Q&A: Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman on Capitol coverage in the new Washington

During the Trump years, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer delivered politics-obsessed professionals and observers a predawn, must-read Beltway Bible as the authors of Politico Playbook. As the page turns to the Biden era, they’re betting that their expertise—and their Rolodexes—will power a new outlet worth paying for. 

Along with veteran Hill reporter John Bresnahan, also most recently at Politico, Sherman and Palmer last week launched Punchbowl News, a startup that aims to bring an intense focus on the people who power the US legislature. The outlet, named for the Secret Service’s code name for the US Capitol, received all the pageantry accorded to a big new deal: a profile in the New York Times, a behind-the-scenes exploration of tensions between the authors and their former colleagues at Politico

The offerings from Punchbowl to date include a free weekday-morning newsletter, afternoon and evening editions available to premium subscribers—price tag for an annual subscription: $300—along with Zoom Q&As with the authors and a Sunday conversation that Sherman says has drawn interest from television networks. 

Sherman, Palmer, and Bresnahan expected their first week to be eventful, with a speakership election and electoral vote certification on the schedule. On Wednesday, along with much of the Capitol Hill press corps, Sherman and Bresnahan found themselves part of the story, sheltering in place as a mob of pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the seat of the US legislature. 

Sherman spoke with CJR at the close of Punchbowl’s first week about his plans for the outlet, the state of DC journalism, and how to approach reporting in the new Washington. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

I’m not looking for this to be a place where you’re going to get a hate-read about how somebody is a horrible person or an evil genius. We are writing about power, the exercise of power, and people abusing power.

 

You were in the building last Wednesday. Have you had a chance to reflect on that experience?

Yeah, this was a tragic incident. I’ve been a reporter at the Capitol for eleven years. This is a second home for us, so it hit really hard. The difference between Congress and a lot of other beats is we really live among the members of Congress in the sense that there’s a ton of access to people. We could basically go wherever we want. 

When we go to work in the morning, we come to the Capitol. It’s where I’m sitting now. We were sitting here in this room and hearing bangs all around us, people banging on the door and people smashing through the glass. That image that has been all over the news now, of people smashing through the glass and knocking over the police officer—we were standing right there. That’s maybe a hundred feet from where we sit every day. So it’s like people coming into your home and breaking all your stuff. I don’t know if I have any real reflections beyond that. 

Our biggest fear for years was always something would happen like this, and that since this building is so big, they would never be able to get the people out. Luckily, thank God, they were able to clear these people out. It was terrifying, and the loss of life is horrible. I don’t know the police officer [who was killed], but a lot of people that we know in the police force know him. So that’s a long answer to say it was a searing incident for all of us in the Capitol press corps. 

 

Launching any new outlet implies that you see a gap in the way politics is covered. How would you describe the space that you envision Punchbowl filling?

Number one, we think news should not be a one-way street. News should be a conversation between the audience and the reporters. We did a bunch of that in our previous iteration, but this should be more constant, creating conversation around content. 

Number two is, we want to chart power. Our goal is to chart power and to focus on the one hundred people that matter. The center of that is the congressional leadership and the people around the congressional leadership, the corporations that war in Washington, and the leadership at the White House. We’re not going to chase shiny objects. We feel, based on our experience, that we have a unique skill and a unique know-how about Washington and how business gets done. We think of it as the politics of legislating. 

People view the congressional beat as a stopping point on a larger political reporting journey that might include going to the White House. We think the Capitol is the center of the political universe, and we’re trying to, for lack of a better word, productize that theory of the case. It’s a great time to do this, because Joe Biden has a very ambitious agenda that all has to come through the Capitol. 

We call it a news community, because we live among our readers. We live in the Capitol, and we exist among our readers in a physical and a kind of a metaphysical and theoretical sense. We know what they want to read, how they want to read it. And we’re responsive to them—not in the sense that we’re doing their bidding, but we’re responsive to their wants. News is a business, right? News is an enterprise in which the customer should be happy and feel like they’re getting what they pay for. 

 

You mentioned not chasing the shiny object. Is that an implied criticism that a lot of other political media is chasing the shiny object?

