CLEVELAND — Mike Barnicle, the Boston newspaper columnist-turned-MSNBC analyst, held aloft his cellphone when asked over breakfast to explain the success of Politico, the 24/7 politics site and newspaper that was greeted with skepticism upon its 2007 launch.
“They’re first on this,” Barnicle said, phone hovering over omelet. “They got here first and are still dominant. And this is a habit harder to break than crack cocaine.”
The habit is a function of a feverish quest to break news, offer analysis and profile the multiplicity of actors in the political realm, be they saints, sinners or somewhere in between. And there’s not much better time to inspect the operation of what’s become a must-scan politics site than during the massively chronicled American rite of a political convention (yes, with 15,000 credentialed media).
Politico was in Cleveland with 30 editorial folks, which is small compared to the contingents of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, among others. But it’s supplemented with a solid cadre back at its Rosslyn, Virginia, headquarters after many months of planning.
“It started in late fall,” said Kristin Roberts, the national editor overseeing coverage after careers at National Journal and Reuters. Imbued with what she and her outgoing boss, Susan Glasser, maintain is a de facto Roberts planning gene, she began discussing “what kind of footprint we wanted, what to do differently than the past, what to do journalistically but also optically to have a big show of force.”
Whereas it used to “move the entire newsroom to the convention,” as a show of force, the contingent is now composed of “newsbreakers and editors, and people to oversee events.” The latter social functions are in abundance and central to many media outlets at the conventions.
It explains unceasing breakfasts, lunches and parties with many bigshots — and the subsequent ability of journalists to get through a convention week being well-fed, at times feeling quite hungover and, yes, rarely touching their wallets. It’s a moocher’s high-end paradise, even if the internet and need to file frequently can complicate the mooching.
Her strategic editorial decision was to focus on trying to break news with 20 to 25 reporters at the conventions themselves (it wound up closer to 30) and consolidating virtually all production back in Roslyn. She handles enterprise oversight herself and lets headquarters “do everything that’s on TV,” meaning stories on speeches and even most of the anti-Trump protests (in part relying on live video and police scanners).
Building up two parallel managerial structures, one at the convention and the other back home, she needed one means of communication. Email was too slow, phones too confusing, she concluded. She went with Slack, which everybody at Politico has on their phones. Need to quickly insert a paragraph into a story? You do it via Slack.
Months were spent on intended enterprise pieces that were edited well in advance. They included Shane Goldmacher with a deeply reported opus on the GOP’s “shadow convention,” namely the plotting behind the scenes for months about how to revive the party after a Trump defeat. Then there was “The old cassettes that explain Mike Pence,” a smart look at his radio past that entailed tracking down tapes from old ham radio clubs in Indiana, burning them onto CDs and analyzing them. That took a month of labor by Darren Samuelsohn.
There were several dozen others ready to go and part of a plan to have one big story each morning and attempt to hook readers on staying with the site all day.
Those tales last week also included how Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner wound up virtually taking over the campaign and how Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus lost much control of the entire Republican campaign in the wake of Trump’s ascendancy and ego.
In fact, the basic plan is four lead pieces each morning, four at midday and four in the evening. And, instead of a traditional profile of Trump and Clinton on their nomination acceptance nights, the decision was to go with packages that included a sort of “best of” Politico’s reporting on each nominee in preceding months.
“If you publish on the morning of a big day, like a debate night, and have a phenomenal piece of reporting, you get a huge audience in the morning that stays with you all day,” Roberts said in Politico’s main Republican Convention space last week that was conspicuously (and intentionally) private and not directly next to others. “Then they read all your debate night overage. We used it every debate night, every voting night. That was approach I took in planning. For this: What is my big story every single morning? That’s why so many were commissioned so early.”
It wasn’t long ago, in a world with a small group of media gatekeepers deciding what was the big campaign “news” of a day, that such premeditation wasn’t so incumbent. The universe of high-quality competition was smaller than today, she notes, and there weren’t the pressures brought by the internet.
