Politico’s New Playbook

Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer C.E.O.
Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer C.E.O. Photo: Jörg Carstensen/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
October 26, 2022

Back in April, Axel Springer’s formidable chief executive Mathias Döpfner ventured to Washington for the annual White House Correspondents Dinner and a gauntlet of brunches, parties and meetings in an effort to familiarize himself with the insularity and narcissism of the American politico-media establishment. It was a heady time: Six months earlier, Döpfner had closed Axel’s $1 billion acquisition of Politico, the Beltway bible, giving his Berlin-based media conglomerate a strong foothold in D.C. and Brussels, and turbocharging his ambitions to turn Axel into the democratic world’s leading digital publisher. 

Döpfner had already spent years extending his company’s presence in the U.S. market. Axel, after all, had acquired millennial-friendly mediacos Insider (née Business Insider) and Morning Brew, and Döpfner sat on the board of Netflix. But Politico afforded exactly the sort of adult table seat to the inside game that makes media, despite its obvious challenges, such a tantalizing business.

Now, Döpfner, a cosmopolitan, jet-setting billionaire and card-carrying member of Sun Valley and Bilderberg, found himself milling about, or rather above—he is a towering six-foot-seven—the cacophony of Washington journalists, operatives and other green-room denizens who still search for one another’s birthdays at the bottom of Playbook, trying to make sense of the scene. One stop on this tour was a meeting with two notable journalists from The New York Times: Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns. The duo were co-authors of a highly anticipated book about the chaotic events of the 2020 election, which was slated to hit shelves the following week. And they were also both alumni of Politico, Döpfner’s new prize. 

Both J-Mart and Burns, as they’re known, had been instrumental to the company’s early success as a disruptive, game-changing force in American political journalism—and both had subsequently been lured away by the Times in the post-2012 election off-season when legacy media organizations, cognizant of the deep well of talent in Rosslyn, went about pilfering Politico headquarters. (The Times’ most significant poach during this era was, of course, Maggie Haberman, the Trump chronicler nonpareil who, before joining the Gray Lady, was co-author of Politico’s “Burns and Haberman” blog.)

Given this exodus, Politico was forced to reckon with a seemingly insurmountable challenge that would dog the company, time and again, for almost a decade—namely, that despite or because of all its success, it was always going to be the farm team for major league franchises that could offer their stars, if not more money (J-Mart took a pay cut to go to the Times), then at least more influence. Politico would later face another more significant challenge in losing ambitious and restless talents who left to form new startups: Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei, Playbook savant Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz left in 2016, following a storied falling out with then-owner Robert Allbritton, to launch Axios. Four years later, Politico’s star congressional journalists and Playbook co-authors Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, and John Bresnahan would leave to launch the instantly successful Punchbowl.

All the while, Politico was actually building what would become a very sustainable business, and one that ultimately proved resilient to the ebbs and flows of talent retention. Thanks in no small part to its high-priced subscription business, it now makes roughly a quarter of a billion dollars in global revenue, with a healthy 20-30 percent profit margin. It has more than 900 employees across its U.S. and European businesses, more than half of whom are in editorial. And while many prominent journalists continue to leave for the Times and the Post, CNN and NBC, inevitably new stars emerge in their place to keep the institution humming.

“There are not many places that have gone from being the hot new thing, with startup mojo, to actually getting all four laps around the track, and turning themselves into unambiguously enduring, profitable properties. I don’t think there are any good examples other than us over the past generation,” John Harris, who co-founded Politico with VandeHei, and now serves as the newsroom’s sage patriarch and columnist, told me. “Given the turmoil we had in 2016, the questions that people had, to go from that to steady profits and a billion bucks—it’s a pretty damn big deal, and there’s no precedent for it.”

After Robert

Still, Politico’s disruptive notoriety and agenda-setting power often seemed like a thing of the past, and during the ebbs it sometimes seemed like the once-scrappy startup that had upended political journalism was destined to become just a slightly more influential version of The Hill, or Roll Call—a Beltway institution that made money, but no longer drove the conversation. Yes, Politico had built a successful subscription business and a successful European business, among other enterprises, but the leadership’s long-held ambitions of turning the company into a global media empire to rival the Times, Bloomberg, et al., seemed out of reach. Allbritton, the company’s owner and benefactor, was ultimately still a Washington player who couldn’t afford to commit the financial resources necessary for global domination. In 2017, after covering years of losses, he even refused to write an $8 million check to cover the company’s budget deficit. 

Many of Politico’s current and former leaders felt there was a ceiling to their ambitions so long as Allbritton owned the company. “We could not have built this place without Robert’s backing and ambitions,” Harris said. “At the same time, new ownership and a new C.E.O. opens up new possibilities. It feels like a startup again—in a sense it really is—and that’s exhilarating.”

