Once he heard what Editor Susan Glasser had planned for him at Politico, Jack Shafer didn’t need much more information. “When somebody like Susan Glasser says, ‘Come work for me, Jack, and write columns and long-form,’ I didn’t really see the necessity for a discussion that’s deeper than that.”
As Glasser announced this morning, Shafer, the former media critic for Slate magazine and, more recently, Reuters, will be joining Politico on Tuesday. “The incomparable Jack Shafer is joining us! Jack is the premier press critic of our time, and we can’t wait to welcome him to POLITICO,” wrote Glasser. “As we begin the quadrennial follies of a presidential election amid a wave of media disruption, Jack promises to be the indispensable guide to the political tumult, who always calls it like he sees it and whose sharp insights and razor observations come accompanied not only by deeply informed reporting – but also by a requisite sense of the long history underpinning all this narrative of American political journalism.”
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Shafer confirmed that there were other suitors for his services. “I was lucky there was other interest in me, but I think I got a great deal,” he said. When asked how the negotiations over his job unfolded, he declined to get into the particulars, settling on this: “I prefer to think that destiny guided this personnel choice by Politico.” He’s excited: “I get to go work at a great, thriving institution with a great editor and great colleagues.”
Shafer arrives at a newsroom that already provides its share of media reporting. Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold run the site’s media blog and also turn in long-form pieces of their own. Shafer said that he’d discussed the job only with Glasser. “Susan has got an army of the Potomac and she’s got a lot of people who can shoot and run and throw and it would be sort of premature for us to be talking about who’s going to cover what when,” says Shafer. “If you look at her history as an editor, she’s more dynamic than that. She’s a play-caller herself.”
The hiring of Shafer is perhaps the starkest indication yet of the direction that Glasser has mapped out for the eight-year-old publication. Having taken over after the abrupt departure of former executive editor Rick Berke, Glasser has moved the publication from what was once a short-attention-spanned scoop mill to a political journal with greater analytical and intellectual depth. Hence the hiring of former Time magazine writers Michael Crowley and Michael Grunwald — not to mention Stephen Heuser, who edited the Boston Globe’s ideas section and will edit Politico’s new policy-oriented vertical named “The Agenda.”
Consistent with Glasser’s endorsement, Shafer has a bottomless grasp of media history, technology and First Amendment issues that enables him to cast a fresh perspective on whatever random kerfuffle pops up on Twitter. He’s a great hire (and, full disclosure, a friend of the Erik Wemple Blog). Whenever some media mogul makes a grab for a new bauble, whenever a big newspaper puts forth a bogus trend story, whenever newspapers and television stations decline to run newsworthy-but-offensive content — Shafer cranks out a polemic of 1,000 words or so that expands the conversation’s frame of reference. What he doesn’t do on the media front is precisely what Politico has always done on the media front: post items on every personnel change north of copy aide at Beltway media outlets, cover every screw-up on cable news (an exhausting pursuit) and track the utterances of Rush Limbaugh.
So perhaps Shafer will mesh just fine with the offerings of Byers and Gold. Yet his accession stirs a growing Politico political problem for Glasser. Umpteen current and former Politico sources have expressed to this blog concerns that her moves since taking over in November reflect a disdain for the run-and-gun Politico of yore, in which young reporters work ’round the clock to populate the site. No question: Politico’s many critics will cheer the end of a model distinguished for producing often self-referential over-coverage. That approach, however, had the indisputable advantage of distinguishing Politico from its competitors; time will tell if Glasser’s turn towards thinkier and more enterprising fare can accomplish that same end.
The office that greets Shafer is keeping the turnstiles busy. As we reported previously, 25 percent of Politico’s staff left over the course of 2014 and this morning brought news of the departure of star reporter Maggie Haberman. Not that Shafer cares. “I didn’t give it a moment of thought,” he says, adding: “Our business is so volatile that you can’t take an historian’s view about where this will be in five years. We work in the moment in our business.”
And one refreshing note: I e-mailed Shafer for an interview, and he called. That sounds simple, but it’s a wonder given Politico’s culture of limiting the interactions of employees with media reporters. When I asked whether he’d cleared the interview with Politico’s PR folks, Shafer responded, “I don’t even know who runs PR.”