The big debates over political journalism in the Trump years were about morality: What began with arguments over whether the media should call something a “lie” or “racist” has now become: How do you cover a Republican Party that votes to overturn an election?
But an ambitious political news start-up hoping to tell the central story of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s years is, a bit like Mr. Biden himself, less concerned with those big questions. The publication is called Punchbowl, after the Secret Service’s moniker for the U.S. Capitol, and it promises a scoop-driven, just-the-facts-ma’am operation founded by three defectors from the Washington publication Politico. One is Capitol Hill’s leading scoop-getter, Jake Sherman. He was the narrator for the political class in Politico’s newsletter Playbook and on Twitter for the bizarre negotiations over pandemic relief between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, with a tuned-out President Trump. He broke the outline of the final $900 billion deal on Dec. 16. He and his partners, Anna Palmer and John Bresnahan, are betting that there’s a large, paying audience of readers more interested in how power works in America than in journalists’ views on how it ought to work.
“There is a segment of the world that thinks Mitch McConnell is the devil and just wants to read nasty stuff about Mitch McConnell all day long,” Mr. Sherman said in an interview. “But there is a massive segment of the world who wants to understand what Mitch McConnell does and why he’s doing it.”
Punchbowl, which will send its first dispatch on Sunday night, is the latest news outlet to be started by veterans of Politico, the organization founded in 2007 to cover politics with the speed of the internet and the glee of “SportsCenter.” I wrote a blog for the site then, and my blog was illustrated by a caricature of me sitting on the fence at, literally, a horse race. Our unofficial goal was to be a “needle in the vein of political junkies,” and we wrote for a large audience of insiders and interested outsiders who saw politics, more or less, as a sport.
But nobody thinks politics is much fun anymore, and the notion of covering politics as an amoral sport has become repellent to Americans. The big legacy news operations — The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, in particular — became players in Trump’s reality program and were judged as much for their symbolic choices in tweets and headlines as for their reporting. But Politico, as well as Axios, started by two other Politico co-founders in 2016, never quite became symbolic figures in Mr. Trump’s character universe, and generally steered away from trying to insert themselves into the self-referential theater.
Politico’s editor in chief, Matthew Kaminski, told me that he saw “a lot of American journalism heading down the road to a European model, where the leading privately owned brands, overtly or not, belong to an ideological or political ‘team’” and that Politico sees an opportunity to go in the other direction, “not to pass judgment on the motivations or outcomes, but to explain both with authority.”
The departure of three of its best-known journalists is part of another trend in American journalism: As in other industries, much of the power is shifting toward “talent,” and off-the-shelf publishing and subscription technology are making it easier for stars to quit and start something new. (The Playbook authors’ departure was, even by the relatively dull standards of Washington newsroom drama, sedate. A Daily Beast investigation of the internal politics of Politico’s newsletter division concluded that Playbook’s authors were “somewhat polarizing.”)
One model, the Punchbowl founders said, is the tech news site The Information. They’re shooting for a high annual subscription rate, $300, and aiming their newsletter at people for whom politics is a profession or at least a real obsession. (They also have the unique Washington advantage of a robust advertising market for any publication that is being read by, say, members of Congress, a byproduct of the giant lobbying industry that has long insulated insider D.C. journalism from the grim economics of much of the news business.)
“They’ll be an instant must-read,” said Jim VandeHei, who took a similar path when he left Politico to start Axios. He then not-so-subtly added the friendly suggestion that Punchbowl stay out of his lane. “I think it’ll be the most successful independent newsletter created in 2021 if they stay small and minimalist and if they focus tightly on Capitol Hill.”
The new publication will center on three daily newsletters, one free and two for subscribers, as well as a daily podcast produced with Cadence 13 and conference calls and virtual events for subscribers. Ms. Palmer, who covered lobbying and influence before co-writing Playbook, will be the chief executive. Their fourth co-founder — and only other employee — is Rachel Schindler, who left Facebook’s news team to run operations for the new company. And they’ll have no shortage of news in the coming days, beginning with Ms. Pelosi’s push to be re-elected speaker on Sunday, and the big question of how the Democratic left seeks to use power in the Biden years.
And then there’s the question of how to cover the Republican Party, many of whose top figures have indicated they will vote to reject the results of the presidential election. Is this a political party responding to its constituents, and should be covered as such? Or should reporters spend most of their time treating the House minority as a toxic anti-democratic sect?
“I don’t think it’s incumbent on me to say, you know, to necessarily brand a person a liar, say that they’re disloyal to the country or anything like that,” Mr. Bresnahan said. “But what is important for what we do is to say, Why is this person is doing that?”
That’s not to suggest that the Punchbowl reporters are afraid of confrontation with the people they cover in the small, open world that is the Capitol. Mr. Bresnahan has, for years, been the journalist most willing to publish the uncomfortable truth that many aging legislators can no longer really do their jobs. Ms. Palmer and Mr. Sherman have revealed corruption in both parties, and their reporting on Representative Aaron Schock’s spending habits led to his resignation in 2015.
(On Sunday, Mr. Sherman was reporting that Democratic and Republican officials were fighting on the House floor over Republicans’ refusal to wear masks.)
During the Trump era, Capitol Hill has often been treated by news organizations as an afterthought, even as Mr. Sherman and Ms. Palmer produced a daily reminder of how few of Mr. Trump’s plans could ever make it into legislation, and maintained a raised eyebrow at the White House’s frank naïveté about the workings of the legislative branch of government.
Politico will be competing on the same turf, though on a far larger scale, with more than 600 employees and $160 million in revenue last year. Politico executives said the Playbook team’s departure would allow them to broaden that franchise away from its current Capitol Hill focus. They want it to take a wider view of politics, which its founder, the singular voice of the Washington establishment, Mike Allen, brought to both Playbook and then to Axios — adapted for a moment when politics is everywhere in American culture. They’ve recruited two high-profile journalists who left Politico, Rachael Bade to The Washington Post and Tara Palmeri to ABC News, to return. The two will join Politico’s chief Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza and the video journalist Eugene Daniels in a wider stream of coverage.
Punchbowl appears likely to stay small for now, though the centrality of Capitol Hill to Mr. Biden’s early agenda will give it an outsize importance in 2021. They’ve raised only $1 million, a fraction of the start-up costs of Axios or Politico. But the man who led that investment round is one of the country’s best-connected media bankers, Aryeh Bourkoff, who said his Kindred Media had invested because his firm and its partners wanted “more of a lens into” politics.
Mr. Bourkoff is a Democrat and longtime fund-raiser for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. But he is also close to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a fact that — in perhaps the clearest sign of the changed world the Washington publications will navigate — Mr. Bourkoff’s spokeswoman asked me not to mention.
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