‘It’s Just Not Fun’: How Political Journalism Changed in 15 Years

·30 min read

There were a couple of consistent traits that played indispensable roles in the launch of POLITICO 15 years ago. One was an instinct for raucous, relentless self-promotion. Even more important was an ability to identify and recruit exceptionally talented people on the upswing of their careers, before their gifts were uniformly recognized.

The delight with which the publication is marking its anniversary suggests we still have the old appetite for self-promotion. Raucousness, however charming in a toddler, perhaps no longer matches the moment quite so well. A self-confident enterprise, with more influence and therefore more responsibilities than in the early days, can hold the mirror to itself with more sober reflection.

This was the aim the other day as we assembled on Zoom a group of past and present POLITICOs who represent emphatically our tradition of attracting journalists of uncommon talent, then helping them vault to a new level of prominence. For an hour, the group engaged in a searching discussion not just about POLITICO, but about the state of political journalism broadly, and about changes in media culture over the past 15 years.

Is the profession as fun as it used to be, in the age of social media and a toxic political environment? No, not really, was the blunt conclusion of Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who was with POLITICO for five years starting in 2010.

Does anyone miss the old order of media, in which a small number of news organizations could effectively play gatekeeper and limit the ability of falsehoods and hysteria to seep into political discourse? Maybe a little, said Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Matt Wuerker. But he reminded us not to airbrush from memory how smug and culturally homogeneous the class of white males who overwhelmingly served as gatekeepers in the old days really were.

Ben Smith, who was one of POLITICO’s first hires, and who went on to be editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and recently left the Times to plan another media startup venture, said he remains stunned by how many distinguished publications stayed stuck in old ways — easy targets for disruption — during the advent of the digital age.

Joining us from a somewhat younger generation — people who never worked in or really knew the old order of media — are two journalists who have risen rapidly. Seung Min Kim, who started as a POLITICO web producer before becoming a congressional reporter, now covers the White House for the Washington Post. Eugene Daniels, with a background in video reporting, is now part of the team leading POLITICO’s Playbook newsletter.

Our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity, follows.

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Was the old order all that bad?

John Harris: When we started, POLITICO had a sense of the old order of media decaying and crumbling. That old order was dominated by a handful of media outlets, had enormous power to set the agenda, and that agenda-setting power was driven by what had been historically extremely lucrative business models that, by 2007, when we launched, were really sputtering. But I grew up professionally in the tail end of that order. And I guess I just wonder: Does anybody miss that old order? I don’t believe in the good old days, but there were certainly some things about them that I thought were positive and maybe even superior to these current days.

Ben Smith: I was a beat behind you. I never really worked in the old order and disdained it and saw it mostly for its insane vulnerabilities — like the fact that, when I was a City Hall reporter, New York Times articles went up at midnight of that day. And, so, you could go to a press conference, go out to lunch, blog about it, and you would still beat the Times and everybody else by nine hours. And it felt like, these people are idiots, was your basic takeaway if you were in my position. Which, of course, they weren’t, and they caught up on these dumb little arbitrage opportunities.

Having briefly fled into the welcoming arms of, in fact, the New York Times, I do think that we all underestimated the inertia of these institutions — their incredibly strong brands, their strong distribution networks, their hold on really great journalists who, for a range of good reasons, want to make their whole careers there. And, honestly, there were things about working there that I really loved. There was a tradition of copy editing that I loved, where this woman named Phyllis Messinger on Saturdays, after my column was edited, would come in and re-edit it and always find something, which I think I might have at one point seen as inefficiency or sort of a drag, but actually kind of came to see as like, “Wow, this is somebody who respects the institution, does a good job and wants to put something good out.” And so, I’ve gradually gained respect for these old institutions. But also, all of the flaws that we took advantage of in launching POLITICO are mostly still manifest and totally unfixed.

Eugene Daniels: I was in college when POLITICO started and as the media landscape started to change. And I think the way that I looked at it, and still look at it, is that it became more democratized, in a good way. There were all these gatekeepers who were the only people who could say what was going on; they set the agenda for the rest of us. And as a Black person, as a gay person, there weren’t a lot of people reporting in print or even on television that looked like or talked about the things that my family was talking about in Bucksport, S.C., or the things that I was talking about with my friends in college. I think places like POLITICO kind of opened that up. As people saw that POLITICO was successful and that you can try to shake the table when it comes to what passes as good journalism and a good journalistic institution, other places started to experiment. And it opened up opportunities for me and a lot of people.

