In what can be described only as a cataclysm in Beltway media, CEO Jim VandeHei is leaving Politico, the eight-year-old politics website that shook up Washington journalism, according to sources and reports by Huffington Post and CNNMoney.
And in what can be described only as a mega-cataclysm, Politico Chief White House correspondent Mike Allen is joining VandeHei in rushing toward the exits of Politico’s Rosslyn headquarters. Allen writes the daily franchise newsletter “Politico Playbook.” A bearer of occasional scoops, Allen is the driver of very frequent revenue. Weekly sponsorships for “Playbook” run in the $50,000 to $60,000 range this year, depending on the news cycle. And that’s not even rolling in the big money that comes from “Politico Playbook” conferences/interviews anchored by Allen. His work alone — complete with ethical issues — subsidized a platoon of Politico reporters.
It doesn’t end there: Kim Kingsley, the Chief Operating Officer is leaving as well. Kingsley has provided the glue that bridged Politico’s newsroom and its business side as the site sprinted to revenues approaching $20 million just years after launching. She headed the colonization of radio and cable-news airwaves that helped establish Politico as a preferred Washington source both for readers and advertisers. The company’s successful events business was also an obsession of Kingsley’s. Other departures are Danielle Jones and Chief Revenue Officer Roy Schwartz.
VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz will stay through the 2016 election; the others will leave on earlier timetables. Editor in Chief John Harris will stay on board and take on the additional title of publisher.
Politico as we’ve come to know it is no longer.
The reported departures follow whispers among Washington media circles that VandeHei was clashing with Politico ownership — chiefly Robert Allbritton — about matters related to Politico’s expansion and profitability. (Full disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog formerly worked at a property of Allbritton Communications Co., as editor of a short-lived local website TBD.com.) A founding editor of Politico in early 2007 with John Harris, VandeHei moved to the CEO perch in October 2013, following the company’s purchase of Capital New York, a politics and media site that Politico used to kick off a state-politics expansion that now includes New Jersey and Florida. Another significant expansion destination is Europe, where Politico sent a number of personnel in a partnership with publisher Axel Springer. “Our dream is a Politico journalistic presence in every capital of every state and country of consequence by 2020,” wrote VandeHei and Harris in a staff memo last year.
It’s not clear where that dream is headed now. From his early days at Politico, VandeHei has driven Politico’s workaholic competitive edge. In case his colleagues didn’t get the message that Politico people work around the clock, they received pre-dawn emails from VandeHei pressing them on this news story or that. There was no hypocrisy in his insistence: He worked as hard as anyone, and his chest-beating rhetoric matched his drive. “I think we’ll show that we’re better than The New York Times or The Washington Post,” VandeHei told the New York Observer not long before Politico’s launch.
Such grandiosity came through in every staff memo that VandeHei sent to his underlings over the years. Incomparably optimistic, boastful of journalistic and business successes, these missives should star in a slide presentation at a workplace morale conference. An example from June 2015, just after Politico occupied new office space: “[Owner] Robert Allbritton has invested a lot of money, time and attention into the creation of this sleek and collaborative incubator for our ideas. And it’s not just about office space. Robert is making a substantial financial and personal commitment to create a durable and profitable global company that protects and expands nonpartisan journalism of consequence. Our ambitions are audacious, but doable. We have a tested and profitable formula that works and scales. But it only works, and certainly only scales, if all of us can teach and preach what makes POLITICO unique. ”
Whether Politico was “better” than the Washington Post or the New York Times, one thing is clear: It forced those newspapers, and many other outlets, to expedite their work to keep pace with Politico. Under VandeHei’s vision, every little wrinkle in a story merited its own URL, its own social-media promotion. At least seventeen Politico stories greeted the 2013 publication of Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.”
Publications in Politico’s immediate business cohort couldn’t handle the heat. Roll Call twisted and contorted in an effort to match the threat from Rosslyn. So did National Journal, a publication that reinvented itself and then de-invented itself, last year scrapping its print publication altogether (though the National Journal Daily remains in circulation).
VandeHei stumbled, however, when it came to replacing himself. After ascending to the CEO position, he and Harris hired Rick Berke, a former New York Times editor, to serve as executive editor. Thinking that he was there to run the place, Berke attempted to make hires and changes consistent with a shared vision for the place. He got blocked, and ended up resigning less than a year after taking over. “While our overarching goals are similar, Jim, John and I have agreed to disagree over the strategy for achieving those goals,” wrote Berke in his goodbye message.
Succeeding Berke was Susan Glasser, a talented editor who had done wonders in launching the highly trafficked Politico Magazine. A former colleague and friend of VandeHei’s, Glasser secured the sort of authority and control that Berke had craved. She launched a new vertical on policy, a deeper investigative program and announced a number of high-profile hires including Michael Crowley, Mike Grunwald and several others. She promised to carry forward Politico’s fast-twitch heritage while at the same time producing in-depth journalism — all with essentially the same staffing levels as before. “We want scoops, big stories, wonderfully written and reported enterprise. A Politico that is excellent and indispensable,” she wrote in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog about a month after formally taking over.
What she got was a period of turmoil. Valuable staffers headed to other pastures, particularly CNN, whose digital politics operation gorged on Rosslyn-forged talent. The departure rates vastly outpaced industry standards, as this blog has pointed out.
As recently reported on this blog, Glasser has been talking to the New York Times about some sort of contract position. Her husband, Peter Baker of the New York Times, will be manning the paper’s Jerusalem bureau. When that likelihood was first reported by CNN’s Dylan Byers — himself a Politico exile — Politico issued a memo stating that Glasser was “ready” to helm the site’s coverage through the completion of Election 2016. “What was true two months ago remains so today – Susan will be with POLITICO through the election,” Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring told the Erik Wemple Blog earlier this month.
Whatever went down between VandeHei & Co. and Robert Allbritton, the tumult at Politico is depressing news for journalism. In his missives on Politico’s expansion, VandeHei claimed, in essence, that simple enterprise could save journalism from its doldrums, from its across-the-board staff reductions. Consider this inspirational message regarding the company’s expansion into Europe and the states:
We pump out roughly 3,000 stories, 2,000 pushed news alerts for subscribers and 1,000 reported morning newsletters in an average month. Soon, we will have more people producing political and policy journalism in Washington, Europe and state capitals than any publication in the world. Reflect on that for a moment — and be proud of your progress in helping save the journalism all of us believe in. And now consider we will need to at least double the number of editorial heads to fulfill our ambitions. Together, all of us have created a model to sustain and spread our journalism for many, many years to come. Our model is one of the few we know of that relies on high quality journalism — not mass traffic — to flourish.
Were that model as glorious as VandeHei claimed, today’s events likely wouldn’t be happening.
A highlight comes from Allbritton’s version, in which he channels VandeHei: “We are about to experience the most exciting, and I expect most enjoyable, period of expansion in ten years. With our revenue rapidly expanding, I am eager to make robust new investments in editorial quality, in technology, in business talent, and in new markets that we have not yet conquered.”