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Politico Installed a Siren in Its Newsroom to Announce Scoops

Also, revenue is up 25 percent.
Photograph via Shutterstock.

For its latest act of institutional chest-beating, Politico has installed a siren in its Arlington newsroom that goes off every time the website breaks news, according to an internal memo sent Friday morning by chief executive Jim VandeHei. The siren, per VandeHei’s memo, is just one component of Politico’s strategy for 2015, a year in which it plans to expand its investigative and enterprise reporting teams and launch a European addition.

The siren, according to Politico staffers, is the noisy brainchild of Blake Hounshell, the site’s editorial director.

“Is Blake really installing a siren in the newsroom?” VandeHei writes. “Yes. He and Susan“—Glasser, Politico’s top editor—”want people jacked when we break news, whether it’s a quick hit from one of our policy teams or a holy-crap scoop from the Congress gang. It has been and always will be our core strength.”

Politico is enjoying a run of good fortune. It received two National Magazine Award nominations this week, including general excellence for its bimontly print magazine. Further down his memo, VandeHei writes that Politico was profitable in 2014 and grew its revenue by 25 percent, padded by growth in premium subscription products and live events at both the mothership and Capital New York, which it acquired in 2013. The same formula is in the works for Europe.

“We have spent eight years perfecting a blend of high-end ads aimed at policy and political leaders; high-end subscriptions and first-class events,” VandeHei writes. “This worked here, is working in New York, through our sister publication, Capital, and soon will be proven to work in Europe, where this spring our European edition will go live. We are confident we have created a scalable model—so we will scale it, methodically but aggressively.”

Although VandeHei says Politico will continue to invest in its paid platforms and longform journalism, do not expect any slowdown in the heavy-artillery coverage of Congress, the White House, and the impending presidential campaign. “The big reason is our ambitions have changed: we not only want to be the dominant publication covering politics and policy in Washington—we want to be the dominant media player in this space nationally AND globally,” he writes. “This means we need to up all parts of our game.”

While Politico’s appetite appears to be expanding everywhere, breaking-news sirens are just a Rosslyn thing, for which Politico Europe-bound reporter Carrie Budoff Brown is relived.

Read VandeHei’s full memo below:

Magazine award nominations. Staff coming. Staff going. Europe Expansion. Newsroom sirens.

With so much happening so fast, we all feel dizzy. So I decided to sit down and grill myself on what’s really going on behind the curtain at POLITICO. In all seriousness, these are questions I have gotten in my various staff meetings this past week. It makes sense for all of us to know our thinking on them.

I plan on doing a similar note more heavily focused on expansion and business soon, so please keep the questions flowing. Email them to me directly and copy Kayla Cook.

So, what’s the deal with the state of POLITICO? There seems to be lots of people coming and lots of people going. Does this suggest a big shift in direction?

There is no media company growing with more conviction and muscle than us. We are investing heavily in going deeper and wider in Washington politics and policy – and expanding nationally AND globally, so the state of POLITICO is strong as hell. We have a leadership team below me that any CEO in our industry would kill for and a Publisher above with more courage and ambition than any peers. More importantly, this place is stacked with talent in editorial, business and technology that makes explosive growth so attainable.

This is a transformational moment for us. And this means some people are leaving and many more have joined and will join. I think people thought we were joking when we said big change was coming. We were not.

But why have people left?

Three things keep in mind here. First, we are a talent factory, and proudly so. This is a big secret to our success. We are as good as it gets in finding, grooming and promoting the best of the best. We help make you better and more valuable. The downside of this: our competitors are very eager to hire this talent. Such is life in a competitive market. Second, we are in the middle of a substantial transformation of our newsroom – basically marrying our killer instinct and news chops with more investigative and deep-dive journalism. This demands an influx of new talent. I hate to see people I admire go. They worked their tails off to make this place great – and deserve nothing but our thanks and appreciation. Third, I think any healthy, high-achieving company must have turnover every year to stay sharp. Keeping the same staff and doing the same thing forever isn’t a sign of success – it’s stagnation.

The one thing that bothers me about some coverage of comings and goings is the lack of emphasis on the flood of new talent. I would argue we haven’t seen this big and sustained influx of big, proven editing and reporting stars since our initial staff-up in 2007.

Has our strategy changed? It seems like there is much emphasis on the magazine or long-form side of things. Isn’t that a shift from killer metabolism of old?