Harris: Matt, I’d love for you to address Eugene’s point about gatekeepers. We worked in the era where they were there. They were a group that was small enough that you could almost list them by name on a legal pad. And Eugene’s exactly right. There weren’t many who were who were Black, and there weren’t any who were publicly out as gay. And there weren’t many, if any, who had a view of the world that wasn’t shaped by the Acela corridor. On the other hand, it wasn’t all bad. These were generally responsible people who were trying to advance the public interest as they saw it.

Matt Wuerker: I think that there are two kinds of gatekeepers to consider. There’s the village of Washington, and there was also a very small part of the village that was controlling the opinion pages of the newspapers, and the lack of diversity there was one thing. And the revolution that’s changed that and, as Eugene said, democratized the ability to create platforms for putting out news — that’s all positive.

But the other kind of gatekeeping that is being lost is the idea of, not just copy editors who are defending the Oxford comma, but editors who are actually moderating content so it’s actually fact-checked. So much of the media, or what used to be considered the news media, is now really just about going out there and whipping up the tribe and creating conflict that attracts eyeballs. Social media is all part of that. So, I do miss the gatekeepers in some ways — not the stodgy white guys from the Acela corridor, but the idea that journalism has some responsibility to put out truths and slap down on lies.

Harris: Seung Min, you’re one of our great success stories in the sense that you started at a very entry-level position as a web producer and then went on to become a reporter for POLITICO and then the Washington Post. When you came in at the beginning, were you aware of this all this ferment in the industry, or did you just want a job and we offered you one?

Seung Min Kim: I wanted a job and health insurance, but it was a really interesting entry into political journalism. I had seen some of the old order through the internships I had in college. But you saw right away how POLITICO was trying to shape the political news environment in a different way. What POLITICO did so well is make the flow of political news — whether it’s campaigns, the White House, Congress — just so dynamic, that if you were interested in this topic, you couldn’t help but continue to read the content that we were producing. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned at POLITICO is: Give readers a reason to read you, whether it’s breaking news, writing a really smart conceptual story, being a terrific lyrical writer.

Now with that said, [if I were] to maybe take one lesson from the quote-unquote old guard it’s learning how to write stories for an audience that isn’t obsessed with this stuff day by day, and think back to: What is the best and most clarifying way for me to absorb this information as a reader when I don’t have the time to read everything about it?

The early days of POLITICO

Harris: Ben, give our audience some sense of what it was like in the very early days, at the start of 2007. I have a very vivid sense of feeling just inches away from disaster for certainly a better part of a year.

Smith: You know, you didn’t let it on. To me, it felt like we launched the only way you can launch — we broke news on the first day. I remember I was blogging and writing from this sort of New York political world, and a bunch of my sources in that Harlem machine world were just shit-talking [then-Sen. Barack] Obama in kind of over-the-top, insane ways, as is their wont. So, I had this story full of mostly on-the-record quotes of Black New York pols saying things like, “Obama is not going to resonate with Black people. He’s terrible. We hate him. Forget it. It’s done” — all these Hillary [Clinton] supporters who were willing to just jam knives in people for no particular reason. And I remember Bobby Rush, I think, or one of the Chicago [Congressional Black Caucus] members called me and was like, “What the hell is this?” Not like, “What is this story? I’m critical of it.” Like, “Somebody gave me this publication I’ve never seen before, and it’s full of these insane quotes.” Like, “Who are you? What is this? Literally, just can you explain to me, what are you doing?” Which felt really good. I had come out of this little blogging world, and I was very isolated; I was up in New York doing my thing. But it just felt like immediately everybody on the campaigns was paying attention to us and kind of obsessed with POLITICO.

I wasn’t privy to all the panic internally when, like, the website didn’t work and stuff.

Harris: Oh, some of it you were, though, because it’s etched in memory that first day, where we had just barely limped out of the gate, and the product was not terribly impressive, and you said, “John, I didn’t leave my job to come work for Roll Call.”