The Axel acquisition signaled a change in Politico’s fortunes, and its potential. Döpfner aspired for his company to become “the leading digital publisher in democracies around the world,” as he would later put it to the Post, and he saw Politico as the cornerstone of that effort. Within months of closing the deal, he hired a new C.E.O.—Goli Sheikholeslami, a veteran of New York Public Radio, the Post and Condé Nast—and brought in Dafna Linzer, a managing editor at NBC News and MSNBC, to serve as the site’s executive editor, overseeing day-to-day operations and recruitment efforts. “Axel thinks big, and they have the ambition and ability to grow this publication,” said Matt Kaminski, the current editor-in-chief of Politico who helped launch its European arm. “They didn’t buy it to live off its dividends… they bought it to grow it out.”

Of course, positioning Politico for its next chapter would also require getting some of the old swagger back. And so in that late-April meeting with J-Mart and Burns, Döpfner pitched the duo on his vision for a singular Politico that united the myriad U.S. and European businesses into one entity, expanded its footprint at the local, national and international level, and could thus establish itself as a top-tier media institution with real global heft. He also indicated that the door would be open to a more serious recruiting conversation if either of them were so inclined to leave their jobs at the Times.

“A Really Good Time to Bring it Back”

Now, six months after that meeting, both J-Mart and Burns have returned to Politico. Their homecoming is the result of several personal considerations, of course—both men have deeply strong friendships with Harris, for one thing—but it also reflects Politico’s new ambitions and resources, as well as some shifting market dynamics in the media industry. 

Both J-Mart and Burns had, for different reasons, grown dissatisfied with the Times. The Gray Lady’s business has never been stronger, of course, but as I reported recently, it has also failed to cater to the ambitions of its many influential journalists who aspire for more editorial freedom, more extracurricular opportunities, more professional latitude and, most importantly, more money. The star of the Times is, ultimately, the Times itself, as Jill Abramson used to famously remind her charges (no wonder they were so loyal…). The work is demanding, the beats are often narrowly defined, and the payscale is very compressed, with few reporters earning more than $200,000 a year. Meanwhile, the Times’ most notable rival, the Post, has become a less appealing option for some now that its meteoric growth in the Trump era is subsiding and its leadership seems uncertain about how to match the Times’ ambitious diversification strategy. Post publisher Fred Ryan and executive editor Sally Buzbee courted J-Mart aggressively, and weren’t able to close the deal.

Politico, meanwhile, for perhaps the first time in its history, was able to offer both J-Mart and Burns extremely high salaries and preferential perks that are likely to be the envy of all their new colleagues. J-Mart will make somewhere north of $350,000 a year, plus ample T&E, in his new role as politics bureau chief and senior political columnist, sources familiar with his deal told me. His mandate, which he fashioned for himself, will be to write a weekly, reported political column on anything he wants to write about, with an understanding that there will be no interference from colleagues who might chafe at being bigfooted on their respective beats—a headache de rigueur at the Times. “It will be the full buffet of American politics and policy,” J-Mart told me. “Some weeks that’ll mean caucus politics on Capitol Hill, or an interesting storyline in the cabinet. Other weeks it will be what’s happening in the Capitol in Baton Rouge or Madison, or City Hall in Chicago or L.A.; at times it’ll be overseas.” J-Mart rightly noted that this kind of reported column, with a broad purview, “used to be a mainstay of journalism, but it’s faded. This is a really good time to bring it back.”

Burns will serve as associate editor for global politics, helping to spearhead Politico’s effort to “globalize” the newsroom in the Axel era. He will write a column focused on myriad global issues ranging from international politics to international trade, technology policy and climate change. He too will have broad freedom to choose what he covers, and he too will make significantly more than he made at the Times, according to sources familiar with his salary. He’ll also have the kind of perch in management that he’d expressed interest in at the Times.

These hires are a sign of Politico’s new ambitions, to be sure, but they have also been interpreted by some industry insiders as an expensive attempt to recapture the company’s narrative, with J-Mart holding down the core politics and campaigns business and Burns advancing Axel’s campaign for global influence. Two well-compensated reporters does not a newsroom make; on the other hand, in the era of Maggie and Allen and Sorkin, it’s understandable that a newsroom like Politico would be willing to invest heavily in brand-name writers with relatively big reputations. “Jonathan will do nothing to solve Politico’s existential problems,” one former colleague of J-Mart’s told me, “but I’ll read him no matter where he goes.”

Perhaps what’s most notable, though, is that Politico endured long enough to arrive at this moment. None of this seemed possible in 2016, and yet Politico’s continued ascent seems assured now, at least for a while. Döpfner speaks in optimistic terms about the future of the industry, to be sure, but he’s also got plenty of money where his mouth is. Three years ago, KKR paid $3 billion and change for a 43 percent stake in the company. And as anyone who has ever worked in private equity knows, you can only make money when you put it to work. And Döpfner isn’t just articulating a rosy view of journalism, he’s deploying capital behind it. 

This article has been updated.