Hell NO…and hell yes. We want to sharpen and expand what made us great: the killer instinct, the maniacal focus on scoops and authoritative dominance on politics and policy. That will never change. But that just isn’t enough to drive the conversation in 2015. You need to do more because everyone else is trying to be fast and edgy like us. So, we are pouring millions into adding deep-dive, original reporting to the arsenal. It’s not either-or. We want to be better – way better – than anyone else at BOTH. That is what we are doing.

Is Blake really installing a siren in the newsroom?

Yes. He and Susan want people jacked when we break news, whether it’s a quick hit from one of our policy teams or a holy-crap scoop from the Congress gang. It has been and always will be our core strength.

But why have so many of the recent hires been for enterprise and investigative positions then?

Susan’s transformational newsroom plan will take several months to unfold in full. We rock at what we have always done – hence, our endless flow of breaking news on Capitol Hill and the campaign. Her first phase is to build out what we didn’t have: editors and reporters to work across the newsroom to deliver investigative and enterprise stories only a place with our talent and expertise can deliver. Phase two will be to fortify the rest of POLITICO, starting with the political team.

Wait: if POLITICO rocks, why change at all?

The big reason is our ambitions have changed: we not only want to be the dominant publication covering politics and policy in Washington – we want to be the dominant media player in this space nationally AND globally. This means we need to up all parts of our game.

A lot of media companies wait until it’s too late to sharpen their approach. Complacency is a slow, sly killer. John and I have always promised that we will never let that happen here.

What we are doing is trying to serve our very sophisticated readers and subscribers a combination of speed, authority and hard-to-replicate-or-steal original content. We believe in this short-attention span world of today, this is how you break through, protect and grow your brand and deepen your relationship with your readers, subscribers and advertisers. It is our hope that this mission inspires the most talented editorial, business and technology minds to stay, come and do something important and special on a global scale. And it is our belief that our readers, subscribers and advertisers value us so much because we are relentlessly thinking about how you make great greater.

This makes sense. But then why do I read so much coverage about our moves – some if it critical or snarky – on other sites?

You just can’t get worked up about criticism. In fact, you should be humble enough to mine it for any truth. We are not a conventional company. This reminds me of my first cool assignment as a reporter. I am a Packers fanatic. As a young sports reporter in Oshkosh, I was sent to interview Chuck “The Hitman” Cecil, a young safety who hit like a bullet train. He was sitting at a table, mobbed by people. I asked him if this ever gets old, all the swarming and questions and criticism. He said “beats the hell out of being on the other side of the table, ignored.” I agree with Chuck.

Are we making money?

We were profitable again in 2014 and grew revenue by 25 percent AND invested big in expansion. Roy Schwartz is a terrific Chief Revenue Officer and his team is on quite a roll. I would be surprised if anybody in media has a more talented and driven business team – or a more ambitious and dedicated Publisher than Robert Allbritton.

We have spent eight years perfecting a blend of high-end ads aimed at policy and political leaders; high-end subscriptions and first-class events. This worked here, is working in New York, through our sister publication, Capital, and soon will be proven to work in Europe, where this spring our European edition will go live. We are confident we have created a scalable model – so we will scale it, methodically but aggressively.

So when will POLITICO Europe go live?

This spring. Harris is leading the expansion into Europe. He hired an amazing editor, Matt Kaminski from the Wall Street Journal, and they are going on a hiring spree. Bill Nichols and Danielle Jones are playing huge roles in helping John pull this off. By the end of the year, POLITICO should have more reporters and editors on politics and policy than any publication on that continent. And our very own Carrie Budoff Brown will be among the star writers for our European edition.

Maybe this is distracting you guys, pulling you away from our core mission?

Nope. We have worked methodically for the past 18 months to make this moment a successful and profitable one for all. We expanded our leadership team – and John and I both took on more expansive roles to handle the various aspects of growth. What should comfort you and leave you with unshakable confidence is that the leadership team below us is insanely talented, high-achieving and capable. This expansion allows leaders like Kim Kingsley to take on bigger, more influential roles and run substantial parts of the company. That’s the whole game, folks: having tons of talent to execute a smart, proven plan. Thanks to all of you, we have it. So never lose that swagger. And enjoy this huge growth spurt ahead.

Thanks for reading – and for all you do.

Jim

PS – Please do keep firing me questions.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.