Dafna Punk

Dafna Linzer stepped down as Politico’s executive editor.
On Thursday, Politico E.I.C. Matthew Kaminski sent a memo to staff announcing that executive editor Dafna Linzer would be exiting the role at the end of the month. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images
Dylan Byers
March 10, 2023

Back in late 2021, in the heady times following Politico’s $1 billion sale to Axel Springer, the once feisty and plucky, now establishment-ish media company’s leadership team started searching for a new executive editor to oversee its core coverage of American politics—the quadrumvirate of campaigns, Capitol Hill, the courts and the White House. After all, this had been Politico’s DNA in the earliest John HarrisJim VandeHeiMike Allen years, before the business mushroomed into a flourishing transatlantic media powerhouse with a highly lucrative policy-focused subscription service, myriad live events, a magazine, local politics coverage, an ill-fated tech news sister brand, and ambitions to establish itself as a leading player from Sacramento to Brussels.

The job, which had been managed skillfully for five years by the Politico lifer Carrie Budoff Brown, was both significant and yet somewhat limited in scope. Politico’s quadrumvirate is instrumental to the company’s reputation—and it’s the main reason why its elite newsroom competes daily for scoops and influence with the Times, WaPo, Axios and so forth—but it has also come to account for a significantly smaller slice of the business. More than half of the company’s revenue comes from PoliticoPro, the policy-focused subscription service, while some 20 percent comes from its Brussels-based European operation, according to sources familiar with the company’s finances.

Nevertheless, Politico’s leadership team—C.E.O. Goli Sheikholeslami, editor-in-chief Matthew Kaminski, and founder-chairman Harris—hired an outside firm to conduct its search, and made overtures to several candidates, including, as I reported last year, the Post’s Phil Rucker, who received a formal offer; his then-colleague Steve Ginsberg, who eventually took over The Athletic’s editorial operations; the Times’s Carolyn Ryan, probably the top newsroom leader-to-be on the market; Ben Smith, in his pre-Semafor days; and Dafna Linzer, a veteran of NBC News who was spending her time between jobs, as so many notable journalists do, on an esteemed academic fellowship.

In Linzer, Politico saw a brilliant and talented journalist with an impressive C.V. that included nearly two decades as a correspondent and investigative reporter for the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and ProPublica, and another seven years as a managing editor for NBC News and MSNBC. But they were also warned by the outside firm, and by their colleagues in the industry, about a behavioral reputation that had trailed her career and created significant friction at 30 Rock. Linzer was said to be sharp-elbowed and overly protective of her turf, with a low tolerance for other people’s mistakes. That all sounded like about 90 percent of great journalists, but the Politico leadership team also learned that Linzer could be combative with colleagues and even occasionally humiliate subordinates in front of their peers.

Politico’s leadership assumed, not unreasonably, that some of these criticisms were gendered or sexist. Even though female editorial leaders have run virtually all of the country’s great newsrooms, the cultures haven’t entirely evolved with the times. Plus, Linzer’s other attributes weren’t all that different from its previous leaders, who were competitive and intense, which is why they clicked at Politico and not a more academic or institutional place, like the Times or Post. Success in journalism requires a passionate, fighting spirit—perhaps her passion was being unfairly interpreted because she was a woman. In any event, it wasn’t like she’d thrown a stapler at anyone.

Politico was ready to offer Linzer the job, but there was one other issue it needed to address. With Axel’s acquisition, there had been reasonable speculation about a larger management restructuring, one that might conceivably see Kaminski vacating his editor-in-chief position for a larger role with the parentco. At the very least, a new recruit of Linzer’s caliber and ambition might reasonably assume that they were being hired with eventual succession plans, or at least upward mobility, in mind. 

Politico, for its part, wanted to make it very clear that Linzer was not being hired as an heir apparent. In a meeting in early 2022, Sheikholeslami made a point of asking Linzer if she was comfortable being a No. 2 who oversaw the core consumer political coverage and reported up to Kaminski, sources familiar with those conversations told me. It was an important point to clarify, especially because Budoff Brown was said to have left the position, in part, because she recognized that there was no further room to grow at the organization so long as Kaminski was above her. Linzer said she was clear-eyed about the org chart, and her mandate. That seemed to be enough for the leadership team. In March of 2022, I broke the news that Linzer had been offered the job, which Politico confirmed later the same day. 

“It Wasn’t Smoke, It Was Fire”

Upon her arrival six weeks later, Linzer immediately injected some much-needed energy into a newsroom that had been effectively leaderless for almost a year. Her arrival also conveniently coincided with the biggest scoop in Politico’s 15-year history: the leak of a Supreme Court draft showing that the court had voted to strike down Roe v. Wade. Still, tensions simmered quickly, as some staffers chafed at the way Linzer appeared to be taking outsized credit for a scoop that had been the result of work that took place before she arrived.

