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I Predicted the Fall of Journalistic Institutions. Now It’s Time to Lift Them Up.

My argument was that the old order of media in which I grew up — one defined by powerful institutions imbued with deep and sometimes suffocating institutional cultures — was acutely vulnerable to disruption. This presented insurgent forces of the sort we represented with an arresting opportunity — one that was exerting a magnetic pull on me.

“We live in an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one,” I asserted to interviewer Jay Rosen. “That’s been true of many professions for quite a while, and increasingly (and perhaps somewhat belatedly) it is true of journalism. The people having the most satisfying careers, it seems to me, are those who create a distinct signature for their work — who add value to the public conversation through their individual talents — rather than relying mostly on the reputation and institutional gravity of the organization they work for.”

Closely related to this belief in journalistic entrepreneurialism was a conviction that political reporting in particular was due for stylistic renovation. It needed to move away from the oracular voice-of-God tone that used to be commonplace, and come closer to the way reporters actually talk about the subject when they are with one another. This meant more attention to the motives and maneuvering of politicians, to the what-they-really-mean subtext of their official utterances, and more latitude for reporters to share their own voices — the humor, the accumulated insight, the penetrating assessments of what’s actually happening beneath the bullshit.

Ben Smith, then a blogger with a rising profile in New York City political circles but not yet any wider reputation, later told me that he decided to join our new startup after reading the PressThink interview. Ben went on to become one of our best known writers in the early years. Then he left to be editor-in-chief of the then-fledgling BuzzFeed. Then he left that to become a widely followed media critic of the New York Times. The other day he announced that he was leaving that to start a new publication aimed at connecting a global audience. Each step on his itinerant path was in its own way a validation of the point I was making in late 2006.

This notion — that in the digital age institutions were losing much of their historic power to set an agenda while individual journalists were gaining it — was at the root of what became POLITICO. It is the same dynamic powering a rapidly growing list of news startups that have blossomed in the political and policy space in recent years (many of them with POLITICO veterans in leadership roles). It is the same dynamic powering the emergence of Substack and its growing roster of writers. It is even the same dynamic powering the remolding of legacy news organizations like the New York Times around star talent like Andrew Ross Sorkin or Maggie Haberman, another POLITICO alum. I was wrong about lots of small and even not-so-small matters over the course of the next 15 years. But I was right about this big thing.

Let me mark the milestone of POLITICO turning 15, and the larger trend that made our success possible, with a comment about the next 15 years. It would be a very good thing if this next period of media history marks the slowing and even partial reversal of that trend. It is time for the pendulum to swing back in the direction of institutional power.

This is not quite a prediction, but it is something more than idle wish. With a strong media economy (at least in some arenas, including Washington, D.C.), we are seeing news organizations enjoy a financial prosperity that is wholly different than the climate of 2007. The Times, whose future once seemed darkly clouded, has revived itself with a robust consumer subscription model. Amid a media bull market, POLITICO owner and co-founder Robert Allbritton in 2021 chose to sell our publication for a reported billion dollars. Our ambitious new owner, the German media firm Axel Springer, has credible plans to expand our content and double our value in the coming years.

Financial power is the indispensable prerequisite for the kind of power that interests me more: Agenda-setting power. This is where media institutions, both established ones and the relative newcomers like POLITICO, need to reclaim ground.

The largest problem with the dilution of institutional power in an age of media hyper-saturation is that it is a gift to public officials seeking to evade accountability. Every day during the Donald Trump years, and still fairly often during Joe Biden’s attempted return to normality, I see stories that 20 or 30 years ago would have stirred weekslong or even monthslong media uproars. It is easy enough now for any politician who doesn’t like some story with a troubling revelation to denounce the platform as biased, to rally supporters who don’t care much whether the story is true or not, and rely on vagrant public attention to move on to the next thing.

One thing a powerful media institution can do that the most talented writer on Substack, or even a small startup site, cannot do is marshal sustained focus from a wide swath of the public on a subject that deserves it. An example is what the late Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post opinion page, aided by former executive editor Martin Baron and publisher Fred Ryan (a key member of the early POLITICO gang), did in response to the October 2018 murder by the Saudi Arabian regime of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump wanted to move on. So did Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman. But no well-informed person could not be aware of the Khashoggi atrocity because the Post has kept its editorial drumbeat going for three years. In this same category, if I may, I would include POLITICO’s relentless focus during the Trump years on accountability reporting about his cabinet. These stories, though far removed from the gaudy show in the Oval Office, led to multiple resignations and scuttled nominations.

Powerful media institutions can defend themselves in lawsuits, and stand up to intimidation from public officials, corporate interests and advertisers in a way that smaller entities and individuals cannot. Our new owner once said goodbye — temporarily, as it turned out, but no way to know that at the time — to tens of millions of dollars in advertising after critical coverage of Volkswagen in Die Welt.

These institutions can also help counteract one of the infuriating hazards of modern life — the shredding of collective memory. Amid the barrage of content, who even remembers what they were indignant about the day before yesterday? Self-confident and self-disciplined editors can help the reader regain his or her bearings.

Finally — maybe? — news organizations with a strong rudder amid the cultural and ideological storms of the moment may be able to revive the notion of a public square, in which people have shared acceptance of hard facts even as they argue about the proper response to these facts. Truth be told, there is not a hell of a lot of evidence lately for this. It’s clear that many readers and viewers do not even want such an approach to news. Still, I think a majority of the audience does. It is hard to see a democracy functioning for the long haul without an appreciation that arguments about what should be in the future must start with agreement about what present reality actually is.

This ideal, which is quite different than tepid neutrality or equivocating both-sides-ism, is what POLITICO has aspired to for 15 years. This includes the early days, when we were a startup with 50 employees, to the present, as a global news operation approaching a thousand employees with reportorial assets across nine time zones on both sides of the Atlantic. I expect we will seek to defend and vindicate the same ideal in the next 15.

Some of the words above may seem a bit abstract. Of course there is nothing abstract about my feelings toward POLITICO and this wild ride that so many people shared in over the past 15 years.

How to convey the visceral intensity of that first year? They were exceedingly long days and short nights. It was a kaleidoscopic blur of contradictory experience: exhilaration, fear, celebration, the knotted stomach and racing pulse from constant reminders that we were only steps away from disaster. We had put our professional reputations on the line for a venture that looked quite fragile from the outside and much more fragile from the inside.

I smile these days when I hear of media types announcing startups and then taking many months or even a year to actually launch. My co-founder Jim VandeHei and I had two months after leaving the Post to hire a staff, assign and edit stories, and race the clock to have a (barely) functional content management system to publish our work.

Yet, soon enough, there they were, tiny blades shooting up from the ground that suggested this thing might actually work. A cable news screen with a banner saying “Politico reports … .” Presidential campaigns dealing regularly with our reporters.

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