Politico’s Identity Crisis

New editor Susan Glasser increases tension at Beltway mag

Susan Glasser
Susan Glasser / Politico Facebook

Eight years after Politico’s founding, newsroom tensions and a flurry of recent staff departures are throwing the inside-the-Beltway news site into turmoil, insiders tell the Washington Free Beacon.

The publication has lost over 40 staffers over the past year, a trend that is continuing at an alarming clip under newly appointed editor Susan Glasser.

Concerns about the outlet’s direction and Glasser’s management style contributed to the exodus of around a dozen editors, reporters, and producers since September, according to current and former Politico staffers who spoke to the Free Beacon on the condition of anonymity. Some said the outlet seems to be directionless and beset by management problems, including deep levels of distrust between many of the editors and the new leadership.

There are also complaints that the outlet is losing its identity under Glasser, who came to Politico from Foreign Policy magazine and is the former national news editor for the Washington Post. One recently departed Politico staffer described the new vision as "a bit of Slate—lots of smart takes, analysis, writing with voice," with less of an emphasis on the real-time, microscoop-gathering that made Politico a household name.

"Politico used to be a place that flooded the zone, advanced the ball incrementally," said the former staffer. "It was a place where you could get a scooplet or a quick hit on the website in an hour, and lots of people liked working for a publication like that. It seems she's changing the DNA of the place."

Sources said over the past few months some of the top editors have been sidelined by Glasser and her deputies, Blake Hounshell and Peter Cannellos. In one of the more brazen examples, Laura McGann, the deputy managing editor who had worked her way up at the outlet, was allegedly bumped down to editing copy for the Congress team.

McGann told the Huffington Post earlier this week that she was leaving Politico to oversee Vox’s political coverage. Deputy managing editor Gregg Birnbaum and one of Politico’s star reporters, Alex Burns, announced their departures as well.

"It all comes from the top, and they felt they weren’t trusted to implement the vision that Susan and her lieutenants wanted," said one source familiar with the situation. "They were being marginalized. There were ample indications that their work was not valued, and that their judgment was not trusted."

Politico did not return a request for comment.

After she was named editor in September, Glasser and her team called a series of staff meetings, including a four-hour gathering in the basement of the Hamilton, an upscale restaurant down the street from the White House.

But insiders said the meeting did little to clarify Glasser’s vision for the outlet—other than the fact that she wanted change.

"She talked in platitudes, using phrases like ‘excellence,’ and vowing that we were going to be aggressively hiring and expanding and how it was a great place to work," said a former staffer.

"I didn't find it particularly inspiring. There was the backhanded implication that what was occurring before was not quite excellent … sort of a slap in the face to all the people to made Politico what it was over the years."

There are also tensions between the newsroom and the newly launched magazine, which was founded by Glasser at the end of last year. The magazine, which also bled staffers under her leadership, has achieved some success and brought in impressive new hires and freelancers. But it has not come close to being the definitive outlet for political long-form that would "win the month," as Glasser pitched it pre-launch.

"There was very much a separation between the magazine and the regular staff … it was very much regarded by the Politico reporters and editors as a superiority thing," said one source. "Susan’s people still interact very little with the rest of the hoi palloi."

Insiders say Glasser has lived up to her reputation as a brass-knuckled editor who doesn’t hesitate to lash out at writers for perceived mistakes.

"I was a little sort of grossed out by how she dealt with a few people," said one former Politico staffer. "I think she just makes decisions, she makes very sort of snap judgments about people, like she likes them or she doesn’t. And if she makes a snap judgment that’s not in your favor, you’re screwed."

In May, Glasser wrote an essay for Politico magazine, arguing that much of the criticism of ousted New York Times editor Jill Abramson—and of Glasser herself when she was at the Washington Post—was the product of gender bias.

"In the end, just about every single thing that has been said about Jill Abramson and Natalie Nougayrède was also said about me [as national news editor of the Washington Post]," she wrote. "That I was difficult and hard to understand and divisive. That there were questions of ‘management style.’"

"You can’t get to greatness by enabling mediocrity; in male leaders, this is called having high standards and it is praised."

The column was viewed by some in the newsroom as an attempt by Glasser to inoculate herself from future criticism at Politico.

"I think there’s a germ of truth to [her argument about female editors], but I think if she were a man she would rub just as many people the wrong way," said a former staffer. "She’s just incredibly aggressive."

The source added that Glasser is highly sensitive to perceived criticism and "definitely sees everything through gender glasses." Substantive complaints would be dismissed as little more than base sexism.

"She would basically say I preferred male editors over her because they had big swinging dicks," said the former staffer.

Others say they are withholding judgment until they see more.

"She was regarded as very difficult to deal with and so people are sort of transposing that onto what’s happening now," said a source familiar with the situation. "And I think a lot of what’s happening now is just [Glasser and her team] are implementing a new vision and they inherited people who they didn’t want."

The source also noted that Glasser is "regarded, rightly I think, journalistically as extremely talented, if not a visionary."

Despite the recent shakeups, Politico has still managed to hold on to some top-notch talent and leads the media pack on scoops on the 2016 presidential election, K Street lobbying, and money in politics. The outlet has also snagged some impressive new hires, including Michael Crowley and Michael Grunwald from Time magazine and Stephen Heuser from the Boston Globe.

While Glasser told the Washington Post last week that Politico is in a "period of growth and rising ambition" and is planning to announce additional hires soon, insiders said to also expect more departures in the coming months.

"There's going to be a ton of turmoil," said a former newsroom staffer who left recently. "Some people are on contract and can't really leave, but are planning to when their contracts are up."