When the NY Times tried to refund my subscription as they terminated their premium content attempt, I told them keep the money. I know it costs money if you mean to find the news...we can not all just be copying each other and still have any news. I expect to pay, I will put up with ads.

Which ever media most lives up to the first amendment would have fairly earned our readership. [probably explains the uselessness of anything FCC touches].

Should I be hoping that Politico has finally found the viable business model or does it just come down extra hustle in a hot special niche of an otherwise dying trade?

Glad I could amuse you, Lindsay...although I have to say, I'm not quite sure how I did it. You write that my "main concern was that Politico hires professional publicists to promote its content"--because "evidently" I think "that's icky."

Except...what's the opposite of "evidently"? Here's what the piece you mentioned actually said:

"Journalists often reflexively balk at self-promotion, many of them under the assumption that, if it is to set us free, the truth should also speak for itself....Which is an attitude, overall, that seems remarkably quaint—not to mention naïve—not to mention self-injurious—in an increasingly Web-based media world of infinite news holes and limited eyeballs. One adopts it at one’s own peril: generally speaking, the only people journalists hurt in shying away from self-promotion are themselves. And, by extension, their stories."

And then it concluded that "there’s nothing wrong with publicity if the journalism it seeks to publicize is good."

And then I wrote another CJR piece on the subject, which concluded that...Politico's PR-happy business strategy is fine.

Anyway. Just to clarify.

Megan, don't be coy. The whole premise of your post is that there's something new and genuinely worrisome about a news outlet promoting itself.

Self-promotion is as old as journalism. Some of the most staid established newspapers were among the most shameless in their younger days.

Where do you think the "Times" in "Times Square" came from? A newspaper promoting itself on a grandiose scale that would put Politico to shame.

If you're a small town paper, you sponsor a little league team. If you're the New York Times, you get the mayor to rename Long Acre Square after your company.

Every day I get more junk mail from national newspapers and magazines offering me a free trial subscription, or a free branded umbrella if I renew my subscription.

Come to think of it, I've gotten several subscription offers from the Columbia Journalism Review.

A lot of this junk male explicitly offers me a special rate for being a blogger or a journalist. So, clearly publications are targeting groups of people whom they think are likely to comment on their work.

The self-promotion of the established media doesn't end there. If you turn on the TV, there's Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman of the New York Times doing yet another media appearance, promoting themselves, their paper's brand, and sometimes their books.

Papers often encourage their star reporting talent to write journalism books, which are another opportunity to promote the journo and her paper. How many other jobs outside of academia offer book leave?

If you're watching CNN, you might also see a commercial for yet another deal on a New York Times subscription.

I don't know if you were at the DNC or the RNC, but the level of self-promotion by media outlets, Politico included, was completely over the top.

You might recall the CNN Politics Cafes, which were branded working restaurants, one at each convention, complete with custom neon signage and 30-foot murals proclaiming CNN to be the greatest political news source in human history, or whatever. TIME Magazine didn't just cover the RNC, it sponsored it. Other media outlets were prominently listed sponsors of the political conventions. I just remember TIME because the first thing I saw when I got off the plane in Minneapolis was a six-foot sign that said "TIME welcomes you to the RNC."

My inbox is constantly full of press releases sent out by various news brands from Bill Moyers to the Economist alerting me about their latest scoop or special issue/episode. That's just the spam. On top of that, I get at least ten emails a day from reporters and editors doing a little "freelance" PR within their social networks to boost the traffic for their new story or post. Half the journalists I know promote themselves on their personal blog, or twitter. Some even set up Facebook fan clubs.

With the exception of media companies sponsoring the conventions they're supposed to be covering, this is all totally normal and intrinsically unobjectionable.

Megan, your thesis is that self-promotion per se tends to influence the quality or focus of coverage itself. Correlation isn't causation. Politico promotes itself to the hilt and is largely crap. Other publications promote themselves without eroding their standards.

The publications and journalists who self-promote run the full gamut in terms of quality and rigor, and they always have. Sometimes, as in the case of Politico, the content is pitched to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes, it's the same challenging, rigorous content as ever, with a promotional push behind it. I don't think the standards at the Columbia Journalism Review are compromised by their direct mail campaign.