No. There is value in covering “member X says Y” from an accountability point of view and from a news value point of view. That’s not our mission. That’s not our business unless it has a significant impact in some larger picture of getting something done or not getting something done. So if Congressman X says the world is flat, that’s not something you’re going to be reading about in our report. 

We think of ourselves as a news content company, not as strictly a news company. Everything is centered around news, but we’re not only going to be delivering the written word. We have many other offerings in the content space. It’s not an implied criticism; it’s just a statement of fact. A lot of people do chase shiny objects, because that’s what their readers or viewers want. That is decidedly not what ours want.

 

Who do you see as your readership?

Certainly people who have to exist in Washington, people who have to exist in the government or who deeply care about the government, either as a hobby or as a profession. What we found more and more in an interconnected universe is that there are more and more people who need to understand what the top leaders in Washington are thinking. 

I’m not looking for this to be a place where you’re going to get a hate-read about how somebody is a horrible person or an evil genius. We are writing about power, the exercise of power, and people abusing power. 

 

On the Zoom call with subscribers you said, “We’re really down the middle, and we’re just obsessed with power and great stories.” That approach—what has been called “the view from nowhere”—has received a lot of criticism, especially this past year. Is that still an appropriate approach when the majority of one party voted to reject the results of a democratic election?

When I say “down the middle,” what I mean is I’m not beholden to either party. I’m not a partisan journalist. If you’ve read us, and if you’ve read Playbook before that, I have beat the drum quite frequently about the uselessness of some of those exercises. Take the vote to object to the results of the election: we have said, time and time again, it’s useless and McCarthy is only doing it because he has a conference full of people who believe something that’s not true. Now, is it my job to say they’re jerks? No, that is not my job. My job is to say they are doing something that’s absolutely useless, that’s not grounded in reality. 

I don’t think being down the middle, meaning being not an advocate for one side or the other, means that I can’t call balls and strikes, or that I can’t say things are wrong, lies, or whatever. But when I say we’re obsessed with power, there are a lot of partisans, not only in my interactions that I see and on Twitter, who are also obsessed with power in the same way that I am. They key off of our reporting. We’re explaining what Mitch McConnell is doing before he does it and why he’s going to do it. Then they key off that to say, “This is bad. We should vote out Mitch McConnell.” There’s room for both in this world. 

 

Do you see the term “access journalism” as an accurate description of the sort of reporting you did at Politico and are doing now? Do you have any thoughts about the criticism of access journalism as an approach?

How would you define access journalism?

 

The idea of speaking directly to the members or their staff, and not providing evaluation of what they’re doing as much as explanation for what they’re doing. 

Am I supposed to not speak to them? Am I supposed to cover Congress without talking to Nancy Pelosi or without talking to Mitch McConnell?

 

No, of course not. 

Right. The implication when discussing access journalism is that somehow there is no accountability for wrongdoing. You would agree with that, right? 

 

Yes, that’s right. 

So I’ve gotten a member of Congress indicted. I wrote a story in this pandemic period about [Florida congressman] Matt Gaetz misusing government money. I’ve written stories that have resulted from all sorts of bad behavior. Bres has written about scandals for thirty years. We both have access because of that. 

I think the episode you’re referring to is when I attended a happy hour with [former Republican House Speaker] John Boehner. That was a happy hour with maybe seventy-five to eighty people who were covering a policy retreat, meaning our company sent us there to write about the legislative plans of the then–House Republican majority. It was…a widely attended event with representatives from every outlet. Everybody that criticized me for that had colleagues at that same event. 

It was funny, because a media reporter from a major outlet emailed me after that, and the crux of what this person said is, “You were bought off by John Boehner because you went to this happy hour. Could you provide me some examples of critical coverage of John Boehner?”

If you ask anybody that worked for Boehner or who was part of that Republican majority, Bres and I wrote stories, like, every other day saying John Boehner was a weak Speaker, he had no plans, he had no ability to rally his people together. He, you know, was thinking—

 

Got it, you don’t need to defend your—

No, I’m just explaining the context of that scenario, which I found to be strange. I think what a lot of people who engage in that argument don’t understand is that the people who speak to you do so because they believe that reporters are fair and tough, and they want to get their side of the story in. 

