VandeHarris, as the duo is known, built Politico from the start on a combination of quick-metabolism news bites, scoops and relentless self-promotion, particularly when it came to putting Politico staffers on television and radio spots.
That was a formula at odds with the slower and more deliberate news-gathering ways of the New York Times, where Berke had spent decades, starting out as the night editor in the Washington bureau. Berke left the Times last October to fill the job that VandeHei left behind.
Taking hold of that portfolio was a dicey proposition, as Sunday’s memo suggests. In his own explanation, VandeHei notes:
Rick is a great journalist and a great guy with a bright future. Like he said in his note, we simply had different visions for running the POLITICO newsroom. We wish him luck and are truly grateful for the enthusiasm he brought to the job.Rick had achievements at POLITICO that will endure and we will build upon, including his passionate advocacy of an institute for young journalists aimed at promoting diversity in our profession. For all his gifts, we were in agreement that a vibrant and growing publication must have a leadership team that is fully in sync on its mission and how to achieve it.
Higher-ups at Politico tend not to share with reporters gossip about leadership issues, which is why Sunday’s news startled staffers, according to a few consulted by the Erik Wemple Blog. Berke is the second top editor to leave Politico in the last 6 weeks. At the end of July, Rachel Smolkin gave up her job as managing editor to become executive editor of politics for CNN’s digital operation.
“All the reporters I’ve chatted with are in shock and did not see this coming at all,” says one staffer. “I think whatever fight or differences happened, they happened well above the reporter pay grade. We had no idea.”
Reported another: “I have no idea. Total surprise to me.”
Politico is a closed society. Nevertheless, word of trouble did leak from its Rosslyn confines this May. Around the time of Jill Abramson’s ouster from the New York Times, Berke and fellow New York Times graduate Todd Purdum headed up a “Politico University” workshop on how to practice narrative journalism. According to accounts of the seminar that the Erik Wemple Blog has collected, Berke got a bit off-topic, putting forth his opinion that Abramson was an inept and insensitive manager. Some female staffers objected to that characterization, and the session blew up in awkward polemics about the internal politics of a competing outlet. Some staffers texted their buddies, urging them to show up for the “b—-fest,” in the description of one of those folks.
The topic was inflammatory because Politico, an organization whose leaders often spoke in football metaphors, has had its own troubles with gender issues. Feelings were sufficiently bruised to prompt an odd note from VandeHei that included a reference to that history, as well as this passage:
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.
Those words came off as a brushback to Berke.
There is no indication that this episode played any role in this latest surprise on the Politico masthead. Nor will the leadership answer such inquiries: In an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog, VandeHei declined to go beyond the official line.
Though Berke was rumored to have clashed with mid-level editors at the Web site, he appeared to have cultivated some loyalties among reporters. In recent months, the Erik Wemple Blog has interviewed several staffers who looked upon Berke as a thoughtful and engaged editor. “A lot of people really liked and respected him. He paid attention to all corners of the newsroom and was really hands on with people who weren’t necessary used to the attention,” said one staffer.
VandeHarris is now in a jam. They hired a top talent from the biggest name in mainstream media, on a bet that he’d bring a bit of New York Times gravitas to the fastest Web site in politics. Now the guy’s gone, with no satisfactory explanation as to why. In his departure note, he included this pointed regret that defies management’s insistence on capitalizing the site’s name: “I saw a clear path to help them take Politico to the next level, but as time went on, it became clear that our strategies were diverging.”
What news exec with a healthy regard for her career prospects would now consent to an interview in Rosslyn?
One option for Politico would be to simply bag the position and leave Harris and Editor-at-Large Bill Nichols in charge of the newsroom. Another would be to promote Politico Magazine Editor Susan Glasser. Though that publication isn’t even a year old — it launched last November — it has consistently produced big traffic numbers along with many thought-provoking opinion pieces, along with, it must be said, some really really dumb ones.
More to come on this important development.
Full text of Berke’s goodbye note:
To The Staff:
I have resigned as Executive Editor of Politico. While our overarching goals are similar, Jim, John and I have agreed to disagree over the strategy for achieving those goals. There is no acrimony and no drama – simply an acceptance by the three of us that the dynamics were just not there for us to function seamlessly.
I look back with enormous pride over what we have all accomplished, even in a short time. Day by day, hour by hour, we made our stories sharper and more engaging. We raised our ambitions with tough-minded projects such as “Hillary Clinton’s Shadow Campaign” and “The Obama Paradox,” and by leveraging our policy reporters across federal agencies, we produced high-impact pieces like our examination of Obama’s use of executive authority. We formed a polling partnership that enabled Politico to analyze more deeply the issues that drive the most competitive House and Senate races. We added more polish, graphics and ambition to our video operation. We created our first annual Politico Journalism Institute this summer, which was a huge success and a promising start at encouraging diversity in newsrooms.
It is difficult to express how much admiration I have for you as journalists and colleagues. I was inspired every day by your competitive drive, vast knowledge, creative ideas and relentlessness to dig deeper and reach higher. And I could not be more impressed with the journalistic force that John, Jim and Robert Allbritton have created. I saw a clear path to help them take Politico to the next level, but as time went on, it became clear that our strategies were diverging. I will root for them and for all of you.
VandeHei’s memo is on Politico’s media blog, via reporter Hadas Gold.