As we approached the 15th anniversary of POLITICO, I plunged into old files expecting to find a lot that would make me cringe.
Cringe, I did, looking at some of the early stories, replete with typos, clunky writing, strained premises. More cringing: The first edition of our publication — January 23, 2007 — with its high school newspaper design and a red-black logo announcing the arrival of “THE POLITICO.” Just like in the early days of “TheFacebook,” we soon dropped the “THE.”
I was ready to flinch, but did not, when I returned to an old interview that I did with PressThink, a media criticism site. This ran in late 2006, a couple weeks after a colleague and I announced that we were leaving the Washington Post to start a new publication, and six weeks before the venture took flight. Reading old words, I found what seems to me now a fairly crisp articulation of what I believed then.
My argument was that the old order of media in which I grew up — one defined by powerful institutions imbued with deep and sometimes suffocating institutional cultures — was acutely vulnerable to disruption. This presented insurgent forces of the sort we represented with an arresting opportunity — one that was exerting a magnetic pull on me.
“We live in an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one,” I asserted to interviewer Jay Rosen. “That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work — who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents — rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for.”
Closely related to this belief in journalistic entrepreneurialism was a conviction that political reporting in particular was due for stylistic renovation. It needed to move away from the oracular voice-of-God tone that used to be commonplace, and come closer to the way reporters actually talk about the subject when they are with one another. This meant more attention to the motives and maneuvering of politicians, to the what-they-really-mean subtext of their official utterances, and more latitude for reporters to share their own voices — the humor, the accumulated insight, the penetrating assessments of what’s actually happening beneath the bullshit.
Ben Smith, then a blogger with a rising profile in New York City political circles but not yet any wider reputation, later told me that he decided to join our new startup after reading the PressThink interview. Ben went on to become one of our best known writers in the early years. Then he left to be editor-in-chief of the then-fledgling BuzzFeed. Then he left that to become a widely followed media critic of the New York Times. The other day he announced that he was leaving that to start a new publication aimed at connecting a global audience. Each step on his itinerant path was in its own way a validation of the point I was making in late 2006.
This notion — that in the digital age institutions were losing much of their historic power to set an agenda while individual journalists were gaining it — was at the root of what became POLITICO. It is the same dynamic powering a rapidly growing list of news startups that have blossomed in the political and policy space in recent years (many of them with POLITICO veterans in leadership roles). It is the same dynamic powering the emergence of Substack and its growing roster of writers. It is even the same dynamic powering the remolding of legacy news organizations like the New York Times around star talent like Andrew Ross Sorkin or Maggie Haberman, another POLITICO alum. I was wrong about lots of small and even not-so-small matters over the course of the next 15 years. But I was right about this big thing.
Let me mark the milestone of POLITICO turning 15, and the larger trend that made our success possible, with a comment about the next 15 years. It would be a very good thing if this next period of media history marks the slowing and even partial reversal of that trend. It is time for the pendulum to swing back in the direction of institutional power.
This is not quite a prediction, but it is something more than idle wish. With a strong media economy (at least in some arenas, including Washington, D.C.), we are seeing news organizations enjoy a financial prosperity that is wholly different than the climate of 2007. The Times, whose future once seemed darkly clouded, has revived itself with a robust consumer subscription model. Amid a media bull market, POLITICO owner and co-founder Robert Allbritton in 2021 chose to sell our publication for a reported billion dollars. Our ambitious new owner, the German media firm Axel Springer, has credible plans to expand our content and double our value in the coming years.
Financial power is the indispensable prerequisite for the kind of power that interests me more: Agenda-setting power. This is where media institutions, both established ones and the relative newcomers like POLITICO, need to reclaim ground.
The largest problem with the dilution of institutional power in an age of media hyper-saturation is that it is a gift to public officials seeking to evade accountability. Every day during the Donald Trump years, and still fairly often during Joe Biden’s attempted return to normality, I see stories that 20 or 30 years ago would have stirred weekslong or even monthslong media uproars. It is easy enough now for any politician who doesn’t like some story with a troubling revelation to denounce the platform as biased, to rally supporters who don’t care much whether the story is true or not, and rely on vagrant public attention to move on to the next thing.
One thing a powerful media institution can do that the most talented writer on Substack, or even a small startup site, cannot do is marshal sustained focus from a wide swath of the public on a subject that deserves it. An example is what the late Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post opinion page, aided by former executive editor Martin Baron and publisher Fred Ryan (a key member of the early POLITICO gang), did in response to the October 2018 murder by the Saudi Arabian regime of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump wanted to move on. So did Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman. But no well-informed person could not be aware of the Khashoggi atrocity because the Post has kept its editorial drumbeat going for three years. In this same category, if I may, I would include POLITICO’s relentless focus during the Trump years on accountability reporting about his cabinet. These stories, though far removed from the gaudy show in the Oval Office, led to multiple resignations and scuttled nominations.