Maggie Haberman: I remember that day. I was sitting in the press room with Ben when he said it.

Smith: I think I said, “I worked for the third biggest newspaper in America with a circulation of 700,000, the New York Daily News. I wasn’t going to come to work for Roll Call.” Though, as I recall, I was saying that not because the product was weird — which it was, by the way. These developers you hired had, like, cloned various blogging platforms, and it had these quirks where, if you posted a blog item, you would then hit a page that said, “Thank you for your blogs,” and there was no way to get off that page. You just had to close the window, and that was for years. It was fine; I had lots of tabs open. But I think what [prompted the Roll Call comment] was that you had hired this bright, young researcher — who I felt lacked my deep eight months of blogging experience and was kind of disdainful of — to write the Republican blog, this kid who had worked for you, which felt to me like almost nepotism. And I thought, “Come on, who is this kid, where I am a seasoned blogger?” And it was this Jonathan Martin kid, who I was, for like a week, very skeptical of.

Harris: And he’s done OK. Where is he now? [Laughter.]

Smith: Roll Call!

Harris: Seung Min, one of the things that I look back on with some pain is that, in the early days of POLITICO, it was such a bucking bronco that we were trying to tame. A startup environment is hard, and people can really get jostled and trampled and feel ignored when what every journalist wants in her or his career is attention and support. People sometimes called POLITICO a sweatshop. You were in the trenches in those days. What did it feel like to you?

Kim: It felt like, if you love reporting, if you love journalism, if you want to break news and you want to have the easiest, smoothest path to publishing that news, you had a very quick, seamless way to be able to report that and write that and get that out there. Obviously, it was a tough job, but political journalism is a tough job. I don’t know of any good political reporter who isn’t always busy, maybe slightly overwhelmed, and constantly working to beat our competition and get the best story out there. I think POLITICO is not unique in that.

But in the midst of that crazy startup environment, you do kind of forget things like making sure especially the people who are at the bottom of the totem pole, like I was, get opportunities to advance. I think I was among the first of the web producers to be able to move on to other, bigger, better opportunities in the newsroom, and that only improves coverage, brings in diverse perspectives, brings in people with different interests in policy that can make a story come alive. So that was one struggle of that initial startup environment that I saw firsthand, but that POLITICO did very dramatically change in my mid- to latter years and I’m sure has changed since.

Harris: Ben, from your experience as one of the originals at POLITICO and somebody now who’s trying to start a new publication with a lot of attention around it, are there positive POLITICO lessons that you would say, “That’s really valuable as I try to start a new publication”? And are there mistakes?

Smith: The positive one is that sense of competitiveness — that we were competing with the Washington Post, we weren’t alternative media. The internet had been, up to that point, “alternative media,” had been commentary, had often really been picking apart, as Twitter is now, the perceived errors of the mainstream media. And I think we [saw ourselves as] mainstream media, and we wanted to beat them at their own game on the merits, on news stories, on gathering information. That’s something that I held onto at BuzzFeed and certainly anticipate being very focused on [with the new publication]. The internet isn’t some alternate, second-tier place to do journalism. It’s the main place, and launching without, or without prioritizing, your print publication isn’t a disadvantage. It’s just a pure advantage.

The biggest negative lesson I drew was that you can’t not have senior women from the start — not that there was some linear lesson from that, but just that culturally that was a mistake.

Harris: I’d note that there were a couple of exceptions to that, but they don’t rebut the general premise that it was a very white-male-oriented place in its origins. And that’s not just a managerial defect, in my view; it’s a journalistic defect.

How journalism changed in 15 years

Harris: Eugene, there’s a widespread critique that the conventions of journalism — about neutrality, about just presenting the facts, about seeking out dissenting points of view — actually are a prison, that they inhibit us from really telling the truth, and we should just abandon those conventions in favor of a more assertive, less inhibited brand of journalism. The journalist Wesley Lowery, a former colleague of Seung Min’s at the Post, has talked about this. Others have talked about it. What’s your view of it?

