In the political world RealClearPolitics and its sister sites are indispensable resources for anyone who keeps an eye on the news. The site is known for its polling averages and in election cycles is referenced by every major news outlet covering the race. But the bread and butter of the site — and the part most recognizable — is the homepage. Twice a day, everyday, the site is updated with news and commentary from noteworthy media outlets, regardless of partisan tilt.
Tom Bevan co-founded the website in 2000 with John McIntyre in Chicago. Although their offices are now based in Washington, D.C., and their in-house writers are usually veterans of the East Coast media, Tom continues to live, work, and publish the site from the Midwest. In this interview Tom speaks about how he settled in Chicago, how living outside the East Coast media bubble helps the website, and what he sees as the largest challenges facing media companies today.
Tell me a little about your background. How did you find your way to Chicago, and what keeps you attracted to the city?
I found my way to Chicago by accident. I moved back to Seattle after graduating from Princeton, unsure of what I wanted to do. After a couple of months I decided that I would head back to the East Coast. My college roommate, James Lowry, was a New Trier grad and had moved back to Chicago after graduation. I was driving through town, planning to crash on his couch for the weekend, and never left.
RealClearPolitics was launched in 2000 when the commercial Internet was still in its infancy. Where did the interest in politics come from originally, and what drove you to create RealClearPolitics 18 years ago?
I was basically apolitical through college, and got bit by the bug after graduation. The Co-Founder of RCP, John McIntyre, had been a political junkie for years, and when he arrived in Chicago in 1993 to trade at the CBOE [Chicago Board Options Exchange], we had this shared passion for politics and elections. As you point out, the internet was still in its infancy, but by the late 1990s we realized you could read online what was being written in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times on the same day. That was our "aha" moment, which spurred the idea of a site that would gather up all the best news, commentary and analysis of politics and elections for junkies like us.
Does living outside Washington, D.C. and New York City influence the way you view the news? Does it influence the direction of the website?
Part of our DNA, which is reflected in our name, is that we always strive to provide a view that is outside of the Washington-New York media/political bubble. Yes, we still use plenty of mainstream media sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but we try to combine those pieces from other sources with ideological and geographical diversity for readers to have a more complete picture of how an issue is being discussed or viewed.
How have you seen RealClearPolitics evolve over time? Or has it mostly stayed the same while undergoing website updates?
We've certainly evolved along with technology, but the core of what we do has stayed the same: provide readers with the best, most comprehensive curation of must-read political content - articles, poll numbers, video clips, etc. - on a daily basis. That part won't change, because it's what sets us apart in a very crowded marketplace.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing media companies today?
The biggest and most fundamental challenge facing media companies today is the same one that they/we have faced for years: how do we effectively monetize content? As a digital only operation that is a hybrid aggregator/publisher with a relatively small staff, we've been in a much better position to manage solving that problem. For many bigger legacy media operations, finding an answer to that question was/remains an existential threat.
What advice would you give to aspiring political journalists?
Whenever I speak to young aspiring journalists I always say it's the best of times and the worst of times. On one hand, they're entering a profession that continues to undergo massive creative destruction - to put it kindly. On the other hand, journalists used to spend decades toiling away hoping to one day cover a presidential race. It was considered the capstone of a career in the business. Now, media organizations hand iPhones to kids right out of college and put them on the trail. That is just one example of the tremendous opportunity that exists in journalism right now. My advice is this: it's a crowded, loud space. Find a niche and fill it to the best of your ability with interesting stories driven by people and facts. Compelling content will always find an audience.
Thumbnail image via Liz Lynch Photography (no relation to the author)