In the early months of Linzer’s tenure, while Kaminski & Co.were drawing up plans for expansion in California and London, Linzer set about trying to re-instill the high-metabolism approach to political coverage that had characterized Politico’s early days. This led to some early fissures between Linzer and Kaminski’s vision for the coverage. Sources at the company said Linzer focused on daily, commodity news, chasing the Times and the Post and Punchbowl rather than establishing a distinct editorial approach that felt unique to Politico. Indeed, Politico during this time seemed to be particularly envious of Punchbowl, a startup led by Politico defectors, and the way it had supplanted Politico, almost overnight, as the new Capitol Hill bible. Playbook, its flagship product, seemed a step or three behind the new kids on the block.

Linzer was also very eager to claim command of her space and appeared to chafe at Kaminski’s attempts to move her away from that approach whenever he had an opportunity to turn his attention back to the newsroom. Some sources suggested this was as much Kaminski’s fault; he would disappear to focus on the businesses’ grander ambitions and then abruptly return with very different ideas about how Linzer should be doing her job, which he would then implement. It struck some as evidence of his own shortcomings as a leader and communicator. One described the dynamic between Kaminski and Linzer as “a weak number-one and a strong number-two.”

Meanwhile, Linzer started to evidence some of the characteristics that Politico’s leadership team had been warned about during the recruitment process. In conversations with more than a dozen of Linzer’s current and former colleagues, more than half of them women, a mixed picture emerged regarding her management style. On the one hand, Linzer was described as a brilliant journalist and generous mentor. In my own limited experience working with her, at NBC, I found her to be incredibly smart, insightful and kind, with a killer instinct for a good story. Semafor media reporter Max Tani, who worked with her at Politico, described her in a report this week as “charming and full of ideas.”

At the same time, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming consensus from these sources that Linzer could be an abrasive manager who resisted collaboration with her peers, chided people for their mistakes and could leave people feeling worse about themselves. “She would, on many occasions, call people out for mistakes publicly, [and] wouldn’t think twice about making someone uncomfortable or lightly putting them down in front of their peers,” one of her former colleagues said. “It’s not a management style that is going to work for everyone.” 

Several of the women I spoke with who worked with Linzer, most of them at Politico, strongly resisted the suggestion that the complaints were gendered or sexist. They, and others, described her as uncollaborative and unnecessarily combative, and said that people felt the need to walk on eggshells when working with her. Some even described how her need to have greater responsibilities at a company holiday party led to a day of internal crisis management. And while declining to name names out of respect for the individuals involved, some said there were several occasions when Linzer’s behavior left staffers feeling emotionally rattled. “It wasn’t smoke, it was fire,” a Politico source said.

By the end of last year, both Kaminski and Linzer felt that she might not be the right fit for the organization and discussed with one another, on multiple occasions, the possibility of her leaving. Then, in February, the Daily Beast reported that Linzer had left a departing staffer in tears at a company party after harshly criticizing the staffer’s new employer, the Washington Post. Sources at Politico said it was only the latest and tamest in a string of examples where she had left colleagues feeling shaken and discouraged. 

On Thursday, Kaminski sent a memo to staff announcing that Linzer would be leaving Politico at the end of the month. “We have always been aligned on the goal of making POLITICO the world’s premier source of news on politics, policy, and power,” Kaminski wrote. “But we saw ourselves diverging over the best way to get there.” It was a statement Linzer would almost certainly agree with, but one that only hinted at the larger tensions that had characterized her brief tenure at the company.

In a separate memo, Sheikholeslami said Linzer’s departure provided an opportunity to reassess Politico’s editorial structure. “Are we currently organized to be the premier source of political news on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail as we are entering one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime?” she wrote. “Are we set up to successfully expand with impact into new markets like Sacramento or to be the unquestioned leader in key policy coverage areas like climate and technology? Are the structures and workflows currently in place in line with being a truly transatlantic media powerhouse unlike any other?”

Unspoken in the notes, of course, is the reality that probably descended on the leadership team soon after Linzer arrived: Politico was once, without question, the most important driving force in digital media. Mark Leibovich’s cover story on Mike Allen is memorable, all these years later, in its exploration of what Politico already understood that hadn’t yet dawned on the broader industry. Under Axel management, Politico may aim to reclaim that bluster and speed, but with a very different culture. It’s the hegemon now, and it has to act like it.