Covering the Coverage The Hotline Takes Its Place in the News Cycle.

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • October, 2001

by Karen Feld

Information is power — but it’ll cost ya. That doesn’t seem to bother the 25,000 subscribers to The Hotline, who lay out as much as $5,900 annually to receive this daily online political news briefing from nationaljournal.com. That’s because these Washington insiders, government workers, members of the media and others who thirst to be in the know, regardless of ideology, have a common passion: politics. “We’re feeding their passion,” says Chuck Todd, executive editor of The Hotline, which was launched by The National Journal Group 14 years ago this month as a news-clipping service focusing on campaign politics. Since the very beginning, the service has been available online, at first as a bulletin board and then on the World Wide Web.

“We don’t want to break stories,” explains Todd. “It’s more about the rhythm of the story — where the pack is going.” That’s why the team of Hotline staffers, toiling in cubbyholes in the Watergate office building, read 700 dailies online, scan 50 magazines and tape 28 hours of programming day after day.

“Our biggest challenge is the size — 30 to 50 pages daily,” says Todd. “It’s hard to be called a briefing — we have more stories than pages.” In addition to The Hotline itself — available to subscribers by ID and password before noon each weekday — the group publishes a “Wake-up Call,” available at 9 a.m. Eastern time daily. People generally read The Hotline before lunch. That’s close to the last read of the day for most, but to keep it fresh, the service sends e-mail alerts and does daily Webcasts ( www.hotlinescoop.com/studio). “Last Call” is also published at 4 p.m. for those who can’t leave the office without the latest spin. The “House Race Hotline” comes out twice weekly, and the “Weekend Scoop” on Saturdays. The Web-based magazine comes complete with links, databases, and search options — everything you need to be informed, Washington-style.

The Hotline imposes certain criteria on itself: no hearsay about a politician’s personal life or children, no personal attacks, and no jokes (except to recap late night TV shows), just straight coverage. “But at some point it’s open season — for example Jenna Bush,” explains Todd. “We try not to stretch the envelope — for example, no [Rep. Gary] Condit until it hit mainstream.” It took only one mistake to show the need for strict standards, he says: “We quoted [Matt] drudge too early in his career. Now we qualify him under ‘gossip.'”

Journalists will do almost anything for a mention. One TV producer regularly dropped off a tape of her show for The Hotline, accompanied by a box of doughnuts. Mary Matalin collected pennies on TV’s “Equal Time” to buy a subscription. Some pundits orchestrate sound bites with The Hotline in mind, and journalists may e-mail advance copies of their stories.

A weekly Hotline TV show is in the works. Todd envisions the TV show, like the online publication, as “a ‘SportsCenter’ for politics.” Its mantra, according to producer Ann Klenk, is the “politics of joy.”

“The new generation of journalists use The Hotline as a research tool for trend-spotting,” says Todd. “We’re an early warning system for people.” In fact, Todd says, when used properly, The Hotline can take the place of a staffer or two.

Is The Hotline a news outlet or a digest or more an interpretive zine — or a totally new type of news organ? Whatever it is, The Hotline gets its staying power, according to its editors, from its “pro-both-party” ideology. “We cover the coverage,” explains Todd. Essentially it deconstructs the news. “Some people think power is knowledge, but we give people pure knowledge,” he says. “We give them the access through conversation to get in the door.”

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