In a few weeks or months, well after the current Capitol Hill speakership drama ends, the nation’s lonely eyes will turn, as they inevitably do at this juncture of the political cycle, to the U.S. presidential race. The build-up to America’s nearly two-year-long mega-event has been more subdued this time around, of course: Biden’s re-election indecision, Trump’s waning influence, and doubts about DeSantis’s national profile have lent an air of uncertainty regarding how, exactly, the national political-media apparatus is supposed to get this thing started. But, if recent history is any guide, now is about the time that things kick into high gear: Obama launched his historic 2008 campaign on a frigid day in February of ’07; McCain told Letterman of his intentions that same month. Ted Cruz kicked off the 2016 cycle in March of ’15. Bernie, Warren, and Klobuchar all announced their 2020 runs by the mid-winter of ’19.
For the American political media, the months leading up to this time are a high-stakes trade window, when editors and executives go scouting for top talent that may be loose in the saddle elsewhere, or grease existing contracts to ensure the retention of their biggest stars. It’s already been a busy poaching season: Politico has lured its beloved native son Jonathan Martin back from The New York Times with a big salary and a sweetheart R.W. Apple-style gig. The Times, in turn, has poached star reporter Jonathan Swan from Axios, along with The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender, a Trumpworld whisperer, for lead roles on the 2024 beat.
And more moves are on the way as the trade deadline approaches: Alex Thompson, Politico’s White House correspondent, is the target of a contentious recruitment battle between Axios and Semafor, sources familiar with the matter tell me. And Axios’s Alayna Treene, the site’s star congressional reporter, is set to realize her long-held TV ambitions with a correspondent role at CNN, per sources familiar. She will be replaced on the congressional beat by Eugene Scott, who joins Axios from The Washington Post.
As with any major sport, this frenzied season of recruitment and retention offers an opportunity to take the pulse of America’s leading news media institutions, and a chance to handicap their prospects in the coming political season. After all, Washington media companies often mirror the myopic, optics-hungry, and validation-crazed world that they cover. And so while the casual observer may not notice the difference between two pretty good, brand-name-only-to-the-green-room class reporters with large Twitter followings, newsroom executives and start-up founders see these moves as major milestones—a signal of their ambitions and commitment to success in a highly competitive industry.
At Axios, for instance, the loss of both Swan and Treene represents the perhaps inevitable churn that occurs after a hot and buzzy media startup finds its exit—in this case, via a $525-million sale to Cox Enterprises—and matures into something bigger but also perhaps a little less exciting. Don’t feel bad for anyone, by the way. Mike and Jim made a well-deserved killing, presumably hauling in generational wealth, and their hustle and revolutionary insight into the changing units of the business, once foolishly underappreciated, were a necessary kick in the saddle for the industry.
But the company is going to be a different operation moving forward—no longer fueled by the Politico revenge fantasy, the hunger to disrupt the laggard behemoths, and the desire to prove out a thesis. It all worked and now Axios’s future is in the important, and insidiously lucrative, world of local news. Both Swan and Treene joined Axios at its founding and Swan, in particular, was crucial to its early success. Now that their options have vested and been triggered by a change of control, some money is in the bank and they’re free to fulfill their ambitions of working for more storied institutions.
In that context, perhaps, Axios’s ability to hire someone like Thompson becomes all the more significant—an indication that the recent departures don’t represent a post-sale exodus, necessarily, but perhaps just turnover, the dawn of a new era. And despite Axios’s local news investments and expansion into every niche vertical under the sun, from science to self-help, nothing will matter more to the brand’s reputation and ad revenue in the two years ahead than its relevance in American politics. It’s Mike Allen business is worth millions per month, and for good reason: it’s the A1 of the Acela corridor.
What Will Jeff Do?
Semafor similarly finds itself in need, albeit for very different reasons. The company’s founders, Justin Smith and Ben Smith, spent a long time trumpeting their project as a revolutionary innovation in journalism, and tried to recruit a Mount Rushmore of American journalists on that promise. They finally went to market in October with a more modest stable of talent and have yet to make their mark on the industry, let alone become an agenda-setting force—which has been surprising, given Smith’s ability to turn BuzzFeed into the “it” news outlet of 2012 cycle, and his influence as the Times media columnist.
Semafor has also been beset by a number of papercut setbacks—some turmoil over sponsorship for its climate product, an investment from Sam Bankman-Fried—but the advertising inventory, and a launch into a recession, probably isn’t what Justin was hoping for. Hiring Thompson, who is writing a book about Biden slated for 2024, would allow them to stake a more significant claim on the election cycle and gain some much-needed momentum, though it’s hard to see how another D.C. journalist will materially advance its business.
Notably, no one playing this game of musical chairs is landing at The Washington Post, which, after a historically strong run in the Trump-fueled Marty Baron years, has been churning subscribers and losing ad revenue. As I’ve reported, these setbacks have sapped morale at the paper, amplified longstanding internal frustrations with Fred Ryan, the publisher and C.E.O., and, on the editorial side, raised questions about whether Sally Buzbee has the leadership qualities necessary to move the paper past its current inertia. The legendary Post veteran Bob Woodward, in a new interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, says Jeff Bezos is “aware there’s trouble” at his paper, “and that there needs to be some repair work.” It’s the first public signal yet that Bezos may be taking steps to address the problem. (A Bezos spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Post malaise has handicapped its talent recruitment efforts significantly: It fought hard to hire J-Mart, Swan and Thompson, sources familiar with all three recruitment efforts told me, and it failed to land a single one of them. The Post also recently lost one of its top editors, Steven Ginsberg, to The Athletic at the Times. One wonders what might happen if Josh Dawsey ever got restless. If the recent history of Politico, Axios, and Punchbowl is a guide, the Post’s top political reporters—Dawsey, Ashley Parker, Phil Rucker, and Carol Leonnig—could step out and into their own niche mediaco overnight. Presumably this isn’t the first time the thought has crossed Buzbee’s mind.
The Times itself remains the most secure of America’s political media institutions, of course, home to Maggie, Swan, Bender, Peter Baker, Michael Shear, Annie Karni, Lisa Lerer, David Fahrenthold (yet another Post evacuee), and so on, and is thus likely to maintain its position as the undisputed paper of record. Of course, that was never the company’s challenge. Instead, it suffered from the tenure that came to great reporters after their campaign swing ended, when they would have to be moved to Opinion or turned into various writers at large, sitting on the balance sheet for generations. Turnover, as this season is proving, is healthy, too.