The memo that Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris wrote about Rick Berke’s hiring last October was nearly 1,000 words long. It announced that Berke would be Politico’s new executive editor, a position to which he jumped from a multi-decade tenure at the New York Times. Harris liked what he heard from this mainstay of the mainstream media:
My own conversations with Rick made clear two things. One, as a political junkie, he is a deep admirer of the publication all of us have helped build. Two, what intrigued him most about the possibility of joining us was joining a growing operation that already has a great team. We talked in detail about how POLITICO became the place it is today, and the more Rick learned about the personalities and passions of this place, the more enthusiasm he expressed about making our newsroom his new professional home. His mission is to help our current leadership team summon even more of what’s already great.
On Sunday, Berke announced his resignation from Politico because of “strategic” differences with management. A corresponding memo from Jim VandeHei, Politico’s former executive editor turned CEO, and Editor-in-Chief John Harris attributed the resignation to “different visions.”
A logic gap arises here. To judge from Harris’s epic welcome last October, there had been some discussion about Berke’s vision prior to his accession as executive editor. And Politico’s bosses were familiar with the Berke way, as Harris made clear in that memo: “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.”
QED: Politico had known for some time what Berke had planned for Politico’s strategy. How could this divergence have arisen only recently?
Perhaps “strategy” is a euphemism for “control.” According to sources familiar with the situation, Berke stepped into Politico with VandeHei’s relinquished title but without the plenipotentiary sway over the newsroom that the brash Politico co-founder used to bootstrap the company into a Beltway marvel. For instance, not all mid-level editors at Politico reported to Berke; nor did he have the authority to make some hires that would advance his plan for the publication, according to the sources. In mid-summer, Politico’s management was reportedly planning to hand over greater authority to Berke, but for unclear reasons that plan never took effect.
A fraught transition stands to reason: Politico, founded in 2007, isn’t even a media teenager. VandeHei and Harris worked endless hours putting together a winning formula for the site, so it’s no surprise that management might choose to slice up the baton instead of passing the whole thing over to some outsider, even one as legit as Berke.
Nor is Politico the one-dimensional organization that it was upon its founding. Months before Berke’s hiring, for example, Politico announced plans for Politico Magazine and tapped Foreign Policy magazine editor Susan Glasser to run it. Berke had little authority over Glasser. “No, that would never happen,” says a source familiar with the internal politics of Politico. “Susan wouldn’t take orders from Berke.” There is also Politico Pro, the high-metabolic set of policy verticals whose rat-a-tat-tat updates get pushed out to a group of paying subscribers. Apart from it all is what some insiders refer to as “core” Politico — the free stuff banged out every day by the congressional and political staffs for a broad audience.
That’s a tough portfolio for any news professional to tame, let alone the first successor to Jim VandeHei. Funny thing: In the space of several years, VandeHei and Harris have created a big place with little fiefdoms, just like the place they left behind on 15th Street when they headed to Rosslyn.
Even as he struggled to gain the authority to carry out his vision for Politico, Berke did manage to push some journalistic enterprise. In his farewell memo, he referenced projects that he co-piloted: “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.” He’s right about all three of those efforts. The January piece on Hillary Clinton, by Maggie Haberman, remains the authoritative insider account of her presidential plans and represents the perfect marriage of Politico aggressive reporting and New York Times storytelling.
On the margins, Berke scaled back some of Politico’s eager-beaver tendencies. For one, he directed that reporters stop using the format “so-and-so told Politico” with every last interview. Better to save that formula for when the interview breaks news, Berke counseled, according to informed sources. He also urged editors and reporters to produce fewer commodity-news pieces in favor of stuff with more lasting impact. He occasionally clashed with Politico purists over the outlet’s knack for immediacy, pushing for more reporting and completeness in certain circumstances. Such disagreements were inevitable, given Berke’s history at the more pensive New York Times.
As the Erik Wemple Blog wrote last year, Berke’s hiring reflected Politico’s quest for it all: It wanted to maintain its omnivorous news production while folding in a Timesian nose for long-lasting enterprise.
Looking back on that October 2013 memo from Harris, it’s clear that there were several empowered managers at Politico even before Berke got on board: “Bill Nichols, our indispensable player, on so many occasions, is my right-hand on many of the most sensitive issues relating to our continued expansion, our outside reputation, and our ethical responsibilities. Susan Glasser is deep in her project of vaulting POLITICO into a whole new realm of magazine enterprise and opinion journalism. Rachel Smolkin, in just a short-time, is in charge of what Ben Bradlee always called ‘the daily miracle’—directing our coverage on a day-to-day and even hour-to-hour basis. Marty Kady in recent weeks has performed a miracle of his own, leading the recruiting for and launch of three new policy verticals.”
Not to mention Danielle Jones, deputy editor-in-chief, whose “responsibilities continue to grow,” according to the memo. Not to mention Chief Operating Officer Kim Kingsley, the metabolic brawn behind Politico’s rise. And not to mention Harris himself!
There may be no room for a new “executive editor” at the modern-day Politico.