Jim VandeHei has served as Politico’s executive editor for the publication’s entire six-and-a-half-year history. In a close partnership with Editor in Chief John Harris, VandeHei set the tempo for Politico: 100 m.p.h., that is, and 24-7. Politico’s leaders took their places in their Rosslyn headquarters in 2007 thinking that Beltway media didn’t do enough, didn’t crank out enough stories. And in pushing this vision, VandeHei lived it, blasting his famous e-mails at editors and reporters long before sunup.
Earlier this month, Politico’s newsroom lost its metronome. The site announced that VandeHei would be moving up to a position as chief executive officer of Politico and Capital New York, a site the company acquired in September. That means VandeHei will obsess over business stuff, not so much the news stuff. “I will miss engaging our brilliant journalists in discussions about stories and ideas. But, I want to direct my attention to growing our business so we can hire more journalists, cover more topics and help build a template for modern media success,” VandeHei wrote in a memo explaining the move.
The ensuing vacuum has now been filled, as Politico announced today that New York Times veteran Rick Berke will soon take over VandeHei’s title. Wrote Harris in a memo on the move, “Rick was one of the most formidable political reporters in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s — take it from someone who competed against him — and then a decade ago went into management at the New York Times,” wrote Harris in announcing the hire. “He discovered — I sense at first perhaps even a bit to his own surprise — that he really liked managing newsrooms and was a natural at it. He has devoted this phase of his career not to writing the kind of stories that made me say ‘Damn it — why didn’t I do that?’ but to helping inspire and teach other reporters and editors to produce this work, and to helping the Times imagine its future in an age of nonstop disruption and innovation for newspapers.”
Great — but what’s going to happen to Politico’s murderous publishing pace? “We’re going to keep it going,” says Harris in an extensive talk with the Erik Wemple Blog. Politico these days runs on a quick pace set by Managing Editor Rachel Smolkin, says Harris, who calls her one of the organization’s “stars.” In any case, VandeHei in recent years has busied himself more and more with Politico’s business model as Harris has focused on newsroom matters.
When asked about this same matter, the 55-year-old Berke told us: “I think everyone has their strengths and their approaches,” he said, noting that he is big on “news energy.” “Politico is a different organization than it was six or seven years ago and the … leadership needs are different and the ambitions are different.” Berke’s role, as he sees it, involves taking the newsroom to “the next level,” a talking point that no new executive editor can afford to omit from his spiel. Here, that particular level appears to involve “identifying high-impact, memorable stories.” Harris couldn’t agree more, saying that Berke possesses a “why don’t we do ‘blank’? instinct.”
That instinct shows up on the Web site of the New York Times, where Berke piloted a documentary of Christine Quinn’s failed New York City mayoral campaign. Titled “Hers To Lose,” the sleek and perfectly structured video tale is personally responsible for the Erik Wemple Blog’s having slipped into a momentary black hole earlier this fall.
Harris calls the Quinn thing “illustrative” of what Berke can bring to Politico. With its on-again, off-again video presence, the outfit indeed could benefit from a documentary genius, though Harris says that Berke comes to Politico with no “specific video assignment.”
Even so, Harris’s rationale for Berke’s accession resounds. The Quinn video, after all, represents a well-thought and innovative approach to storytelling, a sensibility that is in somewhat short supply across Politico.com. It’s funny: VandeHei and Harris have beaten the pants off of legacy media outlets by ditching the chin-stroking luxuries afforded by the slower pace of a storied newspaper, in favor of quick-news output. Yet they want that at Politico, too. They want it all!
Over the years, critics have slammed Politico for trivializing national politics via horse-race coverage and for elevating small quips into genuine controversies, among other alleged offenses. Meh, says Berke, in effect. “I’m leaving a really respected journalistic organization. If I didn’t respect Politico, I wouldn’t go there. If I thought they weren’t doing great journalism, then I wouldn’t go there.”
Harris had choicer words for the Politico critiquedom: “I’m disapproving to the point of contemptuous of people who question our commitment to editing and our editing talent,” he says.
As far as filling the substantial role that VandeHei played in Politico’s business model, Berke says that no newsroom leader these days can be effective without “understanding or having an interest in the business side.” To that effect, Berke just completed a fellowship at Columbia University on how newsroom executives can become executives and business managers.
Why a talent as highly regarded as Berke was available to Politico is a bit complicated. Berke reportedly hit a rough patch internally after he discussed a top editing job at the Washington Post. Though he once held a spot on the New York Times masthead, one of the highest places in journalism’s org chart, Berke fell from that spot early this year amid Executive Editor Jill Abramson’s pruning of the Times’ management bloat. His most recent title was senior editor and director of video content development. Says Berke: “Jill and I have had a close relationship for years and years and years. We’ve been friends and partners, we’ve been through a lot together. We’ve been through some ups and downs.” He doesn’t, however, attribute any great significance to his dalliance with The Post, saying it has been “overblown.”
In light of his trajectory at the Times, Berke’s move to Politico looks rather Politico-esque: Instead of riding out a diminished role in the New York Times, why not go somewhere else and compete against the New York Times?
The fit already appears just right. When riffing about Politico’s performance in the shutdown coverage, Berke mentioned that “no one came close” to key parts of the site’s reporting. Just another fellow who came away “in awe” of Politico’s performance.
One point of caution: VandeHei. Can this workaholic journalism fiend give Berke the space he needs to develop his own authority at Politico? Did Berke secure a no-backchannel-e-mail pledge from VandeHei? “I’m not worried about that,” says Berke. “I think Jim is such a smart guy, and having someone as CEO who’s looking out for journalistic issues — I embrace that.”