True to form, I was too busy to go to the meeting and missed my own firing yesterday; don't you hate it when that happens? (All my life, my mom has been saying I'd be late to my own funeral, so could we please not tell her she was right?) There were a few other mix-ups, too, with the result that some AOL employees were invited to the Meeting of Death by accident, while others who were supposed to have been on the layoff list were walking around like Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense." Also in error, I mistakenly received some last-minute communications re: the best time to tell an AOL News editor who had cancer surgery yesterday that he needn't hurry back.
My termination became even more anti-climactic after my plane almost crashed at Reagan last night; we got caught in a wind shear and just as we were about to slam into the tarmac, the pilot pulled up violently and we went from horizontal to vertical in a second; I haven't been that scared since, in a mad rush to get home to my family one Friday night in 2000, I jumped into a four-seater with a pilot shouting, "Come on, I think we can beat it" as a storm moved toward Cape Cod. The storm won that one, though when they finally reopened Logan an hour later, the pilot did commend me for having remained so silent as we were being thrown around; even in extremis, one rarely screams the Hail Mary.
Anyway – message received, God! – all of this is by way of explaining why I am mostly feeling so grateful today. Though I have not yet heard exactly when Politics Daily will go dark – by Monday, HuffPosters will be running it on an interim basis – this really was the best ride ever, with a team I was unbelievably fortunate to have been able to pull together. I learned more in the last two years than at any time since the Dallas Morning News
made me their baby night cops reporter. (No, silly, I was not covering baby cops.) And I owe a sincere debt of gratitude to AOL, because like the parents you might not always agree with, without them we would never have been here at all.
Carl Cannon always referred to Politics Daily as "Melinda's third child," and far more than my flesh-and-blood offspring, PD was for good and for ill an awful lot like me – committed perhaps beyond reason to that whole "without fear or favor" thing, and so stubbornly old-school that it didn't even cuss in print.
After former AOLer Marty Moe hired me to build a politics site -- my first day was Obama's Inauguration Day -- he threw me the keys and set me and the small band of writers and editors I hired free to commit journalism. Though it seems so long ago now, the months right after our April '09 launch were as sleep-deprived as my early time as a mom; just as I once watched my infant daughter who'd come home on a heart monitor almost all night long, producer Michael Kraskin and I often worked from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., thrilled every day at the miracle of it all.
My online iteration was quirky for sure; unlike any other political site I'm aware of, our staff of eight included a full-time religion writer, the remarkable David Gibson. And because there's no substitute for (reportorial) boots on the ground, our military writer David Wood went to Afghanistan for us twice. When I hired the force known as Alex Wagner, I was widely assured that I must have lost my mind, handing the White House beat to someone with a background in...human rights? Of course, I mention these unorthodox decisions because they all paid off so well – and to me at least, prove that some of the best decisions do run counter to conventional wisdom.
We were never just for political junkies, but aimed at everyone who cares about the civic life of our country – and were committed to growing the number of people who do care. We defined politics so broadly in the belief that politics properly understood encompasses just about everything. The civil discourse that PD contributor Jeff Weiss dubbed the "Civilogue" offered a rare zone of civility to those put off by the vitriol and name-calling that passes for our national conversation. Of course red meat works, online and off, but we found that there was another, under-served audience of people yearning to kick important ideas around respectfully, with others they may not agree with yet do not view as the enemy. We effectively offered counter-programming, and – this is what I most hope doesn't get lost in the larger story of AOL and the Huffington Post -- our numbers showed it works.
With only eight full-timers and another dozen key contributors, we built a readership of between 8 and 9 million readers (unique visitors) a month, including about 2.5 million external monthly referrals from outside the AOL network. (In other words, our non-AOL traffic was almost on par with the total readership of the much better funded, fully-staffed, and in-the-black Politico.)
As the NYT's David Carr wrote some months ago, "News is the killer app.'' And readers, it turns out, want the same thing they've always wanted – to learn something they didn't know. Without exception, everyone on our team has also told me that this is the best job he or she has ever had, and many have done the best work of their careers.
So yes, I'm incredibly proud of what we achieved, both in terms of our product and our process, and though it was clear long before the merger with the Huffington Post that the PD Way was not the AOL Way, I have nothing to complain about because no editor ever had a freer hand; in two years, no one from corporate ever told me to do or not do anything at all – well, other than making sure I followed through on budget cuts and completed the required course work at "AOL University."
All I've learned in the last two years has actually made me more rather than less optimistic about the future of journalism; though PD didn't survive, quality does work on the Web. I'm even hopeful that I may get to try and put together a new start-up with the old url – a request that I'm told AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is seriously considering, for no reason other than that he'd rather see us live on, too. And whatever he decides, I wish all of my former AOL colleagues only smooth landings.