We Set Out to Blow Up the Silos: James Hohmann of the Washington Post
You can take it from me: writing a political news briefing seems simple and straightforward but in fact is really hard. First you’ve got to sort out some basic ontological issues, like: what’s the point? why are you writing this thing? what’s the purpose in putting it out into the world and why are you the person to do it? The answers to these questions should allow you to then identify your audience: who, exactly, is going to read it? And then: how often will you publish? Once these fundamental facts are established, all the rules of journalism apply: you’ve got to collect the news – no small feat in this particularly fragmented era, when big stories surface and disappear in just hours, sometimes – and then you’ve got to mine what you’ve got for connections. How, you need to ask, do these elements that I’ve collected fit together? What else do I need to know? Because you’ve got deadlines, you then go ahead and do your best to package the answer in a cohesive whole that’s as accurate as possible and too that’s relevant and entertaining (in both senses of that word) to your identified audience. You check your facts, proof your copy. You write a headline. You check your facts again, and again proof your copy, test your links if you’ve got them.
There is no one better at this than James Hohmann. Since 2015, he’s been writing the Daily 202 newsletter for the Washington Post, in, as he says, “an effort to cover the intersection of politics and policy in a way that would be most helpful for influential decisionmakers.” The Daily 202, along with the constellation of siblings that comprise the PowerPost section of the newspaper, does a fantastic job contextualizing the news, and providing what Hohmann terms “conceptual scoops” – mini-analyses and syntheses that tend to build bridges between what sometimes feels like separate worlds. “Too often,” Hohmann says, “[politics and policy] are covered distinctly,” – a sentiment that I’d fully agree with – “and we set out to blow up the silos.”
Despite the lofty audience and ambitious mission, Hohmann’s style is conversational – he writes it “like an email” – which means it’s accessible to little guys like me who’ve got long morning and evening commutes and couldn’t influence a fly.
In the lightly-edited conversation below, Hohmann talks about the origins of Daily 202, his process, what he’s learned over the years, and how the newsletter has evolved over time. He also graciously answers my big anxious question about the news industry’s future, i.e., is there one?
First off, I’m hoping you could offer just a very brief overview of the history and mission of the PowerPost site and newsletters – when did they begin, and why?
PowerPost launched in the spring of 2015 as an effort to cover the intersection of politics and policy in a way that would be most helpful for influential decisionmakers. Too often these areas are covered distinctly, and we set out to blow up the silos. The Washington Post wanted to start a reported daily newsletter focused on this nexus, so I returned to the paper – where I had worked in the late 2000s – after six years at Politico to anchor the initiative and write The Daily 202, named for D.C.’s area code. It’s succeeded beyond our highest hopes, and we’ve expanded several times to meet reader demands for even more high-quality content. Last year, we launched spin-off newsletters focused on health care, finance and energy. We’ll soon debut new products focused on defense/cybersecurity and technology.
The Daily 202 is a pretty exhaustive roundup of the previous day’s news, but it always begins with an in-depth analysis. How do you decide what to focus that analysis on?
Newsletters are an amazing way to reach people: directly in their inbox. Email may seem like a dated medium in the age of Snapchat and Signal, but it’s still how most of us communicate and stay abreast of what’s going on in the world. I thought the email newsletters that were out there in 2015 were very stale and, frankly, past their prime. I looked for inspiration toward WaPo icons of yore who helped explain the capital to the rest of the country, including David Broder, Walter Pincus and Mary McGrory. I also studied the approach of the most consequential reported columns from the 20th century, from Evans and Novak to Jack Anderson, Drew Pearson and even Walter Winchell.
Because of social media, cable news and push alerts, most stories are no longer new to people by the next morning. Especially the junkies I wanted to reach. So simply aggregating and summarizing press clips does not add value the way it once did. To make the newsletter as useful as possible for influencers, I decided to focus on connecting the dots and contextualizing the news.
I didn’t really care about getting mini-scoops, or scooplets, which are ephemeral and quickly dilute in the blood stream. I decided the 202 would be most successful if there was a meaty top driven by reporting and analysis every day. My goal has always been to offer readers as many “conceptual scoops” as possible.
I try hard not to just regurgitate basic facts that readers already know or waste people’s time with what we call b-matter. People look to the 202 to understand why something happened, whether it matters and what it means for the future. So, I focus on subjects in the Big Idea where I can add value by dissecting those questions. Because I am coming to their inbox every weekday, it can be a running conversation. I don’t have to repeat myself because I can assume they read the previous editions. I also wanted to be heavily interactive. I engage heavily with readers by email, phone and on social media.
Often, I riff on one of the biggest stories of the day. But sometimes I can take a subject that’s a little off the beaten path and get it on people’s radar – connecting it to the big story or explaining why they should care. I devote a huge amount of mindshare to thinking ahead and not being overly reactive.
How is working on The Daily 202 different from working on the Morning Score newsletter you wrote for Politico? Are there lessons you learned, dos and don’ts, that you’ve carried with you?
Writing Morning Score for two years (from 2011 to 2013) was invaluable as I thought through what The Daily 202 should look like. Score was a niche product that focused on campaigns, and the target audience was operatives, admakers, managers, candidates, the national political committees, pollsters and major donors.
