Jim VandeHei, co-founder of The Politico, will leave the Washington-based news operation after the 2016 election. He will take with him Mike Allen, The Politico’s reporter-mascot, who says today that the two plan to start “a new venture that will change the world one more time.”
It seems safe to infer that VandeHei sought more expansion, and was rebuffed. As Erik Wemple says: “The reported departures follow whispers among Washington media circles that VandeHei was clashing with Politico ownership — chiefly Robert Allbritton — about matters related to Politico’s expansion and profitability.”
Meanwhile, at Bloomberg Media, Michael Bloomberg, having returned to running the company full-time after a hiatus spent as New York City’s mayor, appears to be done, more or less, with politics—the domain, at Bloomberg, of superstar reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Last fall, New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Michael Bloomberg, reassessing business decisions made in his absence, was narrowing the focus of his company’s journalism. As part of that narrowing, he doesn’t plan, Sherman claims, to renew Halperin and Heilemann’s contracts after 2016.
Bloomberg has long believed that the news division is supposed to serve the pricey terminals that made Bloomberg rich, and most political reporting—including the sort of personality-focused, policy-agnostic coverage that Halperin and Heilemann specialize in—means little to the firms that pay fortunes for those terminals. The writing has been on the wall for months: Everyone involved in recruiting Halperin and Heilemann and building a “Bloomberg Politics” brand around them—a plan made just before Bloomberg’s return as CEO—is now long gone from Bloomberg Media.
After November, then, Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, Mark Halperin, and John Heilemann—arguably the biggest superstars of modern political reporting—could all be without platforms. And it’s not at all clear who’d give any of them the cash they’d need to continue doing their current work.
None of them will lack for jobs, if they want them—writing books, giving speeches, consulting, appearing on cable news—but who’s going to give them tens of millions of dollars to invest in starting or running political journalism shops that reflect their particular sensibilities and styles of political coverage?
Maybe Halperin and Heilemann will simply return to book-writing (and book-optioning)—or maybe NBC News chairman Andy Lack, who has frankly baffling beliefs about what large numbers of people might want to watch on television, will just give them a show, to replace the one they host for Bloomberg—a show that MSNBC currently airs, despite it being produced by a rival channel, in one of the strangest arrangements in cable news.
It appears that VandeHei, at least, intends to try to start something new. His statements, and Allen’s, show every indication that the two intend to go off and do to The Politico what VandeHei and John Harris did to the Washington Post..
The founding story of The Politico is that two ambitious Washington Post journalists came up with a plan to shake up the political journalism industry, and found a wealthy backer—Robert Allbritton, a second-generation media mogul—willing to give them the investment necessary to build a powerhouse news outlet from scratch.
That investment was large, and it didn’t pay off right away. The Politico launched in early 2007. It wasn’t until 2009 that it became modestly profitable, earning $19 million on expenses of $17.2 million. Since then, they have expanded considerably—and stopped publicly reporting their operating expenses and earnings, though much of that expansion has happened in the supposedly lucrative paywall journalism business.
Now, to repeat that success story, Heilemann and Allen surely need a mogul or a conglomerate willing to spend big on political journalism, while absorbing a few years worth of probably pretty huge losses. We’re running out of those!
Bloomberg is exiting politics. Chris Hughes is done with The New Republic. Atlantic Media gutted National Journal. Disney killed Grantland—which wasn’t political, but was still Big Name-driven prestige journalism—and divested itself of Fusion. (FiveThirtyEight might find itself in post-election trouble too, though there’s plenty of ways data-driven sports coverage could still be useful to a media organization with a mutually beneficial relationship with scammy daily fantasy sports companies.) About the only people still investing significantly in name-driven politics coverage are Viacom, through some recent MTV hires, and Univision, now the sole owner of Fusion. Neither seems a likely home for Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei.
Whatever happens, an outcome in which Allen, VandeHei, Halperin, and Heilemann have less direct influence over political journalism is one in which political journalism does not greatly suffer, but—speaking as someone who’d like to continue to produce political journalism of my own!—I’m not exactly thrilled about the conditions leading to that diminished influence.
And I may be overly pessimistic. There will always be would-be media moguls. It may also be true that there will always be rich suckers who can be taken in by entrepreneurial journalists with snake oil business plans.
Disclosure: I attempted to peddle my own snake oil business plan to a rich sucker in 2014, and got axed. Send lists of potential rich suckers I may not be familiar with via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Yes, I’m making fun of Jack Shafer.