Since the start of 2014, about 40 reporters, editors and producers have left Politico. They include names like ex-executive editor Rick Berke, longtime political reporter Jonathan Allen, acclaimed longform writer Jason Zengerle, reporters Alex Burns, Patrick Gavin, Reid Epstein and many, many others. (See a full list at the bottom of this post.) Former Politico editor Rachel Smolkin was a noteworthy case: Not only did she depart Politico to serve as executive editor of CNN Politics Digital, but she then turned around and recruited away four of her former colleagues, the latest being financial reporter MJ Lee.
Politico’s staff page shows about 160 editorial staffers. That means that in a single year, it has turned over about 25 percent of its newsroom. For context, Costco’s turnover rate for employees with more than a year on the job is under six percent. Numbers for the newspaper industry aren’t popping all over the Internet. The Newspaper Association of America doesn’t provide this data, says spokesman Sean O’Leary. Yet the Association of News Editors keeps figures for retention, which show that of roughly 37,000 newsroom employees in its 2014 survey, a total of about 3,000 left their posts — for a rate of about 8 percent.
The data provide some context as to why Politico hired itself a talent recruiter this fall. When asked why it did so, editor Susan Glasser responded, in part: “A recruiter’s job is self-evident: help find the talent to meet our growth ambitions.”
An overburdened personnel department isn’t necessarily a sign of impending doom at the Rosslyn-based political news site. Consider that Politico is not even eight years old, having been founded in the early days of 2007 in anticipation of the 2008 presidential election. For most of its existence, upper leadership has been stable, with Editor-in-Chief John Harris and Executive Editor Jim VandeHei presiding over an outlet determined to prove that legacy media reporting on politics had gotten complacent. It succeeded, with punishing work demands. Kim Kingsley, now the COO of Politico, told the New York Times in 2010: “In my experience, the people who whine about working at Politico shouldn’t be at Politico. . . . They likely lack the metabolism and professional drive it takes to thrive here. For those of us who love a fast pace and a tough challenge, this place is a calling, not a job.”
That “calling,” it turns out, is transferable to other employers.
Politico’s natural employee churn rate this year received a turbocharge from leadership disarray, as the organization’s first major baton hand-off clanked. With fanfare and a creatively written staff memo, management brought in Rick Berke from the New York Times to take over as executive editor, a post that VandeHei vacated to become CEO of the organization. Only Berke didn’t take over much, hampered by a lack of authority over core functions, such as hiring and being able to tell people what to do. Berke resigned in September.
Now Glasser, the former editor of Politico Magazine, Foreign Policy and the national desk of The Washington Post, is coping with a newsroom whose mission appears to be keeping FishbowlDC in business. Asked about the merry-go-round, Glasser told the Erik Wemple Blog via e-mail that there’s “nothing new” about staff turnover in the competitive Beltway journomarket. “We’re hiring!” she wrote. “Please don’t sell the influx of top talent short: these are terrific, top-notch editors and reporters who jumped from the merry-go-round to Politico.”
Glasser, who has been in charge for just more than a month, breaks down key recent hires in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog:
Peter Canellos, executive editor from the Boston Globe, author, Pulitzer Prize winning editor
Blake Hounshell, from the print magazine to be Politico’s first ever editorial director for its website
Michael Crowley, senior foreign affairs correspondent Time Magazine
Michael Grunwald senior writer Time Magazine and bestselling author
Eva Rodriguez, longtime Washington Post editor, hired at magazine right as this was happening
Heather Barber, Washington Post designer, Politico’s first ever website art director
Lori Kelley, managing editor, The Express, art director
Ben Schreckinger, freelance writer for Boston magazine, to be politics reporter
Steve Heuser, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor from the Boston Globe of its Ideas section, to edit the new policy project The Agenda
Bill Duryea, nationally recognized enterprise editor of the Tampa Bay Times
Michael Kruse, prize-winning enterprise writer on Duryea’s team to be a political enterprise writer
More hires will surface in the coming days, assures Glasser. “Not many news organizations are in a period of growth and rising ambition right now. Politico is,” she writes. “These are amazing people who are signing up to work here.”
Judging from the e-mails and other hints that the Erik Wemple Blog has collected from Politico staffers, the newsroom would appreciate some “amazing people” in the roles of congressional editor and deputy congressional editor — two pivotal vacant slots. Other key mid- to upper-level editing slots have seen some activity. Deputy Managing Editor Gregg Birnbaum, a fave among young staffers, and White House Editor Dan Berman recently bolted for opportunities at the New York Daily News and National Journal, respectively. A replacement for Berman (former Bloomberg and Los Angeles Times staffer Maura Reynolds) was announced today.