I kept it tailored to that audience, which felt constraining at the time but also helped me conceptualize the promises and perils of the format. Most people who write newsletters never think through who their audience is. It is so important to know your audience and to constantly think through what’s useful to them and what’s extraneous.
Score was like a bulletin board and a repository for every new TV ad, all the polling I could get my hands on and a round-up of local coverage about campaigns across the country. The 202 audience is much bigger and has broader interests. Most of my current readers don’t want to go that far in the weeds. But I try to sprinkle in enough of the microdetails to make it useful from a more macro perspective and connect dots so that they learn why the small stuff matters to the bigger picture.
I learned that it’s important to build a community among readers. For Score, I did that with lots of contests and giving away stuff like shirts, mugs and the chance to have lunch with me. In the 202, we do that with extensive use of social media.
Another key insight from writing Score is that it really doesn’t matter how many people click on the links inside an email. An average edition of the Daily 202 has more than 150 hyperlinks to outside content. You can’t expect people to click on all of those, but you give them the chance to go deeper if they want. In theory, you should be able to successfully summarize what a story says so that people get the gist and feel prepared to discuss it.
Score was plain text and included bit.ly links to videos. It was written to be read on a BlackBerry. Even paragraph lengths were limited so they would fit on a BlackBerry screen, which was how powerful people read email back then. The 202 was the first newsletter of its kind to embed YouTube videos, tweets, instagrams and lots of pictures so that it could be read on the next generation of devices. People would no longer need to click away if they didn’t want to. Others have followed our lead.
How has the newsletter evolved over time? Who was the target audience originally, and has that changed?
Hotmail was once hot. So was the Hotline. Now they’re irrelevant. In this business, you constantly evolve. Or you die.
We launched The Daily 202 in June 2015, the very same week that Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential campaign. I had written about Trump several times over the years; his aides used to print off Morning Score and include it in his clips package. He once told me that he enjoyed it because it allowed him to stay on top of all the polls.
In the debut editions of the 202, I did Q&A style interviews with the leading presidential candidates about what their first 100 days would look like if they became president. Trump’s team reached out and said that he’d like to do one of the interviews, but I said that I was only interviewing the top-tier candidates who had a realistic chance of winning the nomination. Oops.
Trump has been mentioned at least once in every single edition of the 202.
We’ve experimented with various features, sections and organizations. We’ve tried partnerships to highlight everything from social media to government job openings. There’s been trial and error.
I write the 202 like an email, not like a traditional newspaper story. The old guidelines about the inverted pyramid often aren’t applicable to what I’m doing. I don’t need to say that Paul Ryan is a Republican from Wisconsin, or sometimes I don’t mention that he’s Speaker of the House. My plugged-in readers already know.
What hasn’t changed is this: Every single day, my goal is for every single person who reads the newsletter – no matter how powerful or smart they are – to learn at least one thing that they didn’t know before they read it and that they are glad to have learned. Either because it prepares them for the morning staff meeting or influences a strategic decision that they need to make or gives them something to talk about with their colleagues at the watercooler.
Unlike most of my competitors, I don’t celebrate or glorify power. To whom much is given, much is required. I take seriously my solemn journalistic obligation to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. No matter who is in charge, it’s our duty to hold them accountable.
Does the Daily 202 get the same editorial treatment that a typical story going into the newspaper does?
Yes. PowerPost Editor Rachel Van Dongen and I collaborate closely. She was my editor at Politico during the 2012 campaign and recruited me to come to the Post.
Two researchers help compile the Daily 202 full time. One works from 4 pm to midnight. The other works from 11 pm until 7 am. A copy editor comes online by 6:30 am to read the email before it goes out.
We are fully integrated with the national staff of the newspaper.
You introduced podcasting and blogging to the Stanford Daily during your tenure as the editor-in-chief. You also studied history while at Stanford. So I’m very tempted to ask a Big Question about digital media and the future of journalism. Here it is: is the news industry headed in a positive, tenable direction?
I’m very bullish about the long-term future of the news industry because I think there is an almost insatiable demand for high-quality journalism. Someone will fill it, and there are enough savvy people who want to be informed and will be willing to pay for what we’re doing. I’m heartened that the Post has been profitable for the past two years and continues to hire at a rapid clip.
We’re still evolving. There will be additional creative destruction, but we’ll stay true to our core principles because that’s why people trust us and read our work. I’m not judged by things like clicks; I’m judged by the quality of the content I produce. I think that’s what matters most: Quality, not quantity.
That said, it tears me up inside when I see what’s happened to many of my mentors in journalism and the storied institutions where I cut my teeth. The San Jose Mercury News was the first newspaper I worked at; I interned there and then stayed on part-time as a Stanford student – working weekends and night shifts. The paper is a small fraction of the size it was when I was there. Same with the Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times. These cutbacks are nothing less than a national tragedy.
Yet I am still hopeful. I’m always willing to try new things to expand the reach of our journalism. We recently launched a Daily 202 Big Idea podcast to summarize the newsletter in five minutes. It goes up by 7 am every weekday, and it’s caught on quickly. They’re getting it via Alexa, Siri, Google Home and other places I haven’t even heard of. Amazingly, the vast majority of listeners don’t even get the email.
James Hohmann is a national political correspondent for the Washington Post.
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