November 14, 2013
cim_cover_launch

Page 1 of the new Politico Magazine presents a photo of the staff picking the publication’s first cover.

They erred.

As depicted above, that cover is mostly black space with a bright keyhole in its center. It promotes Glenn Thrush’s story “Locked in the Cabinet,” a story about how the Obama White House has marginalized agency heads. When the Erik Wemple Blog first glimpsed the presentation, we thought it was a light bulb on the cover of Politico Magazine. “[T]o me it’s just boring,” emails magazine design guru Robert Newman.

“These days if you’re going to do a magazine, you’ve got to make an effort to make news with the cover (see the Time cover of Chris Christie last week for a prime example),” continues Newman. “It’s not enough to just throw a story on the cover with what looks like a generic stock photo image and a headline that doesn’t explain or provoke.”

John Harris, the editor-in-chief of Politico, didn’t offer the most direct of answers when asked if the magazine would seek to upend common sensibilities with cover presentations along the lines of Time, the New Yorker and Bloomberg Businessweek. “This is a work in progress,” says Harris, noting that the design and writing in the magazine will be freer than in other Politico platforms, but that it’s not “liberated from the responsibilities” of the larger enterprise.

What Harris might have said is that Politico Magazine is a product of the Washington magazine industry, such as it is, not the New York magazine industry. Yet wherever it comes from, the rookie Politico Magazine presents serious reporting and writing presented in an elegant format, an exciting addition to an industry (journalism) where too many outlets are shrinking, not birthing massive and ambitious new projects.

Start with the journalism. Thrush’s story about Obama’s Cabinet secretaries, says Harris, is “among the most ambitious pieces that we’ve ever had in our publication.” No argument there. It starts at a sprint, recounting an incident in which Steven Chu, Obama’s former secretary of energy, angered his White House handlers with some off-message remarks. He was in Trinidad & Tobago and made some comments about how the island country could go underwater. “What were you thinking?” a White House adviser later scolded Chu. Any magazine in the country would have jumped at the anecdote.

The other big piece in the magazine drills in on Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, turned in by Politico Magazine senior writer Jason Zengerle. The piece sets out to explain how the 71-year-old senator from Kentucky shifted his politics along with the state’s political mood, as a way of explaining “America’s political gridlock.” Here, again, the magazine combines reporting, analysis and something not often prized at the Rosslyn-based shop — lots and lots of words.

The magazine also presents something of an oral history of the government shutdown, written by the talented Robert Draper. The Erik Wemple Blog, however, simply cannot face down another look back on the shutdown, didn’t read it and is therefore unqualified to judge it.

Perhaps most refreshing about Politico Magazine is what it lacks, most notably the standard-issue “front of the book” blurbs and squibs and short features. They take a staff forever to conceptualize and produce, with impact that rarely matches the investment. Who’s to say a magazine reader needs a warm up before reading a towering piece on Mitch McConnell, anyway? Susan B. Glasser, the magazine’s top editor, “definitely decided not to do a traditional front of the book,” says Harris, who did note that the magazine’s web incarnation will deliver lots of short stuff.

The latter half of the debut Politico Magazine consists of a curious trio of quasi-special reports, on the “Great American City Boom,” the “Great American Energy Boom” and the “Great American Robot Boom.” The three prongs are a bit awkwardly cemented together, though it’s not hard to find good reading in this package. Especially a piece by Micah Zenko titled “What Happens When Other Countries Start Droning?”

The long and meaty paragraphs found in just about all of these pieces signal something about Politico Magazine: Its unifying trait is content that you’d have real trouble finding elsewhere at Politico. Differentiation is achieved, in other words. While the rest of the organization pushes its news updates and stories, Politico Magazine is taking its time.

That approach rolls into the business side, too. Harris says that the best magazine stories stick with a reader for decades. Advertisers want to latch onto that dynamic, too. “There’s lots of advertisers who are looking forward to making a big statement, to create a sense of moment around a particular message,” he says.

Among the advertisers who sought a “sense of moment” in the first issue of Politico Magazine are Bank of America, Raytheon and various issue advocacy groups like the Patent Troll Campaign, the Innovation Movement and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Brand-name stuff is also in there, including ads from Ford, Coca-Cola and Mars chocolate. One industry source says Politico is seeking a more upmarket advertiser for Politico Magazine, along the lines of cars, airlines, vodkas and watches. Harris didn’t immediately return a follow-up question regarding the ideal Politico Magazine advertiser.

Whoever underwrites the thing, Politico Magazine accomplishes an odd achievement for its parent company: It may well be the first product to come out of Politico that’s not suited for consumption on your phone.

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