Daniels: I have a nuanced view. When someone is lying to the American people and they are paid with taxpayer dollars, it’s important that we say that. I think there was a good conversation at the beginning of the Trump years of: What is a lie? The question is: Do you know if that person is knowingly saying something that is inaccurate, or are they misspeaking, et cetera? And that conversation has continued, and I think we learned good lessons from that.

But when we started the new Playbook, one of the questions that people kept asking us was, “How do you handle people who participated in Jan. 6 or spread the Big Lie?” And our answer was and continues to be, and mine is as well, that they’re not going anywhere. You have to, as a political reporter, understand everybody’s viewpoint to share that with people, because the American people don’t have access to these folks, so it’s our job to filter those things through. And it’s important that they know that someone said something that they may not agree with, because that’s how you have a robust conversation about what we want this country to look like. And that is what journalism at its core is about, right?

But that doesn’t mean you don't fact-check and challenge lies and misinformation. You do that too.

Harris: Maggie, I’ve always experienced you as a pretty traditional journalist in terms of somebody who basically does believe, for the most part, in the old values. Do I have that right? And what’s your view of a more advocacy-oriented brand of news reporting?

Haberman: I do see myself as a traditional journalist, but I also agree with Eugene. I thought it was really important to have the conversation about how we were explaining to the public the sheer volume of things that Trump was saying that weren’t true, and the intent behind them. I do think that there needs to be a different model, and I do think that there needs to be a different conversation, not in the form of advocacy — I think that’s a different kind of journalism, and I think that there is a place for that. But I think what you’re talking about is basically just cutting through euphemisms and explaining to people what’s what.

One of the challenges for journalists wherever we are right now — and it’s probably more of a challenge for legacy journalism outlets than newer startups or even a place like POLITICO, which isn’t really that new anymore but was the OG in a lot of ways — was explaining to the public how Trump was different. It wasn’t just that he was saying something that wasn’t true. Voters in the public think that politicians all say things that aren’t true. I think that trying to make clear to readers the context is as important as changing the euphemism conversation.

Harris: Matt, the New York Times can do something that it wouldn’t have done historically and put a headline calling the president a liar, but half the country doesn’t give a damn about that. Or maybe they like it because it actually fuels their movement in the first place, a lot of which is based on contempt for what we represent: establishment media. So, just to challenge: In some sense, who gives a damn whether we use the phrase Big Lie?

Wuerker: I mean, going back 15 years ago, the New York Times was the newspaper of record, and pretty much anybody across the political spectrum would accept the reporting in the New York Times. And then it became politicized, and the right decided: No, no, no, it represents the Eastern elite. And now it’s part of this polarized media where people can’t agree on a shared set of facts, much less the shape of reality.

I find Tucker Carlson is a perfect embodiment of kind of a strange change in media: a guy who 15-20 years ago was an establishment Republican right down to the George Will bow tie, and now he’s practically got tiki torches on the set of his show. And it works. I mean, he’s a huge force. And he didn’t get there by sticking to the facts. He’s serving up what I think a lot of people want in the so-called news space. They want their biases confirmed and they want to get whipped up, and three hours or 12 hours of Fox News or MSNBC will certainly confirm your biases, depending on your point of view.

Harris: Maggie, is the business more fun or less fun than it was in the early days? You were prominent in New York when you came to POLITICO. Now you’re prominent nationally, and you also are subject to derision, abuse. Even if you would try not to, you’re almost inevitably, to some extent, part of the story. In terms of just the sheer joy that we should take in journalism, do you have it anymore?

Haberman: No, not anymore. Not anymore. Not in the way I did. And I hate saying that, but it’s just not fun the way that it was. And maybe that’s a good thing, right? Because the stakes are actually really high, and maybe the idea that this was fun for a group of us was probably somewhat disconnected from reality — which is part of how the proliferation of outlets started in the first place and part of why readers and the public started getting upset more and more. Seung Min has been subjected to very similar levels of abuse on social media for the mere crime of doing her job, and it’s been infuriating to watch. So, no, that’s not fun.

At the same time, there used to be — I actually do see it across the spectrum now, with more fervor on the political right still — this belief that reporters could be screamed at enough that it was going to either intimidate or change how they do things or whatever. And now I just think that everybody is screaming so much that it just doesn’t even sink in. Somebody attacked me last night in a pretty prominent forum, and it used to be that when that would happen, I would get a ton of texts or emails or whatever. And now it’s barely even registering for people.

