Ten years ago, John Harris, the ever-insightful, affable, and slightly disheveled co-founder of Politico, was standing in the foyer of his company’s Rosslyn headquarters while conveying some sage advice about journalism to one of his young reporters. In order to set the agenda on any given beat, Harris ruminated, an ambitious journalist needed to think of oneself as the narrow throat of an hourglass—the impartial funnel through which all information must necessarily pass from sources to readers.
It was quintessential Politico-ese—high-minded, direct, philosophical, self-important—from the co-author of many of the mantras that defined the joint, particularly in its early years: “win the morning,” “drive the conversation,” etcetera, all of which helped the company upend Washington’s complacent media scene in the 2008 election cycle and forever accelerated the pace of political journalism. By this point, however, Politico still maintained some of that scrappy, start-up spirit, but it had also swelled into a full-fledged institution, the likes of which it initially set out to disrupt. Some of its earliest stars had moved on—Jonathan Martin to the Times, Ben Smith to BuzzFeed—and others were loose in the saddle.
Meanwhile, the company had taken on hundreds of new employees to build out the organizational apparatus that, while necessary for growth, can also create maddening layers of bureaucracy and sap a startup of its competitive, entrepreneurial spirit. As Harris spoke, a young couple came down the escalator from a gym on the second floor and waved to the reporter. Harris cut himself off mid-thought. “Do they work for us?” he asked. No, the reporter responded, they were friends from college. “Hmmm,” he said, biting his lip. “That’s how big we’ve gotten.”