Sherman's article about Politico brought up a lot of facts that might unnerve a journalism critic. Leading off with Politico's publicists seems like a very odd choice. Raw Story has a part time publicist, is it really so shocking that Politico has them?

Lindsay, I think you misunderstood my point. It's not that the offline papers should reform their business models and be more like Politico; it's that online journalism can produce high-quality reporting just like traditional papers. Arguing that Politico's business model ensures it doesn't is like arguing that Fox shows all TV is crap.

What you say about maximizing post frequency isn't true for all blogs. It's true for Politico, which specializes in scoops, but not for blogs like 538, which specializes in analysis. A blog whose major selling point is that the author is smart, interesting, and authoritative has to maintain a post frequency that enables every post to be well-researched. Ezra Klein wrote a few years ago that most of what he's paid to do at TAP is to read various sources that would enable him to write good policy papers. That's true on every level: although Abstract Nonsense averaged 4 posts a day, the posts that generated the most readership were generally those that took a long time to write, counting time spent looking for interesting material.

I'm not disputing that some blogs produce outstanding reported content. The question is how blogs can make enough money off reporting--or something else--to deliver anything close to the volume or breadth of coverage that newspapers do, even in their weakened state.

Nate Silver is a celebrity analyst who seems to employ about two journalists. I'm not denigrating his achievement. On the contrary, he's making the world a better place. But his model isn't really applicable to the larger problem of funding the news. He makes it work because he has a unique, high-quality product that everyone wants to buy. The fact is, a lot of the really important reporting isn't going to have that kind of draw. It's one thing if your product is cutting edge analysis of the hottest news in national politics that day--which appears to be how Nate's formula. Blogs are not going to be able to hire reporters to cover school boards and county courthouses and state governments on the Nate Silver model.

Ezra's content is original, but he'd be the first to tell you that most of what he does is analyzing other people's reporting, not gathering his own facts from primary sources. The question is, how are we going to pay for all that reporting that Ezra uses? Also, I would be surprised if the advertising revenue from Ezra's blog covers his salary and benefits, let alone the costs of the rest of the TAPPED crew.

Big, commercial advertising-supported blogs know that update frequency is absolutely necessary, though not sufficient for serious traffic. If you want to make real money off web advertising, the kind of money that could actually sustain a reporting staff, you need to produce copy in volume. There are different ways to produce that kind of copy, ranging from recruiting a large number of unpaid contributors with their own fanbases (HuffPo) and using some of that money to hire people like Sam Stein, or hiring popular political insiders to blog really fast (Politico).

First: you should definitely subscribe to Columbia Journalism Review. It's a fantastic publication! And it makes a great gift!

I don't have a problem with publicity. (Did I mention that you and your readers and all your friends and all their friends should, seriously, by all means subscribe to CJR? If you subscribe via our website, you'll get 33 percent off the newsstand rate!) Or, well, I don't have a problem with publicity overall--or, indeed, per se--anyway. (Yes, I mentioned in my piece that journalists are often queazy about PR...that doesn't mean I share the sentiment. Again, here's what I wrote.) Of course publications have always publicized themselves(!). The point I was making--and that Sherman, I think, was suggesting, as well--was that what Politico does is more than just publicity; it's Publicity Plus, I guess. It's not just about getting the Politico name or "brand" out there, and it's not just about telling people about pieces its journalists have produced. Politico, rather, looks at PR holistically: for them, it's not just about publicizing the work they've already published, it's about letting publicity concerns affect what's published in the first place.

As Mike Allen wrote in his strategy memo, "Stories need to be both interesting and illuminating--we don't have the luxury of running stories folks won't click on or spend several minutes with in the paper."

That mentality isn't anything new. The annals of media criticism are crammed with woeful laments about news organizations, in print and, in particular, on the air, selling out stories for audience share. As I said in my piece, what's striking about Politico's strategy is the sheer audacity of it--the fact that the outlet has written clickability into its business plan.

