News & Politics

Michael Schaffer Will Leave Washingtonian for Politico

He'll write a column about DC power. The city magazine needs a new editor.

Washingtonian Editor Michael Schaffer will leave the publication to take a job at Politico. Schaffer notified staff of his decision Wednesday morning; Politico announced it Thursday in Playbook. Washingtonian executive editor Sherri Dalphonse will serve as interim editor while the magazine searches for a replacement.

Schaffer, 48, came to Washingtonian in July 2014 from the New Republic, where he was editorial director. Prior to that gig, he was editor of Washington City Paper. At Politico, staffers read in a memo Thursday morning, Schaffer will “write a weekly reported column that takes readers inside Washington–the personalities and institutions that animate it.” Reached by phone Thursday, Schaffer said his last writing-focused gig was at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he covered city politics. (Amid his management responsibilities, he nevertheless found time to knock out pieces for Washingtonian.) The new column will be “about the culture and institutions of Washington,” he says. “Which is the subject I’ve been obsessed with as the editor of this magazine.” There will also be an editor/management component to the new job.

At Politico, Schaffer will rejoin Editor-in-Chief Matthew Kaminski. The two last worked together as editors of the Augur Bit, the student newspaper at Georgetown Day School. His column will be located in Politico Magazine, which former Washingtonian Editor Garrett Graff also once edited. (Washington is a small place.) The magazine no longer appears in print but is Politico’s home for long-form profiles, thinky opinion pieces, and deep dives—not hugely dissimilar from Washingtonian‘s feature well. So why leave, Mike? One major motivation, he says, is the resources available at a publication Axel Springer recently purchased for a reported $1 billion: “They are in an environment of growth and thinking about things like new ideas, new products, and new ambitions”—classic Schaffer territory. As Washingtonian tends to do, we asked Schaffer how he planned to approach Politico’s insistence on referring to itself in capital letters. “I plan to add one capital a month,” he says. “By late fall, the whole word should be capitalized.”

At Washingtonian, Schaffer oversaw the venerable city magazine becoming, as he puts it, “A little smarter, a little tougher, a little more knowing about this city that I call home.” His goals when he arrived? “I wanted the highs to be higher and the lows to be lower,” he says. ” I think we did that.” Washingtonian was twice named the top city magazine in the country by the City and Regional Magazine Association while he was honcho. “We published some memorable and meaningful pieces,” he says, citing Luke Mullins’ story about DC’s secret Covid morgue, Jessica Sidman’s article about what it was like to work at the Trump Hotel (the most-read story in the magazine’s history), and Marisa Kashino’s piece about Washington’s pandemic real-estate boom as a few recent high points. “I think we did a really good job covering how Washington lives,” he says. “I think we did what a city magazine is supposed to do.” Web readership has skyrocketed during Schaffer’s tenure—one of 2020’s few gifts was traffic almost six times what it was when he arrived.

As they have for most people everywhere, the last two years at Washingtonian have held a few trials. In addition to financial stresses that led to management laying off its editorial fellows, the magazine’s staff staged a walkout and formed a union following the publication of an op-ed by CEO Catherine Merrill last May in the Washington Post where she floated the idea of turning employees who didn’t want to return to the office into independent contractors. (Washingtonian moved to a new office on K Street during the pandemic; it remains lightly used.) That was all tough, Schaffer says, but he also maintains he has few regrets.

“Look, I’m middle management,” he says. “Managing tensions among the staff is a tough thing but I have so really loved and respected everyone involved in our operation.”

Let’s go back to the regrets for a moment. The one he mentioned immediately is the diversity of the publication’s staff. “One of the things for any editor-in-chief anywhere is you just don’t get to hire that many people,” he says. “There weren’t that many opportunities; I wish I could have done more.” On balance, he says, I think we did pretty amazing work getting rolling together in the face of a really shocking and terrible time when not only was it tough professionally but people were worried about theirselves, their families, and their health.” 2021 was harder than 2020, he says: “The adrenaline kind of dissipated.”

