It was 1976, a presidential election year, and 12-year-old John Harris of Pittsford carried a Democrat and Chronicle newspaper route.
“I would love getting the papers early,” he recalls. “They’d show up at 5:30 in the morning and by six I’d be on the route—first by bike, then on foot—and I’d just soak up the news of the primary: Jimmy Carter’s march to the nomination, then Jerry Brown’s late entry in the race. For some reason, I found it all fascinating.”
So fascinating that 31 years later, Harris and a colleague created from scratch a new publication specializing in national politics: Politico. Today, Politico’s more than 650 employees in both the United States and Europe produce and distribute political news across multiple platforms: websites, printed newspapers, television, radio, and podcasts.
Recently, I spoke with Harris about his school days in Pittsford, his concern for the future of journalism—including in Rochester—and what he enjoys doing when he visits his hometown.
But first, some background on this successful former newsboy from Pittsford.
Harris’ late father, Carl Harris, was an orthopedic surgeon at the former Genesee Hospital and later at Strong Hospital. His mother, Nancy Hamlin, has long been active in the community, serving on the Pittsford school board and the board of WXXI, and active now with the Rochester chapter of World Affairs Council.
After graduating from Pittsford Sutherland High School in 1981, Harris attended Carleton College in Minnesota, where he majored in American history. It was during his freshman year that he “stumbled” into journalism. “A friend worked for the student newspaper,” Harris has written, “and asked me to write a couple of articles. I did, and the effect was instantaneous. Suddenly, I was certain what I wanted to do in life.”
Between his sophomore and junior years at Carleton College, Harris worked as an intern at what was then Rochester’s daily afternoon paper, the Times-Union.
“It was rigorous practice for writing on deadline,” he recalls. “We had an 8:30 a.m. deadline, a 9:30 a.m. deadline, right through to the early afternoon. You had to move quickly.”
In June 1985—on the Monday after his Saturday graduation from Carleton—Harris began an internship at the Washington Post. After that summer, Post editors invited him to stay on, and for the next 21 years he covered D.C. politics, Virginia state politics, and then national politics including the Clinton White House. He also authored two books: “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House,” and, with Mark Halperin, “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008.”
Eventually, Harris and fellow Post reporter Jim VandeHei conceived a new kind of publication: one that would publish a large volume of timely political stories, emphasize scoops, and adapt traditional political reporting for the digital age. In January 2007, in collaboration with publisher Robert Allbritton, Harris and VanderHei launched Politico (originally called The Politico).
Since its launch, Politico has become one of the country’s most-visited news sites: In 2018, it reported 26 million monthly unique visitors to the U.S. website and more than 1.5 million unique visitors on average to the European site. The publication has been named as one of America’s most innovative companies, and Harris himself has been listed among the most influential people in Washington.
Harris is married to Ann O’Hanlon. Though she is originally from Canandaigua, O’Hanlon and Harris met when both worked at the Post. Her career in journalism and political communication included serving until recently as chief of staff to Rep. Donald Beyer Jr. (D-Va), who represents the district where the couple and their three children—Liza, Griffin, and Nikki—live in Alexandria, Va.
Now 56, Harris recently stepped down as Politico’s editor-in-chief, but he continues to follow and write about national politics. He keeps an office just off Politico’s vast, open newsroom that is located in a modern office building in Rosslyn, Va., with views across the Potomac of the National Mall.
I sat down with Harris in his office on the day after the Washington Nationals won the World Series by beating the Houston Astros in a climactic, late-night seventh game.
JOHN HARRIS: Sorry for yawning. I was up with the baseball game last night and had to be up again early this morning.
ROCHESTER BEACON: When I see people walking around in Nats jerseys and hats with that big, red italicized “W,” I still register it as Wegmans. Do you?
HARRIS: (laughs) Didn’t they have a trademark thing where they had to change curlicues or something because it looks so close to the Wegmans “W”?
