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.