If you have preconceived notions about political blogging, Andrew Malcolm is here to shatter them. Malcolm, 64, has decades of experience as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief at the New York Times, and later as an editorial board member and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times. He has ink in his blood, but when he was tapped by the L.A. Times to help write the new political blog, Top of the Ticket, Malcolm became a quick convert to the online religion.
So what are the notions he’s shattered? Let’s count them:
1. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.
Malcolm laughs at the idea that he’s too old to learn about blogs, Technorati, writing search-engine-optimized headlines and such. “To me…journalism was a place where people who wanted to learn the rest of their lives went to work,” Malcolm told me.
2. Newspaper bloggers keep newspaper hours.
While some blogs stop posting overnight to take a rest, Top of the Ticket is run as a 24-hour news operation. Malcolm works from 11 am Pacific Time to 4 am (give or take a couple hours) and co-writer Don Frederick, in the Times’ Washington Bureau, works from mid-morning Eastern Time to late at night. Malcolm’s late-night hours helped him get an early jump on a quote by Barack Obama saying he wouldn’t be a vice presidential candidate.
3. Print reporters hate interacting with the public.
Malcolm loves the idea of hearing from readers instantly on the blog. He doesn’t understand why reporters hated having their email addresses at the end of stories. “I think it’s great if someone 1) takes the time to read [the story]; 2) figures out who wrote it; 3) writes you up a message,” he said. “That’s great, I’ll go in and read it and send them a message back.”
4. Political bloggers must be openly partisan to get traffic.
Malcolm has also worked in politics, as communications director for Republican Governor Marc Racicot in Montana in the ’90s, and for a year as Laura Bush’s press secretary from 1999-2000. But he doesn’t openly support candidates and has taken heat from liberals and conservatives for his criticism of candidates on both sides of the aisle.
5. The L.A. Times will never catch up to the other newspapers’ leading political blogs.
Though Top of the Ticket had a late entry into covering the presidential race, launching last June, it has quickly passed Chicago Tribune’s The Swamp (a blog it shares content with) and the Washington Post’s The Fix in Technorati rankings, and is nipping at the heels of the New York Times’ The Caucus.
Top of the Ticket is now ranked No. 217 on Technorati, and had 1.47 million visitors last month, with 1.94 million page views, according to Malcolm, who says page views are already above 2.5 million for May. The L.A. Times staff that works on the blog actually had a champagne celebration when it passed No. 1,000 on Technorati. So just how excited is Malcolm about being a political blogger? When I called him up for this Q&A, he talked to me for nearly two hours, with the fervor of someone who has been reborn in his career. The following is an edited transcript from that conversation.
Tell me how you ended up working in politics after covering it as a journalist?
Andrew Malcolm: In the fall of 1992, a man I had interviewed and was impressed with, the Montana attorney general Marc Racicot, won the election and became the Montana governor. He called and said, “You’ve been writing about politics from the outside all these years and have been sometimes critical. Why don’t you put your ass on the line and see if you can make it any better yourself as my communications director?” So I went out to take that job in Montana, and wrote the speeches, oversaw the press secretary, traveled with the governor, helped design policy and communications strategy.
It was not a blatantly partisan operation; he’s a different kind of politician. We did a lot of things bi-partisan and innovative and that’s why he got re-elected with 80% of the vote in ’96. It was very satisfying to help shape things and make it work. Then George W. Bush, who was governor of Texas, asked to talk to me, and in July of ’99 I went to work for Governor Bush and ended up as Laura Bush’s press secretary. It was also fascinating to see how a national election worked, and I was a part-time assistant to Karl Rove. But I had no interest in working in Washington in any way, shape or form.
Once you came back to journalism at the L.A. Times, how did the blog come about?
Malcolm: Doug Frantz, who was one of the managing editors, called me in and asked me what I wanted to do next. This was November 2006, and the next week I came back with a list of things I wanted to do, most of them having to do with online. I’ve got three grown children, and one is a teenager still, and none of them read newspapers — but all of them were raised and fed and clothed based on income from newspapers. That was clear evidence to me that there was some necessary change.
