A Look Inside the Beltway Media Ecosystem

Information is the coin of the realm in Washington, and the media habits of the city’s influencers reflect that demand for news, insight and gossip. Whether from traditional channels such as cable and broadcast news or newer outlets including Twitter and the blogosphere, influencers inside the Beltway generate, share and discuss information at home, at work and while on the move.

As we look ahead to a year jammed with presidential politics and non-stop election coverage, three concepts will continue to define consumption habits in the nation’s capital – with implications from K Street to Wall Street to Main Street.

  1. Media travels. According to National Journal’s report, “Washington in the Information Age,” 87 percent of Washington Insiders use at least one kind of smartphone. Seventy-four percent use the news functions on a mobile device at least once daily. The percentages are even high among Hill staffers. What this means is that more and more media is being consumed in short, “blackberry-able,” bursts , such as links from Twitter and Facebook; opt-in ‘round up’ emails such as Mike Allen’s “Playbook”, The Note, First Take, etc;  blogs (HuffPo, Politico, etc), and video (from major news sources, as well as obscure blogs), among other things.
  2. Cable news and public affairs programming still matter! Attention to news programming is much higher in Washington than in the country at large, and actually increased in the latter part of the last decade. The weekend talk shows, nightly capable programs, specialty programs (such as NPR and C-Span) and others still play an important function: they reinforce the news of the day, and crystallize the issues of the day.
  3. Washington influencers trust “name brand” opinion makers – people like Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and the like.  Beyond the big-brands, there is a “long tail” of trusted sources with small but highly expert followings. As National Journal described, “The top 20 [opinion maker] names – Paul Krugman to David Ignatius – represent only 43 percent of the responses. The remaining 57 percent are each followed by a handful of Washington Insiders.”

Outlined below is an expanded look at the personalities and reporting that shapes opinion in Washington.

When POLITICO launched in 2007 as the brainchild of two frustrated Washington Post reporters, it changed the way political news is covered and reported in Washington. Seen by some as the “TMZ of politics,” it was a leader in redefining the relationship between D.C.’s longstanding thirst for gossip and the new tools available to reach massive audiences online, like short video clips and search engine optimization.

As a result of the POLITICO approach, Washington media is increasingly “cross platform.” What you see on the front page of the Washington Post also lives on the paper’s award-winning website, circulates through the halls of Congress and down K Street via Twitter and Facebook, serves as the basis for talk show segments and drives follow up content, including streaming video and audio.

Rise of the blogs

Washington has long been defined by the wags that shape public and elite opinion through their reporting and commentary. Where once classic political columnists like Scotty Reston and Robert Novak would shape opinion and policy from the pages of the Times or the Post, the conversation-starting columns of the day have moved online. The Huffington Post, for example, has more daily readers in the U.S. than the New York Times.

A “company town”

Recent years have been very kind to the trade media that covers Washington’s cottage industry and favorite pastime – politics. Politically focused publications – POLITICO, National Journal, Roll Call and The Hill – have been locked in a battle for top journalistic talent for years, with the even more specific Capitol Hill publications also expanding their ranks with quality reporters from across the country.

These publications are also exploring new business models as a way to expand their audiences in one of the few economically healthy regions in the country. Bloomberg Government, POLITICO and the Atlantic Media Group (home to both National Journal and The Atlantic) have all started or expanded event-planning arms in recent years, somewhat blurring the line between making the news and reporting the news.

Troubled, perhaps, but still relevant

For all the controversy and dire predictions surrounding it, the mainstream media still matters in Washington. Influencers from both sides of the aisle get their news from the Post, the Times and the Journal. Booking a hit on CNN, Fox or MSNBC still provides access to large audiences and bolsters credibility. The opportunities for growth and creativity may have moved online, but much of the audience is still tuned to “Morning Joe” over breakfast, grabbing the latest copy of CQ in the office and listening to “All Things Considered” on the ride home.

Expanding market and influence

The trends outlined above are likely to continue and intensify through 2012, particularly in light of the presidential election. Presidential campaigns often serve as test beds for new forms of political communication and news distribution (the 2004 Bush re-elect broke new ground in cascading messages down to local supporters via the Web, and Hilary Clinton announced her 2008 campaign via YouTube).

In early 2011, an article in the Washington Post may have captured it best, reporting that “Just about everywhere you look, news sites and publications are adding more reporters to cover Congress. While many city halls and state capitals have lost news-media enterprise, Capitol Hill looks like journalism’s growth market.” Expand that horizon to include the administration and the campaigns, and the business of information in Washington will continue not only to bloom, but to evolve in ways that provide new opportunities – and new challenges – to communicators and public affairs professionals.