The social media factor

Harris: Seung Min, Eugene, does it bother you when you’re in the middle of one of these cyclonic storms and people are heaping abuse and criticism on you? Or can you brush it off? I think generationally, my first instinct was to try to engage, and I realized over time that, well, it’s not really on the level. But I’m curious with the younger generation of journalists.

Daniels: I’m still learning to brush it off. I started at POLITICO as a video reporter. No one was checking how I thought about things or trying to yell at me on Twitter or in my inboxes or sending things to POLITICO for me. And so that has been such an abrupt change in my life over the last year, in covering the White House and being on Playbook. And I mean, it can send you into spiral, because sometimes you start to believe it. If a thousand people say something about you, you start to be like, “Well, maybe I am a dumb piece of shit.” And it can ruin your day or your week, depending on how bad it is.

I used to have this idea that it’s really, really important for me to hear from readers, that it’s really, really important for journalists not to close ourselves off to criticism. I really held true to that for a while. I’m starting to see that isn’t really what’s happening on Twitter. Basically, it’s just people who, when I write one thing or another, depending on who it’s about, are calling me the N-word or the F-word or both together, or attacking my partner, who’s white, as an N-word lover, which has happened, or calling me an Uncle Tom. That level of vitriol is something that I think no one can prepare you for. That part of it is still shocking.

It also makes the reporting difficult. You try to put your head down, but Twitter is still such a huge part of our jobs, right? We have to be on it. It’s this real Catch-22, and I don’t know that it’s going to get better. I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to do anything about it.

Kim: Because, obviously, I’ve been an Asian female all my life, I’m used to racism and sexism — those comments and emails and vicious vitriol that I get my inbox. That actually doesn’t bother me because I’m so, sadly, used to it. What really gets under my skin are accusations from people on Twitter or on email or otherwise who say that I’m somehow disrespecting journalistic integrity with the job that I do. Those are attacks that I get just as just as frequently as I get the racist and sexist crap.

One thing that has helped is knowing readers and people who know the body of my work, whether it’s regular readers or sources or other reporters — they don’t subscribe to that. That helps personally. But I mean, we’re all human. Obviously, we don’t like to have hate directed at us. And I am just personally very, very, very, very, very uncomfortable with being the story. I want to write the story. I want to report the story. I don’t want to be a part of it. That just really bothers me. It interferes with my ability to do my job.

Harris: Matt, there’s a common critique that these trends that we sometimes lament in media — that it’s so process-oriented, so conflict-oriented, it’s so driven by the imperatives of standing out and getting attention — that POLITICO represents those or instigated them, in some respects. It certainly accelerated them. We’re part of the problem. Is that true?

Wuerker: One of the things I saw in POLITICO in the beginning, and I think it was part of the rocket fuel that launched this little startup, was that you all realized that this new thing called Twitter was going to be something, and Facebook. I mean, we launched at the beginning of the era of the smartphone, and POLITICO succeeded in noticing that people were going to be reading on things coming out of their pockets. I think the media has made this devil’s bargain with the social media giants, and it still is shaking out. The fate of small newspapers around the country over the last 15 years has been basically tied to the fact that Google and Facebook are now getting all the advertising dollars, and you can’t pay journalists to go do journalism unless you’re the New York Times or POLITICO. I don’t know if we get blamed, but I think that maybe we were the first through the door into this new era.

Harris: Ben, you’ve been quoted in the news media about your new publication saying that it is trying to grapple with the post-social media landscape. And I’m not really sure what that is or what the implications of that are.

Smith: Obviously, I spent a lot of time in the middle of the way social media was reshaping journalism, at BuzzFeed, and we really saw ourselves as riding the rise of it and thinking about, you know, what is a social media-centric news organization? And something that I think we tried not to do, but that has really bled into a lot of media, is the story of the following form: You, John Harris, tweet something. I, journalist, see that tweet, find two anecdotes to support it, write a story that is like, “John Harris’ tweet was right, and here are two anecdotes,” in the hopes that you will share that story and say, “Yes, this is so true.” And this very intense affirmation loop turns out to be a pretty good, although I think ultimately capped, subscription business.