One of the reasons I got into journalism was that I loved the tough stories. And in journalism, I thought I could learn something new every day. American newspapers have routine-ized everything, and you start doing things because you do them that way. And you don’t even start thinking, “Is there one person who wants to read this?” This becomes your job and you’re missing the customer aspect of it. Looking back on it, newspapers became like a pharmacy, people came and got their printed medicine and took it away. But over time there were other counters opening up and people didn’t want to take your medicine. To me, that’s exciting, but to a lot of my colleagues it’s very terrifying because you have to learn a lot of new things.
I was prepared to do something new, and I’d seen my son, Chris Malcolm, do some creative things online. He headed the team that invented ChicagoSports.com, was managing editor at FoxSports.com, sports editor of RedEye, online editor there, and now running and building BigTenNetwork.com. I fully admit I didn’t understand it, but I liked it.
Doug Frantz said he wanted me and Don Frederick in the Washington bureau, who I did not know, to write a two-person team political blog that’s different, and we could figure out what it should be. Don Frederick had been covering politics since 1984. He’s in his 50s and I’m 64. My first political convention was 1968 as an assistant to the national editor, running around helping to cover the riots in Chicago.
How did you react to the idea of doing the blog?
Malcolm: When Doug proposed this, my first thought was, “Good lord, what do I write about? Every hour?” It turned out that it wasn’t too hard once you get into the groove. I’ve had hundreds more ideas than I could ever get to. The thought of doing that, up to the minute, “Holy Toledo!” I called my son and said it’s excited but very intimidating. I spent at least two months doing nothing all day but being online and reading stuff — blogs, political sites — and learning the lay of the land. Just like you’re assigned to Tokyo, get out and see what’s going on.
This was spring of last year, and they asked how I saw the blog developing. Well we had to be different. I asked myself: What do I enjoy about being online? If you distill it down, what I liked about being online was it was like beachcombing. You never know what you’ll find. And that’s the opposite of what newspapers have tried to do over the years. You’ve got the most important story in the upper right, and you’ll have a picture here above the fold and it’s less important as you go down the page. [The newspaper] is directly contradictory of what the new experience is where I’m in control and I’ll go where I want. There are no lane markers, you can jump to wherever you want and do what you want.
Unpredictability was at the top of my list. And we had to be pretty well informed and well written, and Don and I had done a lot of that. And I liked the idea of having it run around the clock because a lot of blogs shut down at night. The first thing I wrote, I said we wanted this to be a dialogue, and sometimes I’ll go in and put comments on other people’s comments. Then we’ll have a discussion with others commenting, and I find that to be exciting. It’s like a conversation, imagine that.
And are you being edited, either in your posts or comments?
Malcolm: The comments on the comments are not being edited. A regular day for me is 16 hours, so there’s no time for somebody else to read my comments before posting. The blog items are being edited first, but the team of editors were told that these [blog posts] are not supposed to read like something in the newspaper so let the style go. After all these years, Don and I won’t go half-cocked writing about something. The editor does say that I push the envelope. If you read one item, you think we are in the tank for somebody or we hate somebody; but if you read them all, you’ll see that we are equal opportunity offenders.
I try to write about things from the inside. I wrote a piece about Hillary’s victory speech in Indiana, and there was a picture of her speaking, and you could see Bill standing behind her, and his head was about to explode, he was so angry and disappointed as he saw their White House dreams go up in smoke. I have seen the staging of these events, and we compared the staging of her speeches after Iowa, New Hampshire and Indiana.
So I took people through [the staging] and showed them what to look for. You had banners saying “Ready for Change” and what do you see all around her? Faces from the ’90s, Madeline Albright and Terry McAuliffe and Bill Clinton. They’re running against a guy who says we need a change? There’s no change there.
Do you write about your own political views?
Malcolm: It’s not me lecturing people about what I believe. If you read one item, you’d say, “Boy you’re a liberal Democrat!” and then I get comments saying I’m a neo-con. What can I say? It’s all part of doing a blog. Early on, some of my colleagues were distressed that some of the items in the blog would never have appeared in a newspaper. My point was: “You bet,” and “What’s the circulation now?” It’s going down. When we started, [our blog] was brand new and unknown. We started June 11. The third item was about an L.A. Times poll, and we broke that story before the paper. Our posts are more conversational.
Our audience really started to grow exponentially in November, and the website people were very happy. They hired Tony Pierce in December from LAist, to oversee blogs and teach us savvy tricks, like better headline writing and so on. It’s hard for newsroom editors, who are used to a certain style of headlines, to come down to the “keen grasp of the obvious” headlines on the web. You can get some wit into them. When Hillary Clinton started talking about her hunting experience, I wrote a headline titled, “Hillary Clinton shot a duck once.” To my mind, that’s what we want this blog to do. Get people to say, “What?!?!”
