Those Allbrittons Know How to Make Money

By Jack Limpert

Here are some of today’s tweets about a tough story by the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple about how Politico, the DC-based newspaper and website owned by Robert Allbritton, appears to be making big money by mixing plugs for advertisers into the influential “Playbook” column written by Mike Allen:

david carr ‏@carr2n4m
Politico’s Mike Allen, native advertising pioneer @erikwemple hard look at Politico’s pay to Playbook.

Jay Rosen ‏@jayrosen_nyu52m
An important investigation by @ErikWemple of Politico’s ‘Playbook’ At issue: what is an ad and what is news?

Jonathan Chait ‏@jonathanchait1h
Devastating expose of @mikeallen. He has to be the most ethically compromised political journalist, by a mile.

Some background on Robert Allbritton, starting with his father Joe.
Joe Allbritton was a Texan who made his early money in S&Ls and funeral homes He came to Washington in 1974, buying the Washington Star and WMAL, a local television station owned by the Star. Four years later Joe sold the Star, a struggling  afternoon paper, to Time Inc., keeping the TV station. Estimates back then had Allbritton getting the TV station, an ABC affiliate, for almost nothing after selling the Star to Time Inc., which folded it in 1981. Allbritton then changed WMAL’s call letters to WJLA (his initials were JLA) and expanded his television holdings to other markets.

In 1982 Joe bought Riggs Bank, which called itself “The Most Important Bank in the Most Important City in the World.” In 2005 he sold Riggs to PNC Financial Services. See this Washington Post obit on Joe Allbritton for a window on his ownership of Riggs.

After Joe Allbritton died in December 2012, his son Robert sold the Allbritton TV stations for $980 million. Robert, who’d been in kindergarten when Joe bought the Star and its TV station in 1974, had worked with his father at Riggs Bank and WJLA-TV. In 2007 Robert started Politico, which began as a small tabloid paper covering Capitol Hill. Politico’s staff and its website grew quickly in the offices it shared with WJLA-TV in Rosslyn, a high-rise business and residential area across the Potomac River in Virginia.

Two months ago Robert Allbritton announced that Politico would expand to New York City. See Robert Allbritton’s letter to the staff about Politico’s invasion of New York. Also see Erik Wemple’s post, also from today, about the role that Mike Allen will play in the New York version Politico.

(In the sometimes small world of Washington media, the Post’s Erik Wemple once worked for Robert Allbritton at a Politico website called Allbritton’s two key editors at Politico, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, both were at the Washington Post before quitting to start Politico. David Carr, who tweeted today about the Wemple story, is, along with Wemple, a former editor of the Washington City Paper.)
Personal notes: I ran into Joe fairly often in the 1980s and ’90s—he and his wife, Barbara, were active socially. I once was seated next to him at a dinner and wondered if he’d bring up some of the things The Washingtonian had said about him. It turned out we talked for an hour about the books he liked—he was well-read and it was a friendly, interesting conversation.

I once asked him about whether he might buy a Washington sports team. He said that while living in Houston he had visited the Houston Astros locker room with Judge Roy Hofheinz, a friend of his who owned the Astros, and he said he had decided then that he’d never pay a lot of money “for a locker room full of jock straps.”

I knew some of the people who worked for him at Riggs Bank and their favorite Joe story came from a meeting at which the bank’s top officials were discussing various transactions. Someone suggested the bank waive a clause in an agreement to help a borrower. Joe said, “The only thing we wave is the American flag.”

In 2003 Robert Allbritton invited several local media types to the WJLA-TV offices to meet Leon Harris, a high-profile anchor the station had hired from CNN in Atlanta. I sat next to Harris and at one point we talked about Jim Vance, the longtime anchor at WRC-TV. Harris said it looked to him like Vance was tired—he said it looked like Jim “was mailing it in.” I put Harris’s comment about Vance in the next issue of The Washingtonian and I quickly got a call from Robert, telling me that the luncheon had been off the record and I had no business publishing the mailing-it-in quote. I told him nobody had said anything to me about it being off the record. It was a short, unfriendly conversation, the last we had.


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