Anyone who has been active in politics since the prediluvian era of the 1990s can probably remember a time when a central event of every weekday was the arrival on the fax machine of The Hotline, once the Daily Bread of the chattering classes.
You can revisit those days–or, if you are younger, discover them–via a long article at Politico by Keach Hagey that examines The Hotline’s past, present and future in some detail. It certainly does bring back memories:
Howard Mortman, a former columnist and editor at The Hotline, remembers the first time he saw the process — a blinking frenzy of subscribers dialing in by modem, one by one, to get their pre-lunch politics fix.
“We would publish at 11:30, and you could go downstairs and see the lights flicker as people downloaded The Hotline from the telephone bulletin board,” he said. “At that time, in 1995, that was cutting-edge technology.”
Today, The Hotline is still putting out its exhaustive aggregation of cleverly titled political tidbits at 11:30 a.m., though subscribers hit a refresh button instead of a fax number to get it. But the sense of cutting-edge technology and unique content is gone, eclipsed by an exponentially expanding universe of political websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, Google alerts and mobile apps that offer much of what a $15,000 annual office membership to The Hotline offers — but faster and for free.
In effect, Hotline was the first “aggregator,” and as a result was an exceptionally efficient and even cost-effective way to obtain political news at a time when clipping services were the main alternative. And for all of The Hotline‘s gossipy Washington insider attitudes, it did cover campaigns exhaustively, from coast to coast, in a way that was virtually unique at the time.
If you are interested in the process whereby The Hotline has struggled to survive in the online era, or in the cast of media celebrities who got their start there, check out the entire article, with the appropriate grain of salt in recognition of the fact that Politico views itself as a successor institution.
The takeaway for me, though, is the reminder that for all the maddening things about blogs and online political coverage generally, it’s really remarkable how much is now available to anyone, for free, 24-7–material that is shared by the DC commentariat and, well, anybody who cares to use it. In The Hotline’s heyday, its subscribers (concentrated in Washington but scattered around the country) really did represent a separate class with specialized access to information that created and sustained a distinct culture.
If you have money to burn, there are still paywalls you can climb to secure a privileged perch from which to observe American politics, just as you can obviously learn things living and working in Washington or frequenting its real or virtual watering holes that wouldn’t be obvious to others. But we have come a long way. And it’s actually wonderful that the entire hep political world no longer comes to a stop shortly before noon, in some sort of secular Hour of Prayer, in anticipation of The Word rolling off the fax machine.