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The Weird, Desperate World of Washington Post TV

It’s 2:06 pm on a Tuesday and Capitol Hill reporter Paul Kane is reporting from the Capitol building atrium for The Washington Post’s PostTV. Eyes panicked, Kane looks a bit like he has been kidnapped from his desk and pushed in front of the camera. He clutches his notepad like an awkward stage prop. “Here’s a fun, random fact for you,” he says with all the screen presence of a graphing calculator. “Did you know that Steve Lynch of Massachusetts began his career as an iron worker, part of a career that would make him a union-friendly lawmaker for life?”

It’s a typical segment for PostTV, which is one of The Washington Post’s biggest expansion investments in the last decade and the latest entrant into the crowded marketplace of newsroom TV. The video channel is an attempt, Post president and general manager Stephen Hills told The Huffington Post in July, “to be the ESPN of politics, to be built for the web.” It’s also more concretely intended to expand the organization’s online audience and reel in video advertisers. In a sad stroke of irony, PostTV’s first big “get” was evidence of the importance of this goal: Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham sat for an interview moments after announcing the impending sale of the cash-strapped newspaper to Amazon chief Jeff Bezos.

Watching a reporter interview Graham, D.C. mug at his fingertips, made it all seem like straightforward behind-the-scenes-at-the-newsroom fare. But spend a few hours watching PostTV, and a different picture emerges. The production is often sleek, but the fidgety miscellaneousness of the programming, the sense of an organization trying on new identities and casting them off before our eyes, says a lot about the current state of the Post. It’s a strange little window into an old school newspaper’s wild bid for new eyeballs.

First there’s “In Play,” which, according to a press release, offers “personality-based segments about the politics of politics” that aim to “cut through the noise” and provide an “unfiltered, informative take on Washington.” Hosts include political reporter Chris Cillizza and one Post newcomer, Jackie Kucinich, hired away from USA Today to work exclusively on video at the Post. Cillizza is best known as the man behind The Fix, a blog of dumbed-down conventional D.C. wisdom that treats politics as a game. What happens when these two intrepid televisual Posties cut through the noise? Well, here’s a typical exchange, from a bit about politicians supporting college football.

Cillizza: “I should tweet out some pictures of my days from the Georgetown football team.”

Kucinich: “Oh yeah? What’d you play?”

Cillizza: “Left out.”

Kucinich: “OHHH! That just happened!”

Cillizza: “Walked right into it!”

Cillizza is the poster boy of PostTV. He drops phrases like “willy nilly.” He owns an unreasonable number of plaid shirts. “It’s tiiiime for the highlight reel!” he declares in a recent bit, as he and Kucinich proceed to list the most fascinating recent events in Washington. “One hundred seconds on the clock!” he calls out, as a timer ticks down to zero, past such bombshells as “Defunding Obamacare in August’s Kaiser tracking poll” and “A bill to expand Medicaid narrowly passed Michigan legislature.” This is what happens when a newspaper decides to look around its newsroom for camera-ready characters.

“It’s time to find out who had the worst week in Washington, sent to us via the Twitters!” he announces one Friday afternoon (shirt: blue plaid) as a brightly colored wheel plastered with the faces of Anthony Weiner, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell, among others, starts spinning. Cory Booker wins, with a carnival-game ding ding ding. “Here are our five memorable DC political moments of the summer!” Cillizza says in another segment, during a countdown that includes such curveballs as DOMA being stuck down and Obama’s remarks on Trayvon Martin.

“On Background,” the PostTV interview show that launched this summer, is more serious-minded by comparison. Which does not always translate into edifying television. “Hip hop is now so mainstream that first lady Michelle Obama is using it to sing the praises of vegetables—yes, vegetables,” the anchor, political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, says one afternoon, apparently targeting that remaining sliver of the American public that is unaware of the first lady’s pro-vegetable stance. For a segment about the intern economy, one guest gets the moniker “DC INTERN.” The first prompt lobbed in her direction is “So, you’ve been an intern.” 

But you can’t dismiss PostTV as an amateur-hour investment. The Post directory cites 42 full-time employees working in the newspaper’s video division. The PostTV app is available on mobile devices and can be streamed on Google TV, and has promised to expand to more platforms in the near future. It currently totals over thirty hours of airtime per month. And it has stirred up some confusion within the newsroom. “I have zero clue why it exists or what the point is, and would honestly love to know,” one employee, who asked not to be identified so as to avoid offending the Post powers-that-be, told me. “From our end,” said another, “we’re a little mystified as to what the plan is.”

It should be said that plenty of PostTV is clear-cut newsroom segments featuring reporters and columnists commenting on the news, i.e. Post journalists weighing in usefully on the administration’s handling of Syria. But the birth of PostTV is the story of every old-school newspaper scrambling to diversify, locked in a kind of multimedia arms race. PostTV is up against video powerhouses at other major publications. USA Today has a news analysis show called USA NOW that produces reports like “How hip is hula hooping?” alongside interviews with USA TODAY editors about foreign affairs. The New York Times’ online edition features documentary-like reporting along with tete a tetes among its critics, such as David Carr and A.O. Scott on arts and culture. The Wall Street Journal was an early adopter in the video game, and its programming, available on various platforms including Yahoo! and Samsung, is an instructive deep dive into current events—for instance, a media reporter unpacking the CBS Time Warner deal or the health and science editor explaining the new math of healthcare. It also makes no attempt to jazz up its basic knowledgeableness. “Lacking big hair and big personalities, the video operation is consciously unlike television,” wrote the Times of WSJ Live in 2011.

The main lesson of PostTV may be that making television is harder than it looks. It’s the sort of thing true-blue ink-stained newspaper types hate to acknowledge: Putting on a television show involves a specific skillset—you can't conjure that TV intangible called personality out of thin air. In other words, you can’t just drag a reporter out of a newsroom and turn him into a “personality.” That’s as true for Pulitzer-laden veterans as it is for staff writers with less serious demeanors. Like, say, Cillizza, the ambassador of PostTV’s brand of wonky uncool.

Consider one recent segment, where Cillizza (shirt: pink plaid) takes to the anchor desk to report that former Nevada senator John Ensign, felled by a sex scandal in 2011, is currently opening up his own animal hospital. The camera cuts to a photo of Ensign brandishing a dog beside a posse of female veterinary assistants. A tale of cute animals and personal redemption: It's pretty familiar fare to anyone who's ever watched local TV news in a midmarket American metropolis. But is the "Live at Five" schtick off-brand for an organization whose great skill involves decoding the most powerful city on Earth? If so, Cillizza doesn't betray it. This, Cillizza declares happily, is “the best thing we’ve seen all day!”