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Opinion Can Politico replace Mike Allen at ‘Playbook’?

Politico’s Mike Allen, doing a generation proud. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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When big-time journalists talk about their shiniest journalistic products, they tend to speak in grandiose language about accountability, investigation and shoe leather. Politico’s Jim VandeHei used different code words back in 2010, when he was asked by the New York Times Magazine about “Playbook,” the morning newsletter authored by Politico’s workaholic Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen. “If you want to move data or shape opinion, you market it through Mikey and Playbook, because those tens of thousands that matter most all read it and most feed it,” VandeHei wrote in an email to Mark Leibovich.

That wasn’t spin; that was brutal honesty.

As Allen’s celebrated role as the impresario of “Playbook” unfolded, his mastery at Beltway marketing emerged. Nearly three years ago, this blog documented how Allen tucked favorable mentions of prominent “Playbook” sponsors into his editorial offerings. And Gawker’s J.K. Trotter, busted Allen for promising Chelsea Clinton’s camp a preview of interview questions (the interview never happened). Also from the Trotter file is this piece exposing how a State Department official essentially ghost-wrote an item for “Playbook.”

The skinny: Mike Allen ran a press-release mill for vested interests in Washington, and he did it every single day. Until mid-July, that is. According to a staff memo released by Politico’s John Harris last night, Allen will retire from “Playbook” months earlier than expected, ceding the mantle to a team of three: Reporters Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman and Daniel Lippman, who has assisted Allen with the news tip sheet since 2014. They’ll take over on July 11, and will benefit from a new digital home and expanded “Playbook” presence on social media.

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From the Harris memo:

Anna, a North Dakota native and graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN., joined us in 2011. She has become the most authoritative voice covering Washington’s lobbying and advocacy industry. Jake grew up in Connecticut and graduated from George Washington University. Since Jake joined POLITICO in 2009, nothing has happened—no leadership turmoil, no caucus dispute, no ideological or partisan showdown—in the U.S. House during which his reporting did not lead the pack.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Palmer said, “Mike created an amazing product that has a dedicated readership. We don’t see a wholesale revamp needed.”

That is correct. Any wholesale revamp, after all, would imperil the cash cow that “Playbook” has become. As we reported last year, a weekly sponsorship for the newsletter falls somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000, or an annual haul of around $3 million. Although Allen himself may not promulgate a great deal of investigative journalism in “Playbook,” his work has funded massive amounts of enterprise work by his colleagues. But will Palmer & Co. review the ethical shortcomings of Allen’s “Playbook”? “I think what Mike is known for is creating a great product and must-read,” said Palmer. “I think what Jake and I are known for is reporting. . . . We’ve been investigative journalists, and we’ll take some of that to what we are doing,” said Palmer.

How?

The key to Allen’s “Playbook” lay in aggregating his email inbox. Everyone who matters in Washington has his email and pounds him with links and announcements and birthday tips. For nearly a decade, Allen’s role has been to sift and prune and curate it all into a presentation that rocks on a smartphone. It has worked for the Erik Wemple Blog, which reads “Playbook” regularly even though we’re fully aware of its shortcomings. There’s much to admire, including the discipline that Allen has sunk into the product. Day in and day out, the template has stood firm: A fast-paced read chock-a-block with well-written bolded headings and names. Plus more names and names and name. Names in the birthday section, names in the “spotted” section, names wherever Allen can find room for them. It’s as if Allen programmed “Playbook” after the imperative of community newspapers to include all the locals by name at one point or another, the better to boost circulation.

“Anna and I have been blown away in the past couple of months at how great and tight the Playbook community is,” said Sherman, who confirms that the plan is to continue naming names in the newsletter.

Moving away from the Allen formula risks dissolving “Playbook’s” originality vis-a-vis the always-expanding world of political newsletters. In addition to “Playbook,” for instance, this blog reads CNN’s Politics Nightcap, which is quite good, as well as the Washington Post’s Daily 202, which is outstanding. There are many others.

To keep “Playbook’s” edge, Palmer and Sherman indicate they’ll be reporting from wherever the news is breaking — be it Capitol Hill, a presidential debate, the White House, wherever; they’re considering multimedia stuff, including a 90-second audio feature; and perhaps some “tick tocks” — those big Washington reconstructions in which Sherman and Palmer have specialized. All that sounds suitably noble and ambitious, in the best of Politico traditions. This is a news organization, after all, that’s founded on VandeHei’s belief that the average reporter’s workday should kick off at about 3:15 a.m.

As to whether Palmer and Sherman can succeed in blending their own, adversarial reporting styles with the longtime sensibilities of “Playbook,” we have no idea. But an attentive audience of more than 100,000 will be watching closely. From a PR perspective, the transition is off to a great start: An exclusive in the New York Times gave the development the sort of soft-gloved treatment that might be found in “Playbook” itself.

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