You’re not open about your own politics?
Malcolm: No, not at all. I’ve worked very hard at this. When I was a newspaper correspondent, I would change my party registration throughout my career, from one to the other, and even changed to a Libertarian at one point, just so that if anyone checked, they wouldn’t be able to tell what my political feelings are. I’ve never missed a vote, though. I don’t make up my mind, I try to keep it suspended. My vote is informed by what I learn in my journalistic work.
How does your blog writing differ from your past newspaper writing?
Malcolm: There are thousands of times where I’ve written a paragraph and thought, “This will never make it into the paper.” And sure enough, when I check the paper the next day, it’s not in. That’s totally different now. Basically, what I write is what goes up, and it’s very satisfying. I once wrote a run-of-the-mill [blog post], my editor looked it over, and we published it. Within 20 minutes you could see the numbers coming in, and late that night, I went into the system and pulled the numbers out.
I’ve spent 26 years at the New York Times and another 7 here [at the L.A. Times]. Outside of my family, I’ve never witnessed seeing someone reading my story in print. So I’m looking at the numbers for my blog post, and for nearly seven hours, we had seven new readers arriving on our blog every second. We’ve had days since then that have been several times that. You tell that to print people who wait six months to look at circulation figures, they’re usually down, and who can tell which stories added to the circulation figures?
I did an item, traffic exploded, and there were seven new people every second. When you tell that to a newspaper crowd, it’s like “Whoa!” it gets a reaction. We’ve had millions of readers since we started and more than 43,000 comments. I didn’t know about Technorati until January, and the first week of January I met Tony [Pierce] and he introduced me to Technorati. There’s so much to learn. We started two weeks ago doing Twitter, and now we have a couple hundred people following us there. [Malcolm recently Twittered the birth of his first grandson (see image).]
How has blogging changed your outlook on doing journalism?
Malcolm: It’s like being reborn. You get to write in creative ways. The sky’s the limit, especially on a website like the L.A. Times, which most people would admit is coming later to the game for big league news sites, but our traffic is growing every month. The blog traffic is exploding and becoming a growing percentage of traffic. There are 20 or 30 blogs and that’s growing. There’s so many balls to juggle and it’s so exciting. It has brought the fun back into it, just like my son predicted. I can’t wait to get to work in the morning, and I hate for it to end.
Do you think the print newsroom’s attitude about the web and blogs is starting to change?
Malcolm: There are problems in the transition of a newsroom from the predictable routine of a morning newspaper which is done by 2 in the morning to the 24-hour life online. It’s more demanding, it’s more direct — in a sense that your customers are right there. Online, you’re going to get an email in about two minutes from someone saying, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. You’re an idiot.” That’s disturbing for some people who are accustomed to the distance that newspapers had in the past.
If you want to get the newsroom’s attention, start talking numbers, and then they get it. They start getting the message. When I worked on the print side, there was a subtle way you had to lobby to get something on Page 1 because the gods over there in the bullpen had their own ideas of what should go on Page 1, and 99.99% of the time it wasn’t my idea. Now you can make your pitch [about getting blog post on the home page], and they say, “Yeah, that sounds good,” and they’ll get a snappy head to go with it and a picture and you’re only limited by your imagination. On the print side, there’s a whole bureaucracy, and you don’t have that online.
Do you think there’s a misperception about being older and not wanting to get online and learn technology?
Malcolm: I gather there is because of the way people have commented on me. To me…journalism was a place where people who wanted to learn the rest of their lives went to work. My assumption was that I would have to fight people off to do this blog. The editor never asked me, “Do you think you can handle all these new terms?” We’ve learned the coding for doing pictures, and headline writing, and all those things were interesting to me. For a lot of people in the newsroom, it was probably scary. We’re approaching a tipping point, but we’re not there yet.
You can draw a superficial conclusion that younger people are into Twitter and more gadgets, but I’m excited to have a cell phone that takes pictures and text messages…Everyone comments that we’re the oldest rookies of the year.
What do you think about the Top of the Ticket blog? Do you think newspaper sites’ political blogs play an important role in political news coverage? Are they a model for how newspapers will cover politics in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.