Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris, left, and CEO Jim VandeHei. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris, left, and CEO Jim VandeHei. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The firing of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has stirred a great deal of discussion — on television, on Twitter, everywhere. Including, it appears, inside the inner sancta of Rosslyn-based Politico.

In a memo to staff this evening, Politico CEO Jim VandeHei delivered an odd set of messages to accompany the news from New York. He cited the aggressive work of media reporter Dylan Byers on the Abramson story, along with the first-person account of Politico Magazine’s Susan Glasser, who wrote of her travails as the top editor for national news at The Washington Post. And VandeHei spoke of the meritocracy at Politico: Staffer “Laura McGann wrote me over the weekend, urging me to make clear now and always that this place is a meritocracy, in which pay and power and status are based on one thing: demonstrated performance. She put it brilliantly: ‘POLITICO is a website. It’s a place in Rosslyn. And it’s something much more: It’s an idea. If you work hard, kick ass and get results, you’ll be rewarded. Period.’ She’s right.”

Given the spotlight that the Abramson saga has shone on the gender mix in American newsrooms, VandeHei used the moment to make an admirable admission about Politico’s past: “Not long ago, we were a young publication that was not meeting our own standards for getting our most talented women in top positions. Thanks most of all to the skill and efforts of those women, we now have women in key positions of leadership across the newsroom and business.” In an interview with Elle magazine, COO Kim Kingsley said of her time at the website: “Early on, the men would have impromptu meetings behind closed doors to talk about the future. … I always looked at those rooms and wanted a seat at the table. After a while, I just started opening the door, walking in, and sitting at the table.”

A year ago, the Erik Wemple Blog wrote about Politico’s gender issues and inventoried complaints from several women who’d had difficulty with the culture. VandeHei declined to comment for that piece. His claim that Politico has turned the corner on gender equality jibes with feedback that we’ve heard from others in and around Politico.

Why did this memo surface tonight? According to sources, Politico staff convened Friday for a session of what’s called “Politico University” — essentially in-house training for staffers. The session turned into a debate regarding the Abramson events, particularly over whether Abramson’s downfall was her own doing or whether it was connected to larger gender issues. Things got heated. “It was clearly awkward,” said one source.

VandeHei: “Everyone, especially those who attended Friday’s Politico University session, should know the leadership’s view on how we should handle this story and issues that flow from it going forward. We want our emphasis to be on the reporting in the days ahead, not our individual opinions or theories of what went down at the Times. All of us bring great passion to this topic. Many women have shared with me their own stories of workplace trials and instances of gender bias in previous jobs. We need to be careful when opining on the gender dimensions of this story.”

The full memo:

Politico staff,

I want to share a few, quick thoughts on the controversial dismissal of the New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson this past week. The story is not about Politico. It should remain that way. But it does bring to the surface many issues relevant to all of us in the news industry. We shouldn’t duck tough issues. We never do.

I am proud of our journalism on this complicated story, from Dylan Byers’ reporting under the guidance of Rachel Smolkin and others, to Susan Glasser’s courageous, first-person account of her trials as a female editor at the top. We discussed internally whether to have a top news editor share her personal take on this matter, and felt Susan’s experience was so powerful and relevant that our readers should hear it.

Everyone, especially those who attended Friday’s Politico University session, should know the leadership’s view on how we should handle this story and issues that flow from it going forward. We want our emphasis to be on the reporting in the days ahead, not our individual opinions or theories of what went down at the Times. All of us bring great passion to this topic. Many women have shared with me their own stories of workplace trials and instances of gender bias in previous jobs. We need to be careful when opining on the gender dimensions of this story.

The entire leadership of this company is also united on this point: we are proud of the progress we have made as a company in putting strong women in many of our top positions. Not long ago, we were a young publication that was not meeting our own standards for getting our most talented women in top positions. Thanks most of all to the skill and efforts of those women, we now have women in key positions of leadership across the newsroom and business. I believe Politico is a success today because we have strong and direct women and men in every position of power in our growing company. If ever you feel differently, you should bring your concerns or questions to me or any one of our leaders.

Laura McGann wrote me over the weekend, urging me to make clear now and always that this place is a meritocracy, in which pay and power and status are based on one thing: demonstrated performance. She put it brilliantly: “POLITICO is a website. It’s a place in Rosslyn. And it’s something much more: It’s an idea. If you work hard, kick ass and get results, you’ll be rewarded. Period.” She’s right.

Once this NYT story passes, we will find time to gather again as a staff to reinforce what it takes to, to quote Laura again, “kick ass” at Politico.

Thanks for all you do…

Jim

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