c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Until last week, Capital New York was an obscure Web publication that covered New York City culture and politics with a handful of staff members. It produced long, thoughtful pieces on topics like the Metropolitan Opera and the finances of the New York Mets and had some media and political scoops, but it also struggled to pay freelancers on time and to get the credit the editors thought they deserved.

Then, on Sept. 8, Capital announced that it had been purchased by Allbritton Communications, the cash-rich media company that owns Politico, which obsessively covers every twitch and shiver of Washington. Overnight, Capital became a curiosity — with resources — and a potentially formidable competitor in the heated coverage of New York media and politics.

Allbritton did not disclose the purchase price, but the company has promised to pump millions into the New York operation to remodel Capital New York after Politico, turning it from a placid general interest site to one that zealously covers narrow slices of the New York world.

“From our end, we will be imposing the business structure,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, who is responsible for bringing Capital into the fold. “Our track record is pretty darn impressive. We know how to go in heavy and put more reporters on a beat than anyone else and break news.”

He added, “In the areas we are going into there are opportunities almost overnight to build very distinctive products that people will pay for.”

Politico is privately held, but it says it successfully earns money from advertising and paid subscriptions for a printed edition of its Web product, and from subscriptions to PoliticoPro, a specialized service that delivers in-depth news, not available on the regular site, on the politics behind topics like health care and energy.

Capital New York will adopt a similar strategy when it introduces its revamped product in November. Later, it will offer subscriptions for something like $99 a month, promising in-depth coverage of state and local politics and media. Eventually it may add products on real estate and culture.

Already the site is gearing up. Politico has given it the green light to increase the staff to roughly 30 from seven; new hires will include about six reporters each to cover state and city government and media executives. Capital is also making use of Politico’s reporters; within days of the purchase Politico’s media reporter, Dylan Byars, was posting news to the Capital site.

Many in the New York media market are skeptical. New York, after all, is not a one-industry town like Washington and it is saturated with media.

Kurt Andersen, who founded Inside.com, which tried to charge for inside information about the media and entertainment industry from 1999 to 2001, knows better than most the perils of the market. “Between the multiple verticals in this city and The New York Times and New York Magazine and The Observer, it is a different game,’’ he said. “It will be tough.’’

Perhaps no one is more amused by Capital’s sudden change in status than the site’s co-founders and primary editors, Josh Benson and Tom McGeveran. They met at The New York Observer, where McGeveran, 41, started as a copy editor and Benson, 40, as an unpaid fact checker. Both rose quickly.


McGeveran’s focus is culture, but he ended up as acting interim editor of the entire publication. Benson vibrates at a more intense frequency and became political editor. They have kept that basic division of labor ever since.

At The Observer, they built a close cadre of fiercely devoted writers and editors like Choire Sicha, founder of The Awl.com and J. Gabriel Boylan, now with BBC America. They also built an easygoing leadership partnership that their friends call the Tom and Jerry show.

“They are the Mutt and Jeff, the Felix and Oscar of journalism,” says Terry Golway, who helped get Benson hired at The Observer and remains so loyal to them that he writes free for Capital. “Tom is soft-spoken, he is more creative and visionary. Josh is a terrific implementer.”

In an interview at a local Irish bar, the two defer to each other naturally. They said they loved The Observer but that budget constraints were frustrating them. When they left The Observer in 2009, they did not even have financial backers. They talked to Politico at the time, but got no firm commitment. Instead they pooled money from family and friends, mostly to pay writers, and started Capital in 2010; eventually they got $1.7 million from an angel investor but even then it did not lead to a luxurious, or even comfortable, existence.

In fact, their 1,800-square-foot headquarters in the garment district is bare bones — just desks, computers, coffee mugs and not a single office — reflecting their egalitarian view. They have only four reporters, so they plan to put the new hires into the current space.


Though they are clear about which topics they will cover, the two are vague on how they might turn Capital into the kind of trade publication that offers news that others might purchase for costly sums. When asked which stories they are proud of, they mention long features on Albanian organized crime or what they called “definitive” histories of neighborhoods. And while Capital has grown in popularity, it is still small, with fewer than a quarter of a million viewers a month, according to their own Google analytics.

They know that must change. “We are going to have to break news in our areas,” Benson says.

One of the mysteries is who will pay $99 a month (or $1,000 a year) for subscriptions to a PoliticoPro-like service, but VandeHei expressed great confidence that his two editors would be able to change Capital into a laser-focused scoop machine that presumably would be alluring to businesses like lobbyists and public relations houses.

Such pronouncements have the critics circling. After all, others have tried to run media operations that charged for inside information (Inside.com) or local politics (Politicker) and failed. And Allbritton itself stumbled when it tried to do city coverage in Washington. That site, TBD, which opened in 2010, was closed two years later.

VandeHei said Politico had nothing to do with that.

Still, Josh Marshall, the founder and editor of Talking Points Memo, a New York-based website that covers politics in New York and Washington, points out: “Capital New York is a very un-Politico-like publication. Its emphasis is on substance and long-form journalism at a relaxed pace. So it sounds like they’d really have to turn it inside out to Politico-ify it.’’

VandeHei said Capital’s niche focus would be crucial to its success.

“It is really hard to be a general interest publication,’’ he said. “Our message is to stay focused on a few topics, and Tom and Josh could not be more in sync.’’