“Politico as we’ve come to know it is no longer,” writes Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple. Several key players hit the exits last night, and the question arises as to what remains at the eight-year-old publication. But, regardless of how one regards Politico, do these changes represent an “implosion”? That conclusion seems premature at best, and probably a little hyperbolic:
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 ethicalissues — 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.
Wemple goes into significant detail on the history of personnel changes at Politico and it’s well worth reading for those interested in behind-the-scenes moves, but seems fuzzier on the actual impact of the departure of so much top-level talent. That’s not exactly new either, as Wemple himself points out, as Politico has had a high turnover level for a long time, perhaps in part because of the high-pressure environment to produce moment-to-moment content. How will these departures change Politico’s environment and mission? There doesn’t appear to be a clear answer, other than the potential gap left in that pressure from VandeHei’s departure — at the end of the year.
Wemple’s not alone at the Post in seeing this as an existential event. Chris Cillizza also calls this an implosion that leaves Politico’s identity in the dust:
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.
Cillizza also fails to offer a convincing case about the “fall” of Politico, the end of its identity, or even evidence that it’s going to be reinvented. In fact, he points out that VandeHei claimed a 25% increase in revenues for Politico a year ago (the privately-held company has no requirement to release its financials), and that its already-extant expansions appear to be holding up well. “Politico’s trajectory to date, however,” he concludes, “provides a cautionary tale of the difference between succeeding as a journalistic endeavor and succeeding as a business venture.” If so, it’s a cautionary tale without much evidence of a need for caution, or a lack of success as a business venture.
Publisher Robert Albritton, who owns the company outright, doesn’t seem discouraged. His long missive last night seems to indicate business as usual, and full speed ahead on expansion:
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.
It is a mark of Jim’s professionalism that he was determined to not leave until this place was in steady hands. That is why we will have a transition that has been under discussion for nearly a year and will take place over nearly a year.
In the meantime, my other co-founder, John Harris, has signaled in strong terms his desire to stay as POLITICO writes its next chapter. John spent much of 2015 immersed in the highly successful launch of POLITICO’s European edition. With that venture now on an impressive trajectory, John is free to help me in filling some of the most compelling positions in the media business after a competitive search that will be national in scope. In a steady and purposeful way, we are going to replace a team that has taken us to the moon with the next team of media professionals that can take us far beyond that.
As part of this, I have asked John to take on the title of publisher in addition to editor in chief. The goal during this transition is to never lose touch with the magic embedded in the POLITICO brand, which John understands and articulates as well as anyone. This title underscores that John will be trumpeting that brand, and rallying newcomers to it, across the full enterprise, not only in the newsroom. John believes in the power of teamwork, and I’ve encountered no one better in building teams. As co-founder, John helped build the POLITICO we know today. He did something similar, with equal results, in leading the team that built a brand new publication. With this additional role, I am asking him to help lead us once more in building a POLITICO that will be much bigger than we know today—one that spans the country, spans oceans, and spans languages.
Personnel matters, of course, and dramatic personnel changes can be so disruptive as to become derailing. Owners can often put a gloss on bad news in order to spin it into something more benign, too. It seems premature, however, to claim that Politico has “imploded,” or that it has ceased to exist in its current form. This isn’t an ownership change that portended a massive and arbitrary change of direction or a walkout of long-term staff after one, such as seen at The New Republic, which really has imploded. It’s a staff shake-up and one that will unfold over several months. That should give outside observers reason to expect continuity, not collapse, implosion, and/or reinvention.
Whether that will succeed remains to be seen, and while certainly some would celebrate an “implosion” that Cillizza and Wemple lament prematurely, there is hardly cause for either cheering or weeping yet. Before burying “Politico as we knew it,” maybe someone should check for a pulse first. The old boy still seems to be wiggling a bit.