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“Complacency, It Really Frightens Me”: Inside Politico’s Ambitious, Anxious Drive to Stay on Top

The primaries were a dud. The general election is a rematch between two well-known candidates unlikely to surprise in a major way. These circumstances have many news organizations anxious about how to keep their audiences engaged this cycle. Alex Burns, though, sees the race as right in Politico’s wheelhouse.

“Nothing focuses the mind quite like a presidential campaign,” says Burns, Politico’s head of news. And the 2024 contest presents an opportunity to “tell a story about the country and the world, anchored in geographies where Politico is very strong,” he notes.

The 37-year-old journalist is steeped in Politico’s ambitions, having started his career in the Arlington, Virginia, newsroom in the summer of 2008, a week after graduating from Harvard, as a researcher for cofounders John Harris and Jim VandeHei. Burns was there for Politico’s rise from start-up to establishment player, covering the 2012 presidential race alongside Maggie Haberman, with both departing for The New York Times in 2015. Seven years later, Burns returned, rejoining Politico, officially, as associate global politics editor and a columnist. But “it was always understood by me that we were going to get him looped in somehow to publication leadership,” Harris tells me.

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Goli Sheikholeslami

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.

Burns is part of a new leadership team with a mandate to ratchet up the intensity and scope of Politico’s journalism, which Harris felt had lost its edge. Launched in 2007, and led by two Washington Post alums, Harris and VandeHei, Politico quickly dominated the insider political conversation and later created the policy-focused Politico Pro, a successful subscription service that has continued to drive the brand’s business. (Last year the company’s global revenue was approximately $250 million—more than half of which came from Pro.) In 2021, Axel Springer, the German publishing giant, purchased Politico for more than a billion dollars. As part of the deal, Politico’s European operation, which previously functioned as a separate sister company, merged with the American arm. New CEO Goli Sheikholeslami, who has a goal of doubling total revenue by 2028, is overseeing the transition into a single global company.

While the media business has been in a state of tumult—with industry-watchers even talking about “extinction-level” conditions—Politico’s business model looks comparatively solid. The challenge Politico faces today is one of identity, amid stepped-up competition in Washington and shifting editorial priorities. In its fifth election cycle, Politico is battling onetime colleagues turned rivals for scoops on its traditional turf while trying to fulfill a more global mandate. “When we were in Iowa for the Iowa caucus, they were sending out emails about how they were in Davos,” a former Politico editor, now at another major news outlet, notes.

Out of concerns that Politico is losing its edge, the untested leadership team is pushing staffers harder. Some journalists see it as the sharpening and discipline Politico has been lacking; others, as micromanagement bogging down a newsroom built on speed. “We’re having an incredible DNA change with no guarantee that it’ll work,” says one staffer. “There’s no clear vision for what they want from us, and it sort of changes day to day,” says another. “People feel really demoralized and frustrated.”

Burns has particularly rubbed people the wrong way with his demanding, sometimes brusk manner. He acknowledges there has been a learning curve in going from reporter-columnist to senior manager. But “the standard that I am measured against in my job is how interesting and incisive our report is, and that has not felt like a particularly new experience for me,” he says. In fact, he adds: “It feels like something I’ve been preparing my whole career to do.”

Early last year, watching Politico from the sidelines, Harris wasn’t particularly impressed. He noticed “a more utilitarian approach to coverage” on the site, he says, and “a lot of stuff that would’ve been equally at home in other news organizations. We’ve got to keep that distinctive sense of place.”

Harris stepped back from daily leadership and into an advisory role in 2019, appointing Matthew Kaminski, Politico’s global editor, to take his place as the top US editor. But he never went far, staying involved in conversations at the highest levels of the company. So when he raised his complaints, people listened. “Anything that carries a whiff of complacency, it really frightens me,” Harris tells me, “because I know how vulnerable institutions can be if they’re not always in a kind of a forward lean.” He didn’t exactly hide his dissatisfaction: “He told people that in the Kaminski era, too much of the journalism resembled buffet food—very undistinguished,” says a former Politico staffer.

One of Harris’s critiques pertained to Politico’s congressional franchise. Harris thought publication leadership “had not responded with sufficient attentiveness and competitiveness” to new players on the Hill, referring especially to Punchbowl News, the Congress-focused start-up founded by three Politico veterans: former “Playbook” coauthors Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, as well as former Capitol Hill bureau chief John Bresnahan. “There are likely zero people who know of Punchbowl or Roll Call but don’t know of Politico, and there are tens of millions who depend on our content who don’t know of and don’t read the others and never will,” Harris says.

Originally Published Here.

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