Inside Politico’s new London newsletter

Jack Blanchard, editor of Politico’s new Playbook newsletter. Photo by Bruce Rollinson.

Jack Blanchard doesn’t get much sleep. As the editor of Politico’s new Playbook newsletter in London, it’s his job to distill the daily developments, media talking points, and gossip in UK politics before he sits down for breakfast. It’s a doubly tiring exercise at the moment: Blanchard is still working out how to calibrate a tried-and-true Politico format—the must-read daily briefing for US political insiders—for a British audience.

Since 2015, Politico has busily expanded into the European market, thanks, in part, to a partnership with German media group Axel Springer. Brexit made the UK a logical next stop. Politico has staffed up a small London shop with local talent, and last month poached Blanchard from The Daily Mirror to add a dedicated newsletter to its British offering.

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A veteran of the UK’s tabloid scene, Blanchard understands what will and won’t translate from well-established Playbook newsletters in DC and Brussels. He spoke with CJR about finding his voice in a morning cycle that is congested, highly partisan, and obsessed with Brexit. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What’s your background, and how did you come to write the Politico London Playbook?

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I started out at a small local paper as a trainee. I moved round the country working for slightly larger local papers, and I ended up at the biggest regional paper, The Yorkshire Post, which is still large enough to have a correspondent covering Parliament in Westminster. I ended up doing that job. From there, I was picked up by one of the national papers, the Daily Mirror, and I worked in Parliament for them for the last few years, eventually as their political editor. It was at that point I got a tap on the shoulder and started speaking to Politico, who were thinking about setting up this project.

What does your day-to-day routine look like now you do the newsletter?

It depends on what I’m doing. We’ve just had the party conference season (an annual series of conventions held by the major political parties) over here, for example, which involves lots of late nights, lots of parties. It’s important Playbook goes to some of those parties because part of Playbook is a gossipy, “who have you seen where?” sort of thing. On those nights I’ll try to get more of it done before I go out—some of it you can do the night before, some of it you can do when you get back from the party. You might go to sleep after you’ve sent it, or sleep for a couple of hours and get up and send it and then go back to sleep. There are different ways of doing it.

I went over to DC a couple of weeks ago and met Jake [Sherman] and Anna [Palmer], who do the US Playbook. I think they get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and do it from there. I haven’t got a set routine yet. At the moment it’s napping, and sleeping when I can, and focusing on making sure Playbook’s good.

What did you take from the American format when you were setting up the London Playbook?

We have a Brussels Playbook over here as well, which Ryan Heath does, which is hugely popular in Brussels and across continental Europe. So I have two models as a starting point, Ryan’s in Brussels, and Jake and Anna’s in America, and they’re both terrific. But you have to make it your own. It has to be your own voice.

It’s a weird gig for a journalist doing a newsletter, isn’t it? Some of it is straight aggregation from other sources, but also it’s your own voice, your own credibility on the line. When I get the London Playbook it’s from you, “Jack Blanchard,” it’s not from “Politico.” How do you find that balance?

Fun, actually. It’s been one of the really good parts about it. There’s an element of aggregation in all news reporting in truth, it’s just often hidden by newspapers that lots of their sources are things they’ve just read in other newspapers. The newsletter format is just more up-front about it. You get to put a bit more of your own personality into it, and that is hugely appealing as a journalist if you’ve written pretty straight news articles, reporting on the facts, for many years. That can become quite formulaic—it’s not always a creative process, and nor should it be. But it’s fun to do something different where you can put more of yourself into it. It’s entirely up to you: It’s a blank sheet of paper every morning, and there’s no one to tell you it has to be done this way or that way. The really important thing is knowing who your audience is; being clear what they want in the morning.

Who do you see as your primary audience?

It’s very much targeted at people working in and around Westminster and Whitehall. That is the primary audience for sure, but my idea is if you target it at those people specifically, and give them what they need in the morning, then you will find that people who are very interested in politics will enjoy reading it, too, because it gives them an insider’s view of what those people are reading. It’s not designed as this huge mass readership thing where every single person in the country will want to read it. I don’t think Playbook’s ever tried to do that, in the US or Brussels or anywhere else. The first person in my head I was targeting it at was me in my old job, when I was a political editor of a national newspaper, thinking “What would I want in my inbox when I wake up?” That is basically what I’ve tried to provide.

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As a new venture, how do you break in as a source for insiders? Have people in the corridors of power been receptive?

I think so. Politico had a small team of excellent journalists here before I arrived, but more crucially political journalists who were already known here, and already rated here as good journalists. So they arrived with their own contact books, as did I, and I think that’s quite a smart way of doing it if you’re trying to establish yourself: You’re already in the game, you’re not coming in from the outside and trying to get to know people, and trying to explain to people what Politico is.

The UK media landscape is full of fairly partisan reporting; it’s famous for it, especially in the tabloid world where I come from. It seems to me there is an appetite for somebody doing this sort of nonpartisan, detailed, granular, policy-focused journalism that Politico does. The other thing is that Politico has this huge base in Brussels—before they came to London they moved first to cover the EU, and have a huge team of journalists over there. That means we’re in a very good position to cover the biggest story of our time over here, which is Brexit.

Obviously Brexit is casting a shadow over British politics right now. But there’s a lot going on domestically, too. How do you find a balance?

It isn’t really like that, you just sort of find that Brexit is everything now. It’s so pervasive. It’s becoming difficult to distinguish domestic politics from Brexit. Theresa May is doing her best: She’s so keen to have a domestic agenda; she doesn’t just want to be remembered for doing Brexit, but it’s so all-encompassing that it’s very hard to separate things off, because it has implications in just about every possible area of public life you can think of. Potentially it’s for a time-limited period. But at the moment the negotiations are going on, and there’s so much uncertainty about what the end point will be. It feels like all we do is Brexit at the moment.

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Jon Allsop is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.