October 4, 2013

Fourth in a multi-part series

Last month, Politico broke some news about itself. It was purchasing Capital New York, a website that covers politics, culture and media in its namesake city. When it came time to announce the decision, Executive Editor Jim VandeHei managed to find a certain morning show on the cable dial willing to devote a moment or two to the news. In a chat with Willie Geist of “Morning Joe,” VandeHei talked about Politico’s plan to “test a lot of the theories that have worked really well for us in Washington.”

Would Mike Allen and his “Playbook” be among those theories? It stands to reason. At its new prices, “Playbook” rakes in millions of dollars, what with its weekly sponsorship haul plus the premiums that it commands for events. And just how much Politico revenue Allen has facilitated over the years with strategically placed “Playbook” plugs is a matter for the imagination, not to mention the envy of business types at CQ Roll Call, The Hill et alia.

“Playbook’s” portability to New York, however, is another matter. For starters, it siphons cash from the issue-advocacy advertisers who seek a voice in Washington’s monocrop economy, for which there’s no analog in New York. And it runs on the fuel of Mike Allen, a commodity not easily replicated in New York or anywhere else.

Part of Allen’s uniqueness is positive: He works hard, he reads everything, he’s a nice fellow and he’s relentless. His other unique dimension isn’t as flattering: Several folks, including current and former Politico staffers, termed his approach to the trade “transactional,” as his posts on behalf of “Morning Joe” demonstrate. Perhaps they chose that word because author and New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich used it in his bestselling book “This Town“: Washington insiders, writes Leibovich, “love Mikey. The feeling is mutual and transactional. They use him and vice versa (‘love’ and ‘use’ being mutually non-exclusive in Washington).”

“Mikey is more of a pleaser, a delighter, and, perhaps, an enabler,” notes Leibovich.

All those characteristics explain why legacy media outlets can’t match “Playbook.” Even if they could match Allen’s incredible hustle, their reporters would sooner write press releases than mimic “Playbook’s” promotional character. Think of the New York Times: Would a Jackie Calmes or a Michael Barbaro be willing to cite the wonderful “buzz” about a buddy’s book that’s two months away from its release date? For that matter, what non-Allen reporters at Politico itself would be up for it? How would a Maggie Haberman or a Josh Gerstein or an Alex Burns feel about writing that the “buzz among GOP insiders is that ‘The Right Path’ has the potential to galvanize conservatives in the way Barry Goldwater’s ‘Conscience of a Conservative’ did half a century ago”?

As a Politico “theory,” “Playbook” — and the revenues it enables — is a native Washingtonian feast, one that runs on favor-trading, common obsessions and a small group of friends and quasi-enemies. Definitely not movable.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.