But what's also noteworthy about Politico's strategy is its application to the coverage of Washington. If Politico were, say, Cat Fancy or something, nobody would care about its business philosophy. But we're talking about an organization that covers Washington politics--and only Washington politics--during a time when Washington bureaus are getting shuttered one after the other. As such, Politico is in a great position to do some of the important watchdog journalism that other outlets no longer can (work along the lines of, say, Charlie Savage's fantastic and important NYT investigation of the Obama administration's early attitude toward torture, rendition, and government secrecy). Politico has the resources to do such investigations; it doesn't do them, though. And the Allen memo suggests that that's by design: because 99 percent of the time, the news reports that result from civic-oriented watchdogging are spectacularly boring. (If I emailed a typical report to friends, they'd probably be some combination of: confused/amused/annoyed.)

But while those investigations aren't, generally speaking, entertaining...I think most of us would agree that they're incredibly important. Necessary, even. And that, if reporters stop reporting them, we all lose out.

So here's the thing (this is why I found the publicity angle of Sherman's story to be interesting, Lindsay--though if you didn't, hey, that's cool): if Politico, despite its print-product underwriting, offers, as has widely been declared, a model for online news--and if it is self-consciously deciding not to fashion itself a government watchdog--and if that decision is the result of a calculation that popularity is more important than public service--then that's a problem. Not for Politico specifically, so much (hey, it can do with its resources whatever it pleases), but for all of us. In the past, newspapers enjoyed the buffer of ad revenue; it was that underwriting that afforded them the ability to conduct investigative and other civic-minded work. But as more and more print products fold--and as they lose the ad revenue that came with them--what happens to civic-minded journalism?

I'm not sure. I don't think anyone is. One thing I do know, though: Columbia Journalism Review will be examining that question, both on its website and in its very reasonably priced magazine. Subscribe today!

Megan, I think we basically agree on the problem with Politico: It's a web-based tabloid. They only want to publish what people are going to want to read.

By Politico's warped calculus that's a torrent of ephemeral insider gossip and a little regular beat reporting such as you might find in the Hill or CQ or some other Washington trade publication.

The notion of the public trust is completely foreign to Politico. In fact, its notion of the public is pretty skewed in itself--i.e., who Politico imagines federal political junkies to be what it thinks we care about. If it's general interest journalism, it should be trying to tell us what we need to know in order to be engaged citizens and well-informed voters. (Well, "should" is a strong word. It's a free country, Politico can tell us whatever it wants. But if it were a traditional news organization, that would be among its core values.)

Part of the confusion and frustration is that Politico is positioning itself as more of a general interest publication than a trade magazine. If it were just seen as the equivalent of the Progressive Grocer magazine for beltway insiders, people wouldn't necessarily care that most of what it covers is irrelevant to democracy as far as the individual informed citizen is concerned. Arguably, a lot of that stuff should be dismissed as ephemeral by insiders, too, but that's shop talk for you.

My biggest concern about Politico is its perceived success will lead more news organizations to think they can duplicate the form of Politico and just improve the substance. Having tried to cover a beat other than the campaign trail by filing four times a day, I can tell you that nobody really knows how to do it. Lot's of people do great analysis on the fly and some of them manage to bring in a fair amount of new data in the process, but it's a trickle compared to the raw data that comes in from someone who's out working their beat all day in the world instead of scanning the wires for stuff to react to.

It's one thing to file on an ongoing pageant like a campaign with lots of scheduled, scripted activity. It's quite another to report the news in four installments a day when you don't know what's going to happen next.

Lots of progressive muckraking journalists moved serious paper in their day. Some, like Naomi Klein, still do. Jack London was at least as popular as Mike Allen. Izzy Stone was a bigger celebrity in his day than Ben Smith will ever be. The problem is that Politico isn't a viable model for sustaining serious reporting on a large scale. The profitability depends on a production schedule that's incompatible with serious reporting on a broad range of specialized beats, like we see in newspapers. Now, it's possible that a company that really wanted to fund newspaper-type reporting could create a hybrid business model whereby a constant stream of gossip subsidized a reporting staff. Say if a hypothetical progressive Politico front page got yoked to the equivalent of ProPublica, with the proceeds from the former offsetting the expenses of the latter.

You know, I might subscribe to the Columbia Journalism Review.

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