(In fact, the trademark dispute was between the Washington Nationals and Walgreens, not Wegmans. Walgreens also uses a curly W as its logo.)
ROCHESTER BEACON: I do recall something about that. Anyway, growing up in Rochester, where’d you live?
HARRIS: Earlier, when we were living just off East Avenue and I attended Allen Creek Elementary, I remember I used to walk home from school and cut through Bob Wegman’s yard—my friends and I would walk home or ride our bikes across his lawn. He lived in a house adjacent to Oak Hill Country Club and didn’t seem to object.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What kind of student were you at Sutherland?
HARRIS: Not a good student—I didn’t do the work until the night before so it was always a kind of a drama. But I was fortunate to have some sympathetic and very fine teachers, two in particular who are both still living: Brian Bell, he taught AP History, and Debbie Doyle. These were very important people who appreciated that I could write well and was interested in public affairs and politics, but they thought—accurately—that I wasn’t applying myself.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, you were interested in politics even then?
HARRIS: I was. I think I was weird in that sense, but I followed politics pretty closely. I followed the ’72 presidential election (when Harris was 9 years old). My views were all derivative of other people’s then—my parents were at that time Republicans, so I was a Nixon supporter.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Did you work on the high school paper?
HARRIS: No, my interest in politics preceded my interest in journalism, and that didn’t come until I was away in college.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any other activities in high school?
HARRIS: I played football and lacrosse—was pretty mediocre—but I enjoyed it with my friends.
ROCHESTER BEACON: The story of how you and Jim VandeHei started Politico has often been told, but I want to ask you a different question about that: How did you manage to start Politico and also, at the same time, raise three kids and sustain a healthy marriage?
HARRIS: Well, we all have seasons in our lives when we just walk around sleep-deprived and put one damn foot in front of the other. That’s how I recall maybe five years where we had young children and then we had this other child—Politico. You just do it; you’re just groggy. For a couple of years when we launched, my wife was out of the workforce and she worked very hard to keep all the plates up in the air without crashing. She’s a keen observer of journalism and people so her voice was important to the launch. She’s a co-founder of the place and I’m very appreciative of her having done that.
But I did think of Politico as a kid, and just as with other kids you might have squalling at two in the morning, or diapers, or doctor appointments—there’s always something, but if you care, you do it. The group of us who started Politico, we really did care. We were having fun, it was hard work, but we felt it was worthwhile.
ROCHESTER BEACON: After all that hard work it must feel good to look out at all the people working in this newsroom, at this thing you created.
HARRIS: It does! I’m proud of an idea we had that really took life, and once an idea takes life it moves in all kinds of directions. These days, I take it as a sign of success that we’re gradually handing over responsibilities to run the place. I still share some of the stewardship, but the day-to-day worrying about the kid—other people do that now. Now my title is founding editor. I don’t know what that means; it’s an honorific, I suppose. But I hope it signals that I’m still very much a part of the place. I’m writing now more than I have in years and I’m loving it.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What are some things you’ll be keeping busy with?
HARRIS: Well, your rather perceptive question about kids and managing time reminds me that when we were creating Politico, I had to be thinking internally about what this place needs—hiring, performance, employee relations, etc. I enjoyed doing that, but it came at the expense of thinking externally, but now it’s a terrific feeling for me to get back to thinking externally about the world at this interesting moment: How’s this Trump impeachment like the Clinton impeachment? Who are the most interesting voices in politics saying new, original things? Who’s the person who’s 35 right now that I think is going to be a real force in national life when she’s 45 or 55? I’ll be starting a weekly column soon.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Are you also thinking about the future of journalism, including at the local level?
HARRIS: I’m interested in it and I think any person who is a responsible citizen should be interested in it. Somebody’s got to be covering the machinations of power—government power, business power. My temperament allows me to be optimistic because the alternative to robust journalism at the local level is unthinkable, really unattractive. It is challenging, though, and I don’t think you can be Pollyannaish about it.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Are there business models for local journalism today that work especially well?
