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The Politico Animal

John Harris is return to Politico as the outlet’s first-ever global editor-in-chief.
John Harris is return to Politico as the outlet’s first-ever global editor-in-chief. Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
July 19, 2023

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.”




“The Significant Gap”

Politico has gone through quite a few iterations since then, of course, and experienced more than its fair share of growing pains—the abrupt departure of Harris’s co-founders Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen amid their barnstorming Axios adventure; the Susan Glasser drama; the Punchbowl exodus—while losing much of that early startup luster. At the same time, it has matured into an impressively profitable and sustainable business, with dual Washington and Brussels outposts, a lucrative subscription enterprise, and roughly a quarter of a billion dollars in global revenue that teed it up for its game-changing, $1 billion sale to Axel Springer, the German media conglomerate, in 2021. 

From both an exit and influence standpoint, Politico was by far the most successful digital journalism company of its generation—a counterpoint that proved that the Allbritton family’s slow and steady growth plans (despite some headaches, too, admittedly) were perhaps a better way to build media businesses than multiple rounds of venture capital financing, which led to large cap stacks where investors tried to waterfall one another into smithereens and founders lost the plot in pursuit of a gangbusters exit. Anyway, Harris was there for all of it, first as a leader, then in the background as the sage patriarch and editorial chairman, with an erudite monthly column; and here and there as a stabilizing force in times of turmoil. 

Now, he’s back in charge. On Monday, Politico C.E.O. Goli Sheikholeslami announced that Harris would return to the top editorial leadership role as Politico’s first-ever global editor in chief. “To be clear: John is not returning to a job he once had,” Sheikholeslami said in her memo. “To the contrary, he is stepping into a new role as the single top editorial executive in the company, with newsrooms in the United States and Europe reporting to him.” 

Matt Kaminski, the U.S. editor-in-chief and current top editorial executive, will become editor-at-large and focus on writing. The stated reason for his sinecure coalesced around the notion that he sought “a new professional challenge.” Yet Harris’s own memo to his staff alluded, ever so delicately, to the fact that something seemed lacking—there was, he conceded, a “significant gap between what we are and what we could be.”




The Kaminski Method

Harris’s willingness to take on this responsibility was due, at least in part, to his belief that Axel’s ambitions will give him the opportunity to restore Politico’s reputation for impact and influence in ways that never would have been possible under Allbritton rule. As I’ve noted before, Allbritton was ultimately a Washington player who couldn’t afford to commit the financial resources necessary for global domination, and who, in 2017, refused to write an $8 million check to cover the company’s budget deficit. “With new owners, a new strategic plan, a new C.E.O.—there’s magnetism again,” Harris told me this week.

Mathias Döpfner, Axel’s C.E.O. and co-owner, told me that he sees Politico as being “at the absolute core of Axel Springer’s activities,” and its ambition to become “the most important journalistic medium for thought leaders in democracies around the world.” He said he has three priorities for Politico: increasing the number of “agenda-setting stories and investigative scoops,” accelerating both its international expansion (it recently launched new editions in England, France and Germany) and regional expansion (it launched a California edition, in Sacramento), and expanding aggressively into video and audio. 

And though Döpfner dismissed this timeline, sources familiar with his thinking say Axel aims to double Politico’s valuation by the end 2027, turning it into a $2 billion company, presumably by doubling its advertising revenue and lucrative B2B subscription services business. Ultimately, these sources say, Döpfner wants to take Axel’s non-media businesses public and use the cash to take full, private ownership of the media business. (In 2019, KKR purchased around 43 percent of Axel for $3.2 billion, setting the company up with a valuation around $7 billion.)

Döpfner believes Harris is the perfect leader to help Axel realize this global vision, especially now that he and Sheikholeslami have put together a team of trusted managers. In recent months, Politico has hired Francesca Barber, a top newsroom executive from The New York Times, to oversee global strategy; hired both a chief data officer, Beth Diaz, and a chief technology officer, Jeremy Bowers, from The Washington Post; and lured back a few of the early Politico alumni, including Danielle Jones, who oversees talent recruitment, and Alexander Burns, a Harris protégé who is helping to cohere Politico’s global coverage areas. (And, of course, Jonathan Martin has also returned to Politico and is, once again, its most notable political journalist.) Not to be overlooked, the Politico integration was led by Axel Springer deputy C.E.O. Jan Bayer, one of the smartest media operators in the space.

In conversation, Harris sounds genuinely excited by what’s ahead. He says he’s committed to this role through the culmination of Axel’s strategic plan to double the company, and described it as “another big executive chapter in my career.” Still, for all of Axel’s global ambitions, Harris seems most incentivized by the opportunity to get back into the scrum of another presidential campaign season—his bread and butter, and the focus of Politico’s earliest, halcyon days—and re-establish Politico’s U.S. arm as the agenda-setting funnel of the hourglass. The global ambitions are real, he said, but “we’re gonna have a big rumble in Washington. We need to compete vigorously in the Washington market.”