The site took another big hit Friday morning when it lost Maggie Haberman, who is going to the NYT and taking her unmatched Hillary Clinton coverage with her. NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet did warn in a recent memo that they’d carefully make a few outside hires after a recent spate of layoffs and buyouts.
In recent months, Politico has made a lot of serious changes, including positioning Susan Glasser in the suburban Virginia bureau as editor. John Harris, meanwhile, is still editor-in-chief in title, but has fled to Brussels to start up Politico Europe — taking a page out of Breitbart News’ playbook.
Even President Obama questioned Politico‘s decision to set up shop in Europe, saying at a recent White House press briefing, “I have no doubt that what Brussels needs is a version of Politico,” he cracked with obvious sarcasm. At least one Politico reporter, Jennifer Epstein, missed the joke.
Since the summer, six Politico reporters have fled for CNN. They include Rachel Smolkin, Jedd Rosche, Steven Sloan, Dianna Heitz, Eric Bradner, and MJ Lee, who is married to Alex Burns, a former top-tier Politico reporter who sources say quietly left the publication and is now trying to land a job at the NYT.
Sources hint that Politico could lose even more of its workforce to CNN with several writers reaching out to the network — and other outlets — for jobs.
Byron Tau left in November for the Wall Street Journal. Jonathan Martin, once one of Politico’s most prominent bylines, went to the NYT in May, 2013 and Politico management couldn’t have gushed and complimented themselves more for it.
In September, 2014, they lost their NYT star hire Rick Berke, who didn’t even last a year in the executive editor post, citing a disagreement in strategy of how to achieve their goals.
Still others have fled to National Journal, where ex-Politico Tim Grieve, now editor, is still nursing old wounds by stealing a bunch of Politico reporters. Some of whom include Patrick Reis, Tim Alberta and Emily Schultheis. Just this week, they lost Paige Winfield Cunningham to the Washington Examiner.
According to WaPo, Politico has officially lost a whopping 25 percent of its staff in the past year. Ouch.
A couple of things are happening here:
1.) Sources tell The Mirror that President and CEO Jim VandeHei and Harris have had some sort of rift — it’s been kept quiet, until now.
2.) Meanwhile, Glasser’s combative management is turning some reporters off and making them look for an escape hatch. Yes, women like Glasser can be thought of as “combative” and still be highly effective — and she is. She’s known for rescuing Foreign Policy Magazine.
She’s also known for rubbing people at the Washington Post the wrong way, which is why they repositioned her at Foreign Policy and let her reinvent it like a startup. While there, she made an impact — she ruffled feathers, she made enemies, and, as one source put it, “she shook shit up.”
She’s excellent at turning around small projects such as Foreign Policy, which is why Vandehei and Harris’ decision to put her at the helm of Politico Magazine was the smart move. But putting her in charge of the whole ship?
“She was incredibly disruptive at the Washington Post,” a media insider told The Mirror on condition of anonymity to explain why she shouldn’t be running Politico.
What’s more, with a VandeHarris rift, the sentiment is that there’s no way to rein Glasser in. Harris knew her strengths and weaknesses. Like Glasser, VandeHei is combative and competitive in nature — so he probably doesn’t view those attributes as liabilities. “Jim doesn’t realize or doesn’t care,” a source told The Mirror.
“They struck gold once,” the media insider told The Mirror, citing the failures of the CLICK gossip section and TBD, the local news site that landed in a ditch at the hands of Erik Wemple, now at WaPo. “But can they strike gold again in Europe?”
As the source explains it, at least in the U.S., “they’ve plateaued.”
But “plateaued” is a generous interpretation.
In recent months, VandeHei’s also declared that Politico no longer cares about traffic — a dramatic change for the once-highly-relevant outlet.
“High traffic is way overrated,” VandeHei told Digiday in 2013. “It works if you are truly a traffic hose, like BuzzFeed. But, for speciality sites, it is all about the right readers. The advertisers we want are the knowing ones seeking to influence a very attractive and hard-to-reach set of readers. If we deliver those readers, the traffic numbers will mean little.”
In October, 2014, an unnamed Politico source reiterated that sentiment to WaPo, calling it a “post-traffic publication.”
But sources say the publication’s sudden lurch is why some reporters are jumping ship. Working for Politico has lost its luster. Morale within is low. Staff is watching with dismay as Politico becomes more left-leaning under Glasser — a charge the site was once obsessed with rebutting — with openly liberal writers like Todd Purdham, The New Republic’s Timothy Noah, TIME‘s Michael Crowley (formerly of the The New Republic), and Politico Magazine Editor Michael Hirsch, who recently called former V.P. Dick Cheney a “war criminal” on Twitter. (Hirsch was a member of the now defunct JournoList and a regular on the lefty online streaming program The Young Turks.)
They’ve even brought on reporters that have journalists around town wondering if they’re still serious. Among them, the bombastic pro-labor activist Mike Elk — the journalist who openly says he has Asperger’s syndrome and has repeatedly attacked Politico online. He’s been a good boy since being hired.
In recent weeks, they’ve also put out an offer to Hollywood’s wildest writer Nikki Finke, who is apparently still weighing her options. [RELATED: Will Nikki Finke, A ‘Raging Ball Of Crazy’ Make It Harder For Politico To Suck Up To Washington?]
“They still break news, but it’s less buzz-y and less interesting than it used to be,” said a Washington, D.C. political editor who has observed Politico from its birth. “Politico used to be known for its sizzle and steak. Now, it’s more sizzle.”
The Mirror requested comment from VandeHei, Harris and Glasser. None responded on the record.
With the publication setting its sights on Europe, many believe its losing its way. Losing marquee journalists like Haberman, Burns, Tau, Smolkin and Martin are just a symptom of the problem. A D.C. reporter cracked, “Reporters are bolting the fuck out of there.”
Politico tried to blunt this morning’s Haberman news by announcing that twice-fired Jack Shafer is coming aboard. Though he appears to be highly respected by the Washington Group Think crowd, in 2013, Slate let him go. And in 2014, Reuters also saw fit to cut him loose.
And Shafer’s hire introduces another juicy, emerging scandal: Can Politico really handle Dylan Byers and Shafer at the same time?
Only time will tell.