HARRIS: What model works for local journalism is an open question. There are certain models that will work in certain sectors, and others that won’t. At Politico we found a model that works in this environment—the national capital—but it’s not necessarily replicable at the local level because there are certain places where it’s just harder to do investigative news, it’s harder to do foreign news, etc. That we’ve had success in Washington doesn’t necessarily translate to Rochester or other locations, so a different model needs to work there.
But there are principles that are pretty enduring about quality journalism: You have to create a platform for which you can demand a premium for the content you’re doing. Just news as commodity doesn’t work. It’s not a mass audience you’re offering, but a very well-defined, specialized, engaged and attractive audience so you can charge a premium to an advertiser to have a relationship with your readers. The other way is to say to the reader that our content is so valuable that you’ll be glad to pay for it.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, there’s no one answer to what works well at the local level?
HARRIS: No, there’s likely no crack-the-code, sort of shazam answer to that, just lots of different experiments in innovation. Some work and some don’t. There are models like the Rochester Beacon. It isn’t trying to update an old platform that goes back a century or more but is trying to start something brand new, so I’m interested in that model.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Looking at the national scene and the upcoming election year, and predictions?
HARRIS: I have a self-imposed ban on predictions based on my faulty record. I didn’t see the 2016 results coming—not many of my colleagues did—and I think for a while we’ve lost our license to predict. Over beer I may predict, but not in any professional sense. Anyway, it’s challenging enough just to figure out what’s going on in the news and put it into context.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you get back to Rochester much?
HARRIS: I do. My mother and stepmother live there, my mother-in-law is in Canandaigua, and I enjoy getting together with high school friends. Rochester was a good place to grow up and I notice that for my friends who stayed that it’s a good place to raise a family.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You don’t have any Rochester accent; you sound more Mid-Western.
HARRIS: I know. I think they beat it out of me.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Who beat it out of you?
HARRIS: Well, I’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic states for most of my life; that’ll do it. I don’t feel bad about not having a Rochester accent.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any particular place you like to go when you’re in town?
HARRIS: The places I used to go to grab a beer have all changed so I just take other people’s recommendations about where to go. And I sometimes have someone who gives me privileges to play golf at CCR (Country Club of Rochester) and I’ve also got a friend who belongs to Monroe Country Club out in Pittsford.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You’re an avid golfer?
HARRIS: One of uneven performance. I like to play, but I’m erratic. Rochester’s a good place to play, though. Donald Ross was a great golf designer and built a lot of the courses up there. For a while I was growing up across the street from Irondequoit Country Club—a Donald Ross course—and when I was a much younger kid we backed up to the second hole at Oak Hill, so for me it wasn’t like this legendary course, it was just a place we’d go sledding—back when there was snow.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Looking back, what does it mean to you to have come from Rochester?
HARRIS: I’m proud of my Rochester connection and because of family I’m never far away from Rochester or the Finger Lakes. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize what a rich history Western New York has in the life of the nation—when you look at people like Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and George Eastman, and how they lived in and around the same neighborhoods that I know so well. And even though I haven’t lived there for many years, I still consider Rochester an important part of my life.
Peter Lovenheim is Rochester Beacon Washington correspondent. You can reach him at [email protected].
Thank you for this interview. There was a time in my career when I thought investigative reporters were simply trying to find dirt where there isn’t any. Then I met . . . I think his name was Ed White, from channel 13 (back in the 80’s). I worked for the County at the airport and Ed was responding to complaints about the public restrooms. Ed asked tough questions, but never made me feel “caught”. Was he effective? Yes. Not long after the interview we were successful in funding a restroom renovation project that was very much needed.
In today’s environment, we really need more investigative reporting. Too few people are available to be watchdogs for the general public and too much is left under the carpet that should be made known. Thanks to Mr. Harris for his work.