Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Scoop Factory

In the Sixties Andy Warhol grabbed up an abandoned low-rent space in midtown Manhattan and transformed it into a leading influence in the New York art and culture Scene. A hangout, a studio, a cultural center and the ultimate 24/7 unreality show, Warhol’s world was known as The Factory. Famous for his fifteen-minutes-of-fame witticism, he was an astute observer of pop culture and built an empire on the idea of celebrity. His studio was also a silkscreen production facility which was likewise a factory. This unending output of product put Warhol on the map.

Fast forward. I don’t really know if this is what The New Republic and Gabriel Sherman had in the back of their minds by calling their analysis of Politico.com The Scoop Factory. For sure, there are parallels. And like Warhol's Factory scene, some people are raving about it and other despise it.

If you’re not familiar with Politico.com, you might want to check it out. It's become the hottest thing in online D.C. Inside-the-Beltway news coverage. Like Warhol’s Factory in the Big Apple, Politico is influential. And like Warhol’s factory, Politico excels at cranking out product. And finally, like the people in Warhol’s world, celebritydom is also part of the chic mystique.

In reading Sherman’s piece I can't help but wonder how legitimate his concerns are. How serious are the issues Sherman raises?

The key to Politico’s success is speed. In the Washington scoop game, first is always best, as long as it is accurate. The unfortunate thing for daily newspapers is that today’s late news has to wait for tomorrow to find its way to print. At Politico, the news breaks as fast as the journalists can break it.

Sherman details how a story on Politico gets fed into the food chain so as to be propelled to the widest sweep of viewers and listeners, making use of the Huffington Post, Rush Limbaugh and other megaphones to give the stories credence and hopefully enough relevance to bring them into the evening news. One of his concerns is that stories can get reported before they have been adequately analyzed, which I'm sure happens. But doesn't a journalist who repeatedly breaks news that is ultimately unfounded lose his or her cred?

Sherman’s second concern seems to me a canard. He laments the burnout pace Politico’s reporters operate on, as if they are forced into intolerable work conditions for a measly quarter-million dollars. Along with the perks of fortune they also have instant cred for their careers, widespread recognition and a perpetual soapbox. And we’re supposed to feel sorry for these writers? These are not galley slaves who have been abducted into the service of an ignoble captain in exchange for gruel and a rat infested life below deck in a stench filled hole.

When I was starting out as a freelance writer, the first job I was able to land was for an 80 hour work week that paid $180 a week. Below minimum wage. But eventually I would learn how to do the work faster, I was told. I declined the offer.

As I noted Sunday, the power of the newspapers has taken a hit. Politico.com may be untested for the long haul, but its made a mark. Like Facebook and Twitter, who today can honestly say what it will morph into tomorrow.

EdNote: The painting of the ice cream cone at top is not my own work, but a photo I took in a San Francisco art gallery in the spring of 2007. It is used without permission, though if someone locates the artist, I will inquire and give credit where it is due.

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