What I found writing my column for the Times, and have generally found, is that there’s a larger audience of people who, if you tweet something and I come back to you and say, “Hey, I reported it out, and the truth is different and weirder than you thought” — that’s actually more interesting. That’s a better story. And that’s a story that more people are going to read. But that, to me, is sort of the core dynamic of how social media has reshaped newsrooms, and there’s a huge opportunity to not do that.

The next 15 years

Harris: I really do consider you all POLITICO founders. I find the person who starts tomorrow to be a POLITICO founder, because healthy publications are always in the process of becoming and evolving. Invoke your status here, as people who have played an important part of our history: What should we be doing in the next 15 years if we’re going to be successful? Where does POLITICO go if you are running it?

Smith: Well, given that I see POLITICO and Axel Springer’s aspirations for it as a bit competitive with what I’m doing, I’m not sure that I’m a trusted source here. Given what you said about founders, I think, you know, you should be sure to ask about equity. [Laughter.]

Harris: Did you get some, Ben? Did you get some?

Smith: Not from POLITICO. But beyond that, I think the challenge for all of us — and it’s the huge advantage you have as a startup — is to not get trapped in your own traditions and your own folkways. I think POLITICO and you and Carrie [Budoff Brown] did a pretty amazing job in 2016, 2017, 2018 of reinventing the business and turning Pro [POLITICO’s policy coverage] into this unglamorously massive and lucrative thing that really is the foundation of the whole company. But things are going to keep changing, and what’s a big story today is not necessarily what’s a big story yesterday. The beat that all your best reporters were competing to be on five years ago may be really boring now, but you kind of need to kick them to get them to be persuaded that the thing they really ought to be covering is NFTs. The world changes a lot, and keeping institutions changing with it is really hard and interesting, and there are always opportunities.

Kim: I think [POLITICO should focus on] continuing to expand on these very interesting and important policy areas that people here care about. Obviously, POLITICO started out focused on the bread and butter with the White House, Congress, campaigns, but now it’s expanded into deep coverage of such niche beats like cannabis. I wouldn’t have envisioned that even four years ago when I was at POLITICO. So, it’s about identifying where the interest is and continuing to expand coverage and investing resources into that.

Harris: Maggie, successful publications that are thriving in the decade ahead will do what that’s different than what they do now?

Haberman: Thank you for asking that instead of asking me how I would run POLITICO because if anybody wanted me to be an editor, they would have made me one a long time ago.

Harris: It’s not like I haven’t asked.

Haberman: I think successful publications will find a way to do what I think POLITICO is doing, which is not only covering things related to what the Twitterverse is clamoring for. I don’t know what the Twitterverse will look like in five years, but I think POLITICO has been really good at tuning out a lot of the noise and just focusing on what is happening across a range of events.

Daniels: To me, a lot of it is building on what we’ve started to do, at least the years that I’ve been here. Continue to be flexible in knowing that the industry is going to change, but also the readership is going to change. No, we don’t know everything in D.C. and New York. I think we do a really good job with that because we have all these states operations and can get outside of the Beltway. And take chances on folks with different backgrounds, not just marginalized groups, but also, you know, military vets and people who look at things a little bit differently.

Another thing that I have been really proud of us starting to do over the last couple of years, and I think it’s really important that we continue, is cover not just powerful people, but the struggle for power, right? Because that also tells you a lot about this country — who wants power, who has it, and what does that struggle tell us about the policies that are going to be enacted in this country? And I think that aspect of political journalism is growing. We have started that with The Recast, for example, and our different approach on Playbook.

Wuerker: Fifteen years ago, I remember when people would come to visit POLITICO, they would show up at the WJLA [the local TV station that shared an office with POLITICO] entrance, and the receptionist would say, “Go back there.” And I’d say, “Just keep walking through all the people with the perfect hair and the very white teeth. When that stops, then you’re at POLITICO.” To think back on that, and now we have this giant newsroom and — what? — 700 employees scattered around the world. It’s incredible what happened in 15 years.

And to answer the question about what I would do in the future or suggest that POLITICO do in the next 15 years, it’s use more cartoons. The secret is more cartoons, always.

Harris: Count me in.