“Now almost every news organization has somebody who is good at this,” says Roberts. “Some have a lot of people who are good. I have lots of people who are good. The strategic challenge is bigger than that because the reader doesn’t care where information coming from. They don’t want a rehash of past, don’t want a history lesson, they want what is new.”
“The fact that there are so many good reporters on the politics beat, and more organizations willing to throw money at the story, and knowing readers will go anywhere, forces us to think further ahead to figure what is Politico. I don’t assume a built-in audience. I have to earn the audience every single day. I need a scoop-filled piece of journalism every day. And that takes a lot of effort. So I also have to be ruthless about what I reject and deciding what’s not a lede story.”
Several years into Politico’s life, it was apparent that it had humbled The Washington Post on what had been its bread and butter, covering Congress and national politics. I remember being asked by a high-ranking editor at The Post for my take on the paper, telling him his butt was being kicked by Politico and he’d best get into action quickly. It took longer than I would have figured — and a new owner (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) and a new editor (Marty Baron) — have them back in the game.
Roberts seems to possess few worries about that revitalization or doubt about Politico’s primacy. “The Post is coming back. I love having that competition. I think we’re beating the shit out of it. I look at the internal drama in the Trump campaign and believe nobody did it better. We were incredibly well-sourced.”
“Am I worried about a blank check (from Bezos)? No.”
Politico has never been faultless. At times over the years it’s seemed lost in the weeds some days, with a culture built on being irrepressibly timely verging on the truly inconsequential and hyperbolic. They can be afflicted with a somewhat self-centric perspective and zest for the self-promotional. Politico Playbook, its long signature column developed by hyperactive and prolific recent departee Mike Allen, at times was too reflective of the log rolling among media and political elites that is central to life in the capital. Its commercial success, though, is unassailable.
But the overriding fact is that former Washington Post reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei took a vision that their old employer spurned and created an important, influential journalism organ (with the substantial backing of Robert Allbritton, heir to a media fortune).
I’ve been in the offices of U.S. senators and congressmen who grouse about Politico’s alleged superficiality while checking to see what’s the latest on it. And for their coterie of young, often sycophantic aides, it’s essential.
No surprise, there have been some typical organizational politics. Those include VandeHei splitting Politico earlier in the year with several prominent colleagues amid strategic disputes with Allbritton. Glasser departs shortly for Israel with her husband, New York Times correspondent Peter Baker, and her successor, longtime reporter Carrie Budoff Brown, has never had a managerial task so large. But for now, the enterprise seems in pretty solid shape.
“There were a lot of skeptics about Politico at the beginning, me among them,” says David Axelrod, the political strategist and CNN pundit who now runs a politics institute at the University of Chicago. “But it indisputably has become a force in the coverage of Washington and politics.”
“It is a mix of the sacred-solid, thorough reporting; a provocative magazine — and the profane-silly Washington scuttlebutt and trivia that doesn’t add much.”
And, says the former journalist, “At a time when good news jobs are hard to find, they’ve hired and developed great young talent, more than a few of whom left and are now driving coverage at places like the (New York) Times. And they’ve hired some established stars, like Roger Simon and Todd Purdum.”
Not coincidentally, it was Purdum, a former New York Times stalwart, who authored a provocative Sunday’ offering “What is it with Hillary Clinton?” that caused a ruckus among Team Clinton and some supporters.
“What is it about this brilliant and accomplished woman — described by Barack Obama as possibly ‘more qualified’ to be president than anyone in history — that makes so many people certain she is an incurable liar? More than anything else about Clinton — her occasional tin ear for politics, her seeming inability to connect with large crowds, her ultra cautiousness — it is the trust issue that could yet cost her a general election she should otherwise win, given her opponent’s vulnerabilities.”
At minimum, it was a pretty tidy pre-emptive journalistic strike to refocus readers’ attention from Donald Trump in Cleveland to a week ahead with Clinton in Philadelphia.