Paul Volpe is heading back to Rosslyn.
Politico announced Thursday that Volpe, the deputy Washington bureau chief for digital at the New York Times, will soon join the nearly 10-year-old outfit as its new executive editor. He’ll be reporting to incoming editor Carrie Budoff Brown, who is taking over from Susan Glasser.
The move surprised the Erik Wemple Blog. During an unfortunate blip in the history of digital news, we worked with Volpe as top editors at TBD.com, a local news startup that shared ownership — Allbritton Communications Co. — with Politico. We had fun for a few weeks. TBD.com was launched in August 2010 with a newsroom staff of more than two dozen, the better to cover the sprawling Washington region. Its dismantling began just a few months thereafter, setting a steady path toward its current defunct status. Volpe’s stint was a grand 10 months, a time filled with big promises and bigger disappointments.
Why would he return? For one, Politico has something that TBD.com never attained, which is a viable business proposition. Though its founders fancied Politico as a national news site that would show the world a new approach to profitable journalism, it has become a souped-up version of a Beltway-policy model that has been around for decades under banners such as Roll Call, National Journal and The Hill. Politico Pro, a subscription service featuring verticals on health, tech, energy, defense, agriculture and others, accounts for about 40 percent of the outlet’s revenue. Another big chunk comes from issue advertisers seeking to move the dialogue in Washington.
An additional lure has to be duties. At Politico, Volpe will have freer reign to deploy reporters at the still-young Politico than he’s had at the more ossified New York Times newsroom of about 1,300 journalists. “I looked for someone with a range of attributes: a sharp story editor, a gifted manager, a digital whiz, a creative thinker, an entrepreneur and a deep understanding of the fluidity of the media business,” Brown wrote in a memo to staff regarding the hire. In taking the executive editor spot, Volpe replaces Peter Canellos, who will assume the title of editor at large and head up recruitment of a “team of investigative-oriented journalists.”
The title that Volpe is assuming at Politico — “executive editor” — means nothing. In some places, that’s the top dog; in others, it isn’t. A Politico spokesman confirmed that Volpe is “No. 2” on the Politico hierarchy. During the last management turnover, the New York Times got into some trouble on this front, as Glasser was named editor of the publication. Here’s the correction: “An earlier version of this article, and the accompanying headline and picture caption, misstated Ms. Glasser’s new role at Politico. She is editor, not ‘the top editor.’ (John F. Harris is its editor in chief.)” After we asked about Harris’s place in the whole shebang, the spokesman clarified that, yes, Volpe is technically No. 3, although he’s the No. 2 to Brown.
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Brown said that she consults with Harris about “50 times a day.” These days, Harris serves as both editor in chief and publisher, meaning that he is involved with Politico, Politico Pro, Politico Europe and Politico Future, that last one being a contrivance of this blog.
Confusion notwithstanding, Volpe isn’t alighting on a mess. Politico has done some admirable work in Campaign 2016 on a pretty steady basis, as this blog has noted on several occasions. Coverage of the campaigns has been aggressive, scoops have happened with some regularity, and media reporting and commentary — particularly important in a race involving Donald Trump — have been comprehensive. The call to bring the heat with more investigative resources is a strong one; though Ken Vogel, the site’s chief investigative correspondent, kicks out eye-opening pieces, he could use a squadron of co-chief investigative correspondents. Think, too, about the nearly two-year history of the presidential campaign. A whole bunch of news organizations have produced strong day-to-day coverage of the race; an elite group — The Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press — has nailed the investigative pieces that changed it. “We’re signaling to the newsroom that this is not just a place where we win the hour or the day but look across the horizon and pick longer-term targets,” Brown said.
Back in January, when a whole bunch of Politico leaders announced that they’d be leaving the organization, owner Robert Allbritton tweeted:
So does this investigative build-out fulfill that promise? “I don’t know the tweet,” Brown said. “I just know from talking to him, we are in an expansion mode and fully committed to building out Politico to be as strong as we can.” Asked how many additional journalists Politico may acquire in its quest for a bigger investigative boom, Brown declined to specify.
As they go about their post-election duties, Politico reporters should expect a good-natured, sane, stable and focused executive editor who’s big on planning coverage. Though he’s known, properly, as a big digital guy, Volpe’s key management gizmo is the index card, on which he keeps a list of tasks that he tucks into his shirt pocket. Or at least he did for about 10 months at TBD.com (Volpe hasn’t responded to requests for comment). We asked Brown whether TBD.com’s awful interlude hung over their negotiations. “It wasn’t an issue at all,” she said. “We didn’t spend any time talking about it.” Volpe didn’t even meet with Allbritton, she said.
In moving from the New York Times to Politico, Volpe will need to acclimate to Politico’s reigning managerial quirk, which relates to the separation of Politico and Politico Pro. On a “story-by-story” basis, Brown said, editors must evaluate Politico Pro stories with an eye toward giving subscribers their money’s worth. Example: A story on Politico.com about the Trump transition team “pull[ing] out the stops” debuted exclusively for Politico Pro subscribers Wednesday night, Brown said. Investigative Politico Pro stories may spend a longer period exclusivizing themselves behind the paywall. “You know it when you see it,” Brown said of the content-placement cogitations. “It has sort of become so routine around here. … It’s part of what we deal with day to day.”
It’s just that day-to-day sensibility that sold Politico on Volpe. “He thinks about stories and story presentation in non-conventional ways and has an intuitive sense about where and how to place stories,” Brown said. But that’s not all. “He’s just, like, a really good person, and that’s really cool,” Brown said.