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Ron Fournier, Editor of the National Journal: Grilled

”This is a start-up — that’s how I think of it“

The Atlantic Media-owned National Journal went on a hiring tear this summer.

They lured Major Garrett away from Fox News – a major coup; nabbed Michael Hirsch from Newsweek; got Matt Cooper from Time; Beth Reinhard (Miami Herald); Aamer Madhani (USA Today); Yochi Dreazen (Wall Street Journal); Marc Ambinder (The Atlantic); Patricia Wilson (Thomson Reuters); and plenty of others.

The Journal's key hire, though, came in June, when Atlantic Media president Justin Smith and chairman David Bradley convinced Ron Fournier, the Associated Press’ Washington Bureau chief, to lead what would become a beefed up masthead ahead of an extensive relaunch — not unlike the one the Atlantic underwent a few years ago.

TheWrap recently spoke to Fournier about the hiring spree, his editorial vision for the National Journal and his tenure at the AP.

Is there anyone left who hasn’t been hired by the National Journal in the last two months?

What is the strategy behind the aggressive staffing?
Like any editor, we’re looking to hire smart people, whose background lines up with the policy and politics we cover. People who can break news, write smart analysis, and offer deeper and more comprehensive insight. People who can go short and go long. What we did here was combine the newsrooms of Hotline, National Journal and CongressDaily. That will give us between 90 and 100 editorial staffers, when all is said and done. And I have less than a handful more hires to make.

Do you have a date in mind? At what point will the hiring push end?
We plan to launch in late October, and I plan to be finished assembling the staff then. Though, not everybody is going to be in the door. Beth Reinhard, for example, our chief political correspondent — we hired her from the Miami Herald. But she wanted to give them the courtesy of covering the rest of the campaign, and I agreed with her. I wouldn’t want someone to leave us in the middle of the campaign. And Marc Ambinder, even though we’re getting him from our sister publication, is going to cover the election for The Atlantic, then come over here, which will be after we launch.

When you say “launch,” do you mean the National Journal? Are you talking about a relaunch?
Yeah, relaunch is probably a better word for it. We’re going to have a whole new look, new identity, new mission, so I think of it as a launch. This is a start-up. That’s how I think of it. We have a start-up mentality. There’s plenty of money behind it to make sure we do the relaunch right.

Speaking of money, I heard your salary is around a million dollars a year. Is that true?
Holy s—! [Laughs] No, no, this is a labor of love. [Laughs] Put it this way: If that really is my salary, I’m going to have to speak to David Bradley about [getting paid].

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What is the first thing you tell new hires?
Get your ass going.

No seriously.
Seriously. Bottom line: Have a lot of fun and kick butt. During the hiring process, this is what we tell them, and what I told everyone recently. We’re giving you the opportunity and responsibility to think at all altitudes, What I mean by that is, you have the opportunity to break news on a national website, to write smart analysis for a newspaper every week, and go deeper on a national magazine every month, and we even have an almanac where we can go even deeper. Not many media companies can say that. So not only do you have the opportunity to write short, we can tell you to go somewhere, and crack your knuckles and get going.

What is your goal for the National Journal from an editorial perspective?
In a niche world, to carve a space for politics and policy coverage, and bring rich, informed analysis to the market. Bottom line, now, five years from now, I want to say we’ve been doing good journalism.

That, and turning a profit.
I'm not the business guy, but, just so you know, The Atlantic, our sister publication, with James Bennet. That publication has never made money, to my knowledge. Or it hasn’t in a long, long time. And now, after relaunching it [in 2008] and putting a focus on digital, making it relevant, urgent, it looks like they’re going to turn a small profit this year.

Why did you leave the AP?
It wasn’t easy to leave. I had to think a great deal about it, because I worked with a lot of talented people, and I liked the direction they are going in. But this place … I like taking risks. I’m an insanely curious person. And this was an established brand, but with an opportunity to reestablish it. It’s a startup with benefits.

You were credited — and criticized for — ushering in a different tone at the Associated Press. Specifically, allowing reporters to insert their opinions into stories. Having had a few months away, how would you assess your tenure?
Well, first of all, inserting your opinion — that was violently against the AP style. And I was not for that. But what I encouraged, and had always been encouraged before I got there, though I guess I beat the drum a little louder, was to hold leaders accountable, and say it when leaders weren’t being accountable. To write with authority, not behind weasel words like “critics say,” or “opponents say.” If their promise doesn’t stack up with reality, say it. That’s reaching a very informed conclusion, not an opinion. Our mission was to help people, present disparate voices in an intelligent way — which is the same as it is here. I never let an opinion go on the wire.