Powerful media institutions can defend themselves in lawsuits, and stand up to intimidation from public officials, corporate interests and advertisers in a way that smaller entities and individuals cannot. Our new owner once said goodbye — temporarily, as it turned out, but no way to know that at the time — to tens of millions of dollars in advertising after critical coverage of Volkswagen in Die Welt.
These institutions can also help counteract one of the infuriating hazards of modern life — the shredding of collective memory. Amid the barrage of content, who even remembers what they were indignant about the day before yesterday? Self-confident and self-disciplined editors can help the reader regain his or her bearings.
Finally — maybe? — news organizations with a strong rudder amid the cultural and ideological storms of the moment may be able to revive the notion of a public square, in which people have shared acceptance of hard facts even as they argue about the proper response to these facts. Truth be told, there is not a hell of a lot of evidence lately for this. It’s clear that many readers and viewers do not even want such an approach to news. Still, I think a majority of the audience does. It is hard to see a democracy functioning for the long haul without an appreciation that arguments about what should be in the future must start with agreement about what present reality actually is.
This ideal, which is quite different than tepid neutrality or equivocating both-sides-ism, is what POLITICO has aspired to for 15 years. This includes the early days, when we were a startup with 50 employees, to the present, as a global news operation approaching a thousand employees with reportorial assets across nine time zones on both sides of the Atlantic. I expect we will seek to defend and vindicate the same ideal in the next 15.
Some of the words above may seem a bit abstract. Of course there is nothing abstract about my feelings toward POLITICO and this wild ride that so many people shared in over the past 15 years.
How to convey the visceral intensity of that first year? They were exceedingly long days and short nights. It was a kaleidoscopic blur of contradictory experience: exhilaration, fear, celebration, the knotted stomach and racing pulse from constant reminders that we were only steps away from disaster. We had put our professional reputations on the line for a venture that looked quite fragile from the outside and much more fragile from the inside.
I smile these days when I hear of media types announcing startups and then taking many months or even a year to actually launch. My co-founder Jim VandeHei and I had two months after leaving the Post to hire a staff, assign and edit stories, and race the clock to have a (barely) functional content management system to publish our work.
Yet, soon enough, there they were, tiny blades shooting up from the ground that suggested this thing might actually work. A cable news screen with a banner saying “Politico reports … .” Presidential campaigns dealing regularly with our reporters.
At the outset, we had no illusion that we could compete on even terms with our old colleagues at legacy publications. What we sought instead was the journalistic equivalent of asymmetric warfare — guerillas taking on larger forces by darting quickly and opportunistically into stories where we might have a chance to win.
Among our early reporters, Ben Smith was behind only Mike Allen, the original author of our Playbook newsletter, in terms of influence. Some of Smith’s early work captures the nature of our micro-obsessions in those days. He sent traffic soaring with a short, funny item on how pretty boy presidential candidate John Edwards was paying $400 for his haircuts, and charging them to his campaign. (This was later revealed to be a leak from Barack Obama’s campaign.) But the drive for being a step ahead on incremental stories of interest mainly to political obsessives burned Smith, and us, when he posted an item saying that Edwards was dropping out of the campaign to support his wife’s battle with cancer. I knew his source, and it was entirely reasonable to assume the source was right. But the source was wrong, and so were we. (Or, as I later joked with Ben, not wrong — just months premature.) The Post cackled gleefully, “Web Site Rushes to Crack the Story And Ends Up With Egg on Its Face.”
Our focus on this kind of stuff was always a means to an end. The goal was to create a platform that was larger and more substantial — not just covering political sausage-making but illuminating the larger purposes of politics and the work of governance. But that wasn’t always obvious to the naked eye.
In 2010, President Barack Obama at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner did a riff on our “focus on trivial issues, political fodder, gossip.” He imagined our coverage of momentous events in history: “Lincoln Saves Union But Can He Save House Majority?” “Japan Surrenders — Where’s The Bounce?” At the dinner, Patty Stonesifer, the spouse of journalist Michael Kinsley, gave me an elbow and whispered urgently, and wisely, “People have to see you laughing!” Apparently my frozen expression looked like a scowl. I was not at all offended by Obama’s routine. What my face reflected astonishment. What still seemed to me like a quirky and precarious publication was being taken seriously enough to be roasted at a venue like this.
Early shallow successes made more consequential long-term success possible. This included POLITICO’s march into policy coverage, which is now supported by hundreds of reporters and editors in the United States and Europe, and funded by high-value subscriptions purchased by policy professionals. Last year, POLITICO purchased E&E News, whose expertise on energy and environmental issues allows us to attack what is likely the century’s most important story — climate change and efforts to halt or mitigate its most catastrophic effects.
A paradox: As hard as those early start-up years were, when the possibility of failure seemed so near, the later years were sometimes harder, as we grappled with the reality of success.
What I’ve liked most about 15 years with POLITICO: Friendship, laughter, shared commitment to important work. What I’ve like least: The fact that some good and talented people tended to get lost in the hectic swirl of a startup, and disagreements among us at the top over power, money, recognition.