I just think the whole argument is kind of—it’s not something I often engage in, which is maybe why it’s bottled up and I’m giving it to you. I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. My job is to break news and to write critically and analytically about Congress and about power and about the White House. That’s what I think about.

 

Speaking of writing about Congress, one of the themes of the book you wrote with Anna was that the people change, but the incentives and levers of power don’t. Has anything that’s happened in the two years since you wrote that book, or even in the past week, changed your understanding of the way power works in Washington? Or do you expect that, under a Biden administration, things are going to function as they have?

One of the things that will be really interesting to see is how much Donald Trump stays in this kind of business. In the 2010–2011 era, when Republicans took the majority, I was a young reporter at Politico, and there was this fear with Heritage Action and with Rush Limbaugh. If Limbaugh or Hannity were on the air railing on about some sort of bill, they wouldn’t be able to get it through. Now, does Donald Trump say, “I’m going to primary anybody who votes for this Joe Biden covid package”? That’s a familiar power dynamic. Fealty to Trump is something that we’re going to see tested. Does the party move on from him? Do donors demand that the party moves on from him? Are there repercussions for people who do move on from him?

In a few respects, power is always relatively similar, right? It’s always, how do you grab power? How do you increase it? How do you keep it? How do you use it to your advantage to either get reelected or to get a priority of yours achieved? I don’t think those basics have changed. How Trump applies it in his post-presidential life, and how people react to it, will be interesting to watch. 

 

Right now there are three of you doing the reporting. Do you have plans to grow? And have you considered, specifically, increasing the diversity of the team doing the reporting?

Yes. To the last question, yes. We were hamstrung at the beginning just because we raised a small amount of money, but that’s a priority of mine and Anna’s in the immediate future.

To your first question and how we think about growth: We don’t know yet. We have big ambitions. We’re starting a podcast that’s launching at the beginning of February with Cadence13. That’s our biggest growth plan now. I don’t think that we are going to be a big newsroom. That’s not mine or Anna’s goal. 

The nucleus of what we’re going to do is going to be the written report. We’re also doing a Sunday-evening thing called The Lookahead, and we’ve had interest from TV networks about picking that up. All we’re going to do is be sitting in our houses and talking about the week ahead. It’s going to be almost like our weekly planning meeting. 

I actually think that news organizations often overthink this. What Bres always used to tell me when I was younger is that if you find the story interesting, it’s interesting to other people. 

 

Can you say anything about who you’ve gotten TV interest from?

I can’t, because we’re not sure what we’re going to do with it. We want to be careful not to bite off more than we can chew with this point. We think of it almost like a Pardon the Interruption, that style of conversation. It’s not going to be that same format, but it’s going to be basically reporters talking about what we’re thinking for the week ahead. 

 

Do you have a projected divide of what percentage you hope comes from advertising versus subscriber numbers?

Building a robust subscription business is a very big priority of ours, and we’ve already built an insane subscription business. We’ve met goals that we thought we wouldn’t for many, many, many months. We’re having to readjust our priorities because we didn’t expect to get where we were so quickly. We can’t say specific numbers, but I’ve been in the newsletter business for a long time, and I can say I’ve never seen open rates like this. 

 

Was there tension at all with Politico when you decided to start this? The Daily Beast piece suggested that it was amicable but there was some tension in the organization. Was that an accurate description of how things felt, where you just decided it was best to go your different ways?  

I didn’t feel any tension. I was there for eleven years. When I decided to leave, it was a decision that Anna and I made because we felt like it was the right time, and we had all these ideas which don’t necessarily fit in a traditional, large-scale news operation. We spoke to [Politico owner and chairman] Robert Allbritton about leaving, and offered him the chance to invest and advise us on various parts of our business. We’ll see if he takes us up on that.

I think Politico was obviously disappointed when we decided to leave, and suggested as much to us. Listen, there’s an inherent tension in writing a newsletter, and also I didn’t work in the newsroom. I am extraordinarily close with Bres and the Capitol Hill team just because that’s where I came from, and I work in the Capitol. I loved my time at Politico and I was upset to leave, but it was the right time to go.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.