And the post of Politico Magazine’s editor has been a difficult fill. Glasser is its one and only editor, having launched the publication in November 2013. She cranked and cranked longform post after longform post on any topic that arose in the news cycle. To fix the vacancy she left at the magazine, Glasser has reached out to outgoing Washington Post Outlook editor Carlos Lozada and Franklin Foer, the former top editor of The New Republic. Nothing has come of those discussions, according to sources. Garrett Graff, the former Washingtonian editor, is assisting in editing the magazine, writes Glasser.
Once Glasser finishes replenishing the ranks, the question becomes just what all these people will be doing. During Politico’s early, run-and-gun years, the mandate was simply to write everything up, right now! Following the late 2013 launch of Politico Magazine and the accession of Berke, a New York Times longform specialist, the organization developed a more thoughtful sensibility. The tension between these two approaches was evident during Berke’s short tenure, and staffers are still a bit confused as to how to proceed. “It’s not clear to us what exactly they want from us,” says a staffer. “Everyone is a little less certain about what they’re supposed to be doing.”
That’s not to say that Glasser hasn’t taken an official jab at enunciating a vision. In her introductory memo to staffers, she wrote:
We all know what we want: a POLITICO that is an indispensable first read for anyone whose business is Washington – and for millions more who are as captivated as we are by what is happening here. I hope we can aim to win not only the morning, but the afternoon and evening too with smart, authoritative, impactful, independent and original journalism. Together, we should strive to be the most excellent news organization that covers Washington, period.
Yes, that means the scoops for which POLITICO is justifiably famous – POLITICO was born with a fast metabolism, and it should never lose it — and also news and enterprise, opinions and narratives, that tell you stories no one else does. If it’s something Washington needs to know, we want you to read it here. On our website. In our print newspaper on Capitol Hill or our beautiful new magazine or Mike Allen’s Playbook and our 13 and counting Pro verticals. Or on that mobile device that’s not even invented yet.
Bold text added to highlight the word “excellent,” which comes up often in Glasser’s chats with folks, including the Erik Wemple Blog: “We want scoops, big stories, wonderfully written and reported enterprise. A Politico that is excellent and indispensable,” she wrote to us.
“Excellent” is great, though it’s specifics that are critical. In her opening memo, Glasser acknowledged that “There’s no master plan for making all this happen; we live in an age of permanent disruption when it comes to the media, and the goal here is to own and shape Washington coverage around politics and policy – using whatever great new tools and platforms, tweets and GIFs come our way.”
Staffers have grumbled to the Erik Wemple Blog that plans for 2016 coverage aren’t clear just yet. As to whether that’s even a legitimate gripe, we checked with two other Beltway outlets: One said it was deep into planning and discussions for 2016 and another hadn’t announced any specifics to reporters. Here’s Glasser on the matter: “It’s December 2014 and the Iowa caucus is 13 months away (and we took over running Politico one month ago when Peter [Canellos] arrived from Boston). Is there a 2016 campaign plan under glass somewhere? No. Are we already covering it and going gangbusters? Yes. Breaking stories every day with our great political reporters. And more to come. This team has been on the job for a month — you really think we don’t and won’t have a plan to crush it in political coverage? We’re Politico…”
Expectations as high as Glasser’s are bound to create turmoil. As she put it in her note to us, here’s what she’s after: “Our goal is continue to out hustle and out-think everyone. Our dominance of the big Congress stories of the past month illustrate this perfectly — so does our great coverage of Cuba….coverage that reflects new strengths that we are building as well as existing ones. We are retooling the operation with the specific aim of being first and best — ideally, both and often.”
To cut through the journospeak, Glasser wants Politico to do the workaholic task that made it famous — the fast-paced news coverage, that is — at the same time that it produces enterprise projects. For those twin objectives, it’ll need many more hires. Look for turnover in the recruiter position.
List of Politico departures: Rick Berke, Rachel Smolkin, Anne Cronin, Dan Berman, Gregg Birnbaum, Steve Sloan, Jedd Rosche, Rebecca Sinderbrand, Marjorie Censer, Mary Beth Marklein, Geoffrey Gagnon, Denise Kersten Wills, Libby Nelson, Jon Allen, Alex Burns, Jason Zengerle, Talia Buford, Kate Brannen, Jason Millman, Reid Epstein, Emily Schultheis, Juana Summers, Mackenzie Weinger, Byron Tau, Eric Bradner, Jessica Meyers, Kevin Cirilli, Andrea Drusch, Jose DelReal, Ginger Gibson, Kourtney Geers, Lindsay Kalter, Scott Wong, Caitlin McDevitt, Emily Howell, Patrick Gavin, Adam Mowder, Elizabeth Titus, Libby Isenstein, MJ Lee, Adam Snider