The prospect of Politico inviting me to an internal office meeting seemed about as likely as Washington Post race reporter Wesley Lowery inviting me to accompany him to a Baltimore protest.
But why not?
Politico wanted me to join them on their office field trip from their Northern Virginia parking garage to Northwest Washington, D.C.
As the initial shock wore off, I showed up to Studio Theatre Wednesday afternoon to find a room full of robotic, dressed-up, clean-cut, well-behaved professionals in perfectly pressed suits, colorful dresses, summer heels and pearls.
(This is quite possibly the complete antithesis of The Daily Caller.)
They gave me a Politico pen and offered me white wine.
The first friendly face I spotted at the pre-meeting wine party was Daniel Lippman, Mike Allen‘s deputy in the Playbook universe. Daniel has been correcting my and other journalists’ typos since he was a student at GW. Our conversation went something like this:
Daniel: “What are you doing here?”
Me: “I have no idea. Pretty surprised they invited me.”
Daniel: “I wasn’t even invited. I just came. DON’T WRITE THAT.”
Daniel: “DON’T WRITE THAT.”
Me: “How’s everything going?”
Daniel: “Fine, good. DON’T WRITE THAT.”
Daniel (bluntly changing the subject): “Do you have any summer vacation plans?”
Me: “I’m going to the beach.”
Daniel (prying): “With who?”
Daniel: “What beach?”
Me: [Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah]
Daniel: “Don’t forget to send a picture!”
Me: [Awkward silence]
After the room piled into the theatre and the Politicos took their seats, the lights dimmed and the music video began.
“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…”
Oh, it’s the Coke commercial.
Wait. Are we here to watch the Mad Men finale?
Soon Peter Cherukuri, executive veep of Advertising & Business Development at Politico, took the stage. He wore a dark suit, no tie and a blindingly white button-down opened at the top.
The commercial, he said, was a calculated message for Politico staff – the importance of branding.
“It’s not just paying homage to a show,” he said. “It’s to remind us of what advertising can achieve.”
The company-wide meeting, called “Politico UpFront 2015” is the third of its kind.
“Today we invite you to sit back and go on a journey with us and focus,” Cherukuri purred. (Later he’ll tell them to lean forward — great! Just like the network they’re wedded to: MSNBC.) Behind him on a screen is the late Bobby Kennedy — “to remind us of our focus on high quality journalism.”
Apart from Cherukuri, today’s speakers will be president and CEO Jim VandeHei (to discuss Politico‘s “focus”) and editor Susan Glasser (to explain the “transformation” of the newsroom.)
There were other speakers from the business side of the pub – Jack Smith, Alexis Williams and Cally Baute. Although they were well-spoken and well-dressed, if you needed a light snooze, this was the time to do it.
Baute’s remarks were particularly unmemorable. She talked about the launch of The Agenda, a new newsletter — I think (this was a barbaric amount of information to ingest in one sitting.)
“Some call this wonky, but this is fascinating and critically important,” she insisted, not at all sounding like a Politico robot created in Mike Allen’s famously disastrous office.
At some point, Politico reporter Manu Raju rose out of the audience with a microphone. He’s been a top-tier Politico employee since 2008. He introduced himself and spoke briefly about what he does on Capitol Hill.
Some new things coming to Politico: documentaries and a feature called “First Person” — showing the human side of folks in Washington. You know, like White House Social Secretary Deesha Dyer (yawn) and Fox News’s Bret Baier discussing his young son’s many heart operations. As a component of the feature, there will be Capitol Hill workshops taught by Politico‘s own David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, on how best to take great pictures on your phone.
They paraded the publication’s “leadership team” on stage. This is a new branded content division on the business side called “POLITICO Focus.” It centers on sponsored content and how to target it most effectively to readers. The “team” will be doing an audit of the pub’s advertisers current branded content strategies to figure out how best this business unit can help ($$$ but Zzzzzzzz).
VandeHei was the first leader to step up to the podium.
Looking rather summery in an orange gingham tie juxtaposed with a black suit, he was brimming with confidence. Absolutely nothing could shake him — not even when he locked eyes on my presence in the third row.
