Politico, the media company that revolutionized the speed and tone in which politics was covered over the past decade, is no more.
Yes, the company will continue on. But what it will be is something very different than what it was when it launched in early 2007 -- or even what it is today. That's because of the news that broke Thursday night: All but one of the key players in the organization's senior management will leave -- either immediately or at the end of the 2016 election later this year.
The rise and fall (or at least pending reinvention) of Politico is a fascinating window into the current media world -- and just how hard it is to build a financial success in such a crowded marketplace. What Politico was (a hyper-metabolized political report that treated campaigns and Congress as a giant game involving some of the most powerful, important and self-important people in the world) and what it evolved into (a site that relied heavily on wonky, policy focused, subscriber-only content) is the story, in a lot of ways, of what happens when journalistic ambition meets business reality.
A caveat before I go any further. I was involved, at the most junior level possible, in the original discussions about Politico and seriously considered joining founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei in the endeavor. I consider Harris, who is staying on at Politico, as well as Danielle Jones, the executive vice president for expansion who is leaving, to be close personal friends. Make of that what you will.
Let's start with the early days of Politico -- and just how much Harris and VandeHei changed the way political journalism is done. Their departure from The Washington Post in the wake of the 2006 election was greeted somewhat skeptically, but it quickly became apparent that what they were doing was going to have a major impact on The Post and every other mainstream news organization.
The central conceit of Politico was based on a simple belief: The Internet allowed for and created the desire for lots and lots of content delivered minute by minute. Rather than waiting until 6 p.m. to publish the best work of your reporters, Politico pushed its reporters to publish every single scoop or piece of insight the second they learned it -- and as early in the day as possible. The motto "win the morning" caused lots and lots of eye-rolling in some of the more conventional media corridors of Washington, but the sentiment it expressed was exactly right: No one was waiting around anymore to hear what a media organization had to say about something that happened even a few hours ago. They wanted to know now.
That insight from VandeHei and Harris was powerful. But, without a staff that fully bought into that concept, it would have never gone anywhere. The realization that New York media was an untapped resource for just the sort of reporting and metabolism Politico wanted brought Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush and Ben Smith -- to name just a few -- into the national spotlight, where they shined. Into that mix, Politico added D.C. types like Mike Allen, Jonathan Martin and John Bresnahan.
By the 2008 election, Politico was operating on all cylinders and, if I am being truthful, schooling larger legacy organizations on how to operate in this new media world. They were the hottest, buzziest thing going. Everybody wanted their reporters on TV, wanted their journalistic DNA, wanted to understand how they had created a massively successful media organization from, well, nothing.
"Massively successful" are the two key words in the sentence above. Politico was succeeding, without question, journalistically and in the media/public relations race. On the latter front, Kim Kingsley, a former Postie, deserved -- and deserves -- a massive amount of credit. She is less well known than Allen, VandeHei or Harris but played an absolutely essential role in crafting -- and perfecting -- Politico's brand, internally and externally.
But an announcement in late 2010 suggested that Politico's massive successes in those spaces might not be mirrored in the more strict definition of success for a company: Making money. In mid-November 2010, Politico announced that it was starting Politico Pro -- "a subscription service providing highly detailed, rapid-fire reporting on the politics of energy, technology and health care," according to its own news story on the move. Pro was the exact opposite of the founders' original vision for Politico; a company built on the idea of covering the politics of politics at a national level was suddenly starting a niche-y policy venture aimed quite clearly at the Washington crowd.
And, Pro rapidly became hugely profitable for the company. By my count, it now employs 159 people -- including business staff -- across 13 policy verticals. (The Energy and Transportation vertical has 14 reporters and editors alone!)
Of course, Politico continued to work to innovate -- including expansion to Europe and the launch of a series of state-based newsletters built off of Allen's incredibly successful "Playbook" franchise. The European expansion is too early in its development to offer judgment -- although there are signs that the European media industry isn't exactly booming at the moment. On the state expansion, Politico has scooped up lots of talented reporters in big and important states. But the shrinkage in statehouse coverage across the country by a variety of media organizations raises questions about whether that can be a successful financial venture. (Politico is owned by Robert Allbritton and isn't required to report profits and losses. In early 2015, VandeHei said in an all-staff memo that revenue had increased by 25 percent over the previous year.)
The arc of Politico reaffirms to me just how difficult it is to make money running a journalistic enterprise. (The Post, as you may know, is owned by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.) Journalistic success, which Politico clearly achieved, is not the same thing as financial success. That's not Politico's fault any more than it is The Washington Post's or the New York Times' fault. It is simply a financial reality of the journalism business these days.
Allbritton insisted in a memo noting the departures of VandeHei, Allen, Kingsley, Jones and editor Susan Glasser that Politico's ambitions remain unfettered. "Politico is here for the long haul, powered by a team that is much bigger than any of us who happened to be here at the beginning," wrote Allbritton.
I hope he's right. We need Politico -- and every other journalistic enterprise -- to keep trying to tackle the problem of profitability (or lack thereof) in the media business. Politico's trajectory to date, however, provides a cautionary tale of the difference between succeeding as a journalistic endeavor and succeeding as a business venture. We would all do well to heed it.