The inside story of Politico’s ever-evolving media coverage

Politico’s Morning Media newsletter bills itself as “your guide to the media circus.” Every weekday morning, the newsletter delivers a must-read mix of the day’s biggest media headlines to thousands of inboxes. But after the departure of its third curator in as many months, and with a decimated media team, the flagship newsletter lately featured fewer of Politico’s own scoops and more aggregation. And some days, the newsletter seems to be Politico’s sole media product. The blog content is infrequent; its Twitter hasn’t been active since April. Amidst the biggest media story in decades, Politico’s once-formidable media team seems to have quietly dissolved.

Politico’s leadership hopes to put the franchise back on track with its hire this week of HuffPo’s Michael Calderone. He created Politico’s original media beat when he joined the upstart site in 2007, and his rehiring signifies a return to Politico’s roots. For the media beat, that means a return to covering the press through a political lens, rather than as a discrete industry.

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The previous media team’s exodus began in January when Tom McGeveran, who led the media vertical, left the company. McGeveran had joined Politico in 2013 when the company acquired the politics, culture, and media site Capital New York, which McGeveran founded with fellow New York Observer alum Josh Benson. The merger signified Politico’s interest in expanding beyond Washington, DC, and Capital New York rebranded itself Politico New York in 2015. That also marked the consolidation of New York and Washington media staffs under the Politico Media brand, with McGeveran as their editor and champion.

McGeveran’s exit had a ripple effect, based on CJR’s interviews with several former members of Politico’s media team. By late April, both Peter Sterne and Kelsey Sutton had left Politico for gigs at the Freedom of the Press Foundation and Mic, respectively. A few months later, Politico Media’s senior journalists, Hadas Gold and Joe Pompeo, also decamped. CNN poached Gold to cover European politics, media, and business, while Pompeo, who had spent a combined six years covering media for Capital New York and Politico and founded the morning newsletter, moved to The Hive, Vanity Fair’s tech, media, and politics site.

Under McGeveran’s leadership, the media staff grew to five full-time reporters, most of whom he had brought with him from Capital New York. The exception was Gold, who had been covering media and politics for Politico in DC since 2012. Most media reporters were based in New York City, what McGeveran calls “the center of gravity” for media.

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The team launched two paid subscription-based media newsletters in 2014, similar to Politico’s Pro model, while also producing a regular flood of scoops and extensive reporting on the media industry from all angles. In May 2016, Politico opened up its media coverage to a wider audience by removing the paywall from its newsletters and consolidating them into a single free newsletter: the popular Morning Media. “When I started this newsletter a little over a year ago, I didn’t expect it would catch fire the way it did, with tens of thousands of subscribers and a steady stream — often more like a firehose — of reader interaction,” wrote Pompeo in his final email for Politico on July 7 (the company declined to say how many people receive the email).

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Morning Media acted as a relaunch of sorts for Politico Media. McGeveran’s new vision was to create a single online hub that would collate all media-related content across Politico’s platforms: the New York-based media desk (including Morning Media), the Washington-based “On Media” blog, and more in-depth coverage from veteran reporters Jack Shafer and Alex Spence (now with BuzzFeed).  

When McGeveran left Politico, DC-based editors took over the site’s media coverage. There was a push for its junior-level reporters, Sterne and Sutton, to assume new roles in Washington. “In the months after Tom left, it became clear to me that Politico wanted me to relocate to Washington, DC, and cover a beat other than the media beat,” Sterne tells CJR. Both he and Sutton chose to leave rather than move to another desk within Politico.

Staff turnover is not unusual for Politico; major shake-ups have become commonplace over the last few years. But the decimation of the media team was partly the result of a significant change in the scope and direction of Politico’s media coverage. The site has been trying to move away from straight media industry news toward the intersection of media and politics. “To be honest, I think we all felt like on the media desk, we weren’t quite trained to approach media in that way,” McGeveran says. “We had always written about it as a business and not as a politics story or a culture story.”

But by looking at media solely through the frame of politics, Politico risks missing the context, nuance, and texture the industry deserves, including “the various commercial and business pressures [facing] news organizations and journalists,” Sterne says. So much of what happens on the business side of media directly affects the political side, whether that’s Sinclair Broadcast Group’s attempts at acquiring Tribune Media or The Washington Post hiring a new bureau chief. Politico could miss the broader picture of the media environment.

Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico’s editor, tells CJR Politico is committed to its media coverage despite its internal reshuffle. “When we illuminate the intersection of politics and media, our readers eat it up,” Brown says. “It’s always among some of our most-read content. I’m personally really interested and invested in it. We’re in the process of getting back to a staffing level that I believe is appropriate and good for a newsroom of our size.”

ICYMI: Why copy editors are still valuable to the news industry

Brown declined to specify what that staffing level would be, but after Gold left in August, the shop was pretty much empty apart from Shafer, who has remained a senior media writer and columnist. Alex Weprin, who previously managed the media desk, now writes and edits the Morning Media newsletter on a freelance and interim basis, with help from Cristiano Lima, a Web producer. Politico recently hired Jason Schwartz, formerly of ESPN the Magazine, who started as a media writer last week. Calderone starts September 19.

Politico inherited its old media team from Capital New York. Now it’s tasked with rebuilding one from scratch, while fine-tuning its approach. It’s a nearly identical situation to when Calderone first worked at Politico, exactly 10 years ago, though the political climate and company resources are radically different.

The staff and resources were limited Calderone’s first time around at Politico. As the sole media reporter back then, Calderone remembers consuming cable news in the early morning and overnight. “It was scrappy startup out of the gate, still building itself up into what it is now,” he says. “Now it’s an institution in Washington.” Calderone launched Politico’s first media and politics blog in 2008. He penned the blog until he left for Yahoo two years later, where he launched a similar venture, the now-defunct “The Cutline,” before moving onto HuffPo in April 2011. There, he further carved his niche as a media reporter, winning awards for his coverage of the 60 Minutes Benghazi scandal and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, in 2012, he revisited his old stomping grounds at Politico for a juicy piece on its newsroom’s “stressful, hamster wheel environment.”

But Calderone is most proud of the work he did around Trump’s candidacy. His first of many Trump pieces, about the media’s obsession with the candidate, hit HuffPo’s site in July 2015; he would publish more than 60 Trump stories throughout the campaign season. Calderone wants to bring this same level of intensity and acuity back to Politico later this month.

“There’s a huge political media story that we need to focus on,” he says.

ICYMI: WashPo reporter gets Trump administration statement. You can probably guess what happened an hour later.

Correction: A previous version of this story used the wrong title for Brown. She is editor. 

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.