A reporter in the audience of their internal cheerleading meeting? How the hell did that happen? Who’s going to get Politicapitated for this?
VandeHei proceeded with an animated speech that could really impress advertisers and boost the self-esteem of anyone who may have been feeling glum.
“At Politico, all of us here are blessed,” he said. “We could do almost anything. We’re savvy. Or we think we’re savvy. There’s more and more of everything. There’s also more crap. How do you find real journalism over time? We think we’re on to something. We want to be the indispensable source of journalism for people of consequence and power.”
VandeHei’s safe word was “focus.” They posted the word on background screens to the left and right of his head.
He explained that Politico started with with “50 people and a garage band” that is now “450 people on different continents.”
Politico likes to talk about its prowess and domination.
“It’s great to dominate Washington,” says VandeHei. “And more often than not, we do.”
But here’s where he said something important, because this meeting was about how Politico is evolving as a company: VandeHei insists it’s not just about DC anymore. “You really have to be in front of people in states, overseas,” he said, adding that the world crushing pub intends to have coverage in every state in the nation.
So what is this evolved Politico?
Notice the shift in his words. Politico has long been dogged for its arrogance and writing fast and superficially.
“Hopefully we’re edgy and fun – hopefully we’re deep,” said VandeHei.
Enter Mama VandeHei.
“My mom reads us and I love that she reads us and I love my mom,” he said to a smattering of laughter.
But the audience he really wants is not his Aunt Brunhilda. “It’s CEOs, business people,” he said. “It’s a select audience. Damn – it’s a really powerful audience.”
Once off stage, I waved at him. He shook his head and something like “Oh, God” came out of his mouth.
Next on tap: Susan Glasser.
As they passed each other on stage, they gave each other an awkward halfway torso brush. Kind of like an air kiss with the rib cage section of their bodies.
For all that’s been whispered about Glasser as of late — that she’s tough, cold and driving Politico stars from the newsroom — her demeanor was anything but those things. She was slightly shy, soft-spoken and sweet in her tone (don’t throw tomatoes at me; no doubt there’s another side, but I can only write what I see.)
“In many ways you and I share the exact same obsession,” she began. “We are not going to be the ‘stuff on the internet’ side of journalism going forward. What I am struck by working with this unique group of people is their ambition.”
Glasser talked about breaking through the noise.
Like VandeHei, she has no problem patting Politico on the back. Bragging is basically one of the publication’s verticals.
She talked about the mayor of New Orleans, who knew details about a Politico story on one of Hillary Clinton‘s chief aides. A Senate committee chairman starts his day with Politico, she swore — before any of the dailies. He says it gives him “what he needs to know to start his day.”
She spoke of a journalism that offers “efficiency.” She also talked about “accountability.” The word “accountability” flashed on screens behind her, along with a story about the conflict of Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) dating a healthcare lobbyist and stories about now ex-Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.).
(Funny, she made no mention of National Review‘s now-deleted story about what cozy ties exist between certain Politico employees and political types around town.)
She closed her speech by thanking reporters.
“I want to thank you,” she said. “Thank you for your journalism. We hope to be a part of it with you for a long time.” (Unlike these people.)
The afternoon ended appropriately enough with a Mike Allen Oprah-esque talk show. Suddenly, four stagehands in all black rushed the stage, bringing out three white leather lounge chairs and two white end tables.
Allen then invited two other Playbook authors onto the stage — Brussels-based Ryan Heath and Miami-based Marc Caputo.
He talked up the “Christmas Morning effect” that Playbook has on people. “What else have they got?” he asked, jubilantly sounding like one of Santa’s elves. “What’s inside? People take their Playbooks seriously.”
Allen put Heath on the spot and asked him to say the name of his book.
“Please Just F Off,” Heath said sheepishly, adding, “I knew he was going to do this.”
Allen said Dad gave them permission. “Jim said it was OK,” he said.
Heath pleaded, “It was a quote from a source.”
Allen continued to try to embarrass him, mentioning that he was the only male who had received roses in the Brussels office and “made everyone jealous.”