When I covered Schaffer’s move to his current job in 2014, I asked him how he expected his editorial sensibility, honed under legendary City Paper Editor David Carr and tempered by stints in newspapering and political journalism, might mesh with Washingtonian‘s. So I asked for an update. “I am interested in stories about power, chronicling the way it’s used and its folkways,” he says. “I think where the alt-weekly stuff comes through, I hope, is an aversion to cliché and thinking people are necessarily noble just because they’re in a high position. But where the big magazine sensibility comes through is being able to focus on important and highly influential people and institutions and not run away from them.” Did it work? “I’m an editor. I’m perennially dissatisfied,” he says. But: “I think we hit that a lot more often than we did not.”

His family, he says, is “very excited” about the move. “I have spent ten years in one way or another being a newsroom leader. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m good at it but I’m also comfortable at it. I think we tell our kids to go out and seek new adventures and flex new muscles, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Here’s Politico’s memo:

We’re thrilled to announce a hire that will add some exciting new dimensions to POLITICO’s coverage of Washington as a capital and as a culture, and to the Magazine’s ability to deliver top-notch storytelling and journalism about American power.

Michael Schaffer, editor of Washingtonian magazine, will be joining us to write a weekly reported column that takes readers inside Washington – the personalities and institutions that animate it – and to serve as a senior editor on the magazine.

Michael cut his teeth as a young writer for Washington City Paper, working for the late David Carr. Later, he covered City Hall for The Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote the 2009 book One Nation Under Dog. He returned to City Paper as editor from 2010-2012, before becoming digital chief of The New Republic. In 2014, he was named editor of Washingtonian, one of the nation’s largest city magazines.

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.

During his tenure, Washingtonian was twice named the top city magazine in the country, publishing a slew of arresting covers and award-winning stories while also growing web traffic and social engagement. Michael has a reputation as one of the capital’s most dynamic journalists and editors, someone able to shape stories that illuminate the city’s changing culture of power—and assemble a talented cadre of writers to help produce them. He’s also a Washington native, whose reference points of the folkways of the capital extend into his 1980s boyhood.

At POLITICO, he’ll deploy his skills and background to write a column that we expect to be a staple of our Washington coverage. He will also help the Magazine recruit and edit a new crop of contributors to build out our coverage of Washington, its networks and its power structures. Coverage of the Washington “village” has been a core part of POLITICO’s DNA from its inception, and the announcement today is an illustration of our ongoing commitment to that mission.

Mike and his wife Keltie Hawkins and daughters Ellie and Eva live in Chevy Chase DC with their ill-behaved dog, Rosie. We hope you’ll join us in welcoming Mike when he starts his new position in late January.

Matt
Peter
Steve

And here’s the memo Merrill sent to staff Thursday:

Team –

As I told you on yesterday’s call, after over seven years at the editorial helm of Washingtonian Michael Schaffer will be stepping down to take a full time job at Politico Magazine where he will have a weekly column. Michael’s contributions to Washingtonian and to me personally have been immense.

As native Washingtonian, Michael knows Washington and all its facets better than almost anyone I have ever met. When I hired him we soon discovered that our fathers had been friends while living in India in the early 1960s. Our bond was formed. Under his tenure, he has produced great journalism and has always strived (and almost always succeeded) to make our next issue better than our last. His success as an editor can be measured in numerous City and Regional Magazine awards as well as in first-rate journalism read on our pages. Moreover, he has been a constant source of great story ideas and a tireless mentor to talent. He indeed has brought onboard many of our very exceptional editorial staff. Helping oversee the web, we have seen our online traffic grow from roughly one million uniques a month to now nearly three million uniques. Our social media reach has quadrupled under his tenure as well.

We wish Mike success and happiness. I can’t wait to read him in his next career and I look forward to watching him grow into his next chapter.

I will begin the search for a new editor after the new year. In the interim I have asked Sherri Dalphonse to step in. With 35 years of experience, Sherri knows our brand better than anyone at the magazine. I am very comfortable in her leadership and her journalism expertise. We have a first rate team and I have confidence we will continue to deliver great journalism and help our 400,000 readers to get the most out of living in the Washington region.

Cathy

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.