These tensions reached a peak early in 2016. “Politico implodes,” read the Post headline, in words that are tattooed in my memory, as several of my co-founders announced their departure.
As unwelcome as the moment was, it was a usefully clarifying moment for the larger project of institution-building. The most common outcome for media startups, even ones that draw sizzling notice at the outset, is to streak like a comet across the sky for a season, then fade. Gawker is clinging to life. Huffington Post is a shadow of what it was for a while.
It fell to a new team of leaders, most of them not around during the start-up years, to make sure the Post’s headline turned out to be wrong. This team, of which I am proud to be part, passed the test of building a genuinely durable enterprise. Within five years the publication had more than doubled in revenue, and turned from what had been increasingly worrisome losses to strong and disciplined profitability.
Twin questions are woven throughout many of the developments in the media landscape in recent years. What is the essential engine of impact — is it talented individuals or the institutional platforms that create the conditions for these individuals to be successful? And, if successful, how should the rewards be shared?
People who believe in the essential value of institutional platforms, as I do, have often labored to get the balance right. In my early days in the profession, there was often a stark imbalance at top publications, though nobody seemed to pay it much mind.
When these news organizations began to be disrupted, starting nearly a generation ago, it’s at least somewhat fair to say they had it coming. Many resisted embracing the digital age, and instead focused on plainly futile efforts to mitigate its effects on their core business model. In addition, for many years they had become accustomed to reaping vast financial rewards, while expecting even senior editorial talent to be content to be paid heavily in psychic currency — the prestige that came from being in a top role at a highly respected publication.
As different people have reported on the POLITICO story over the years, it is frequently asserted that Jim VandeHei and I in 2006 took our ideas for building a new platform to cover politics to our bosses at the Washington Post, and they foolishly turned us away. That tale is not quite right. In fact, they encouraged us to stay and build there, with incentives that were generous in the context of the Post at that time. Don Graham was six years away from selling the Post to Jeff Bezos. He was then and remains still among the people I most respect in my career. But there were logical reasons for leaving to join Robert Allbritton in a wholly new venture. An established place like the Post, struggling to retain as much of its old business model as possible while groping warily to build a new one, could not in those days credibly promise a genuinely entrepreneurial culture to support new projects.
Graham had offered me a small share of Post stock, as part of other incentives. He said it could mature into a nice bit of change, but quipped, “It won’t necessarily pay for your kids’ college.” I understood the remark as a genial snap of the towel, and smiled. I also thought to myself, “Well, Ann and I have three young kids, and something’s going to have to pay for college.”
In fairness, neither Graham nor I had any reason to anticipate the dynamics that soon would alter — even distort — the economics of Washington media. At the time, after two decades at the paper, I was pretty well up in the Post’s newsroom org chart and pay scale and felt I was doing fine.
But that was before the Washington media environment became immersed in an intense competition for editorial talent. And it was before the trend I described in PressThink, about journalists fashioning their own brands independent of the platform they worked for, really took hold. Now, almost every day brings new churn: A top writer for the New York Times is departing for a better offer at the Atlantic; a top writer at the Post is leaving for the Times, and another for CBS; a couple talented reporters at POLITICO are leaving for NBC.
I surely know more detail about who’s getting what in Washington journalism than I am at liberty to share. I can say that it is now common for reporters with strong reputations even fairly early in their careers to be making double or more what the most senior print journalists were back in 2006.
That’s a good thing, right? Journalists are finally changing the balance of power between the talent who creates the content and the employer who publishes it. Well, yes — in a limited way. The reality is that the gains are often made by people with a demonstrated talent for driving conversational buzz. Unfortunately, the compensation trend among a narrow sector of Washington journalists is not a great indicator of the broader health of journalism or the vibrancy of the institutions necessary to sustain it. Still, it’s a far better landscape than existed 15 years ago.
If established institutions had it coming with their challenges a generation ago, however, I can’t help but wonder: Who has it coming now?
If you consider just the startups of recent years in which POLITICO alumni have played critical roles during launch they include BuzzFeed, The Intercept, Axios, Puck, Punchbowl, Grid and Smith’s still unnamed new venture. A revived media arena, in which lots of venture capital and advertising dollars are sloshing around Washington and New York, creates abundant opportunities. But it hasn’t transformed the fundamental reality that staying economically healthy for the long term in the media business is very challenging work. So is illuminating the nature of government and corporate power through the kind of journalism that good economic health — and institutional power — can support.
Fifteen years at POLITICO have offered regular reminders that life tends to fluctuate like a sine wave. At the top of a sine wave people tend to assume they are uniquely smart. At the bottom they tend to assume they are uniquely unlucky.
I can wish friends at these new entrants good luck while competing vigorously against them, just as I do with friends at historic institutions like the Post and the Times.
In the end, what we wish for is not good luck for any particular organization but for the profession as a whole — and even more the audience we serve. For 15 years, those of us at POLITICO have worked hard and mostly had fun — a very good combo — trying to serve a growing audience. Let’s see where the next 15 years take us.