Politico’s shrinking pains

Vince Coglianese Editorial Director
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Politico’s got problems.

Huffington., The Huffington Post’s iPad-only magazine, is out with a new article today giving readers an inside look at the struggles of Politico — a Northern Virginia-based newspaper and website.

Here are the top 9 juiciest tidbits from the piece (because the tenth item would have been a little too inside baseball, kind of like Politico). If you want to read the whole thing, it’s 99 cents on the iPad.

1.) Politico’s “screw loose” reporters drink the Kool Aid

“Vandehei, who’s fond of saying that his most successful worker bees have a certain ‘screw loose,’ also embraced the idea that everybody at his politics-obsessed enterprise should just keep swallowing their Kool Aid. ‘We get flak for being a cult sometimes,’ Vandehei said, according to staffers present. ‘But you know what? We are a cult!'”

2.) Politico’s top editors, Jim Vandehei and John Harris, may not stick around much longer

The article regularly recites a rumor that Politico’s top newsmen might not stick it out until the 2016 election cycle.

“Having built a sizable and still-expanding newsroom of 225 editorial and business staffers, Politico has to size up new revenue streams and reshape the franchise in such a way that staffers speculate the company’s co-founders may not stick around a few years from now.”


Vandehei and Harris “may grow restless and depart if Politico Pro [a pricey subscription-based policy news service] — and a more trade-oriented news approach — come to dominate and define the enterprise.”

3.) Politico’s traffic is down from last year, and it’s an election year

In a trend first noted by The Daily Caller, Politico’s traffic has fallen behind its rivals in 2012, and has yet to even meet its 2011 high-water mark.

“In the middle of an election year, with political junkies frothing, Politico’s traffic during the first five months of 2012 is down, from an average of 4.229 million unique visitors in 2011 to 4.165 million so far this year, according to the Internet marketing research firm comScore.”

4.) So many staffers have left Politico that they’ve stopped serving the ‘awkward cake’

Departures have become so routine that the going-away parties have fallen off.

“Politico has long had trouble retaining talent in its newsroom, where staffers thrive or barely survive in a male-dominated, hard-driving environment defined by frantic 5 a.m. emails from editors and weekend assignments. There have been so many departures lately that Politico editors have done away with the traditional going-away cake in the newsroom, which staffers jokingly call the ‘awkward cake’ given what they describe as Harris’ sometimes clumsy send-offs.”

5.) Politico staffers were not pleased Politico accused The New York Times and Washington Post of liberal bias

On May 31, Politico argued in a report authored by Vandehei and Mike Allen that The New York Times and The Washington Post were biased against Romney and in favor of Obama in their political coverage. “Some in the Politico newsroom weren’t happy with the piece. One staffer said it ‘went over extremely poorly’ with the rank-and-file and looked like top writers were simply ‘picking a fight unnecessarily’ with competitors.”

6.) Ben Smith can do whatever he wants in the eyes of Politico, even break his contract

Ben Smith pulled an exceptional move for a Politico reporter. He broke his contract with Politico to leave for BuzzFeed in 2012. Politico, looking to avoid a public fight, chose not to sue and instead settled an arrangement with Smith to produce a weekly column for Politico while not publishing under his own byline on BuzzFeed for the duration of the GOP nominating process, hence the use of “BuzzFeed Politics” instead. “Then Smith stopped writing the Politico column in March and began using a byline on BuzzFeed, even though Romney was not yet the official nominee. ‘We love Ben. We’re not talking about that contract,’ Vandehei says.”

7.) Politico staffers compete under a ‘star-system’ for attention from the bosses

“Politico staffers routinely talk of a Politico ‘star-system’ in which a handful of reporters in the VandeHarris orbit receive preferential treatment from company leadership, while the majority are left drilling in a far off journalistic galaxy. One former staffer likens the newsroom to ‘The Hunger Games,’ in which young people fight to the death for the enjoyment of the privileged class.”

8.) Politico reporters mostly suck on television

Most Politico reporters just aren’t that good on television. In 2008, “[Don] Ennis helped create Capitol Sunday, which aired on Allbritton’s ABC affiliate, WJLA-7, and featured the station’s top anchor, Leon Harris, as host, with a rotating cast of Politicos coming in. Ennis said Politico writers were usually great at answering specific questions, but their attempts at longer riffs on politics — the type of insidery banter that comprises much of the Politico Live broadcasts — didn’t work well in a visual medium. ‘What’s that expression from Saturday Night Live, not ready for primetime?’ says Ennis…” The show was cancelled in May of that year.

9.) There’s speculation that Politico is ‘a vanity project,’ and not profitable

“Since Allbriton is privately held, it’s impossible to dig into the financials and verify that claim and there have long been doubts about whether Politico actually has earnings putting the company in the black. Since wealthy people have been known to bankroll money-losing media outlets for the influence they carry, there have also been suggestions that Politico is a vanity project for Robert Allbritton, son of local media titan Joe Allbritton…”

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