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Inside The Cult: Politico At A Crossroads

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On an early May evening, Politico executive editor and co-founder Jim VandeHei rallied his troops on the 30th floor of Allbritton Communications, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac and blessed with a clear view of the Washington Monument rising above the nation's capital.

VandeHei praised his staffers’ dedication and hard work in a pressure-cooker newsroom where “winning the morning” is a mantra and burnout is part of the diet. VandeHei, who’s fond of saying that his most successful worker bees have a certain “screw loose,” also embraced the idea that everybody at his politics-obsessed enterprise should just keep swallowing their Kool Aid.

“We get flak for being a cult sometimes,” VandeHei said, according to staffers present. “But you wanna know what? We are a cult!”

Roughly 150 staffers gathered that night for Politico’s fifth birthday party, a belated celebration for a website and newspaper that has become a pivotal force in political reporting. As higher-ups catalogued the site’s achievements since its 2007 launch, Robert Allbritton, Politico’s publisher and CEO of the parent company that bears his family’s name, joined VandeHei and editor-in-chief John Harris, as the room was treated to a video tribute to, well, Politico.

In the video, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush playfully mock Politico, a flurry of cable news anchors reference the site, and several political media heavyweights offered birthday wishes, including NBC’s David Gregory, ABC’s Diane Sawyer, CBS’s Bob Schieffer, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, and Time’s Mark Halperin. Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw appeared on the video, too, praising chief White House correspondent Mike Allen.

“I don’t know how he does it,” Brokaw gushed about Allen, “but whatever it is, we all want a part of it.”

A few weeks later, during the wedding reception of Jonathan Martin, Politico’s senior political reporter, and Meet the Press executive producer Betsy Fischer — a chattering class soiree Allen chronicled on his must-read morning “Playbook” — Brokaw toasted the happy couple, noting that their marriage symbolized the “union of these two most powerful organizations in American political journalism.”

So it is that Politico, the last election cycle’s insurgent, has morphed into a muscular member of this cycle’s establishment. No longer the upstart it was during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Politico’s current success is also freighted with the reality that however cultish it may be, however pivotal it has become, it is also at a crossroads: Having built a sizable and still-expanding newsroom of 225 editorial and business staffers, Politico has to size up new revenue streams and reshape the franchise in such a way that staffers speculate the company’s co-founders may not stick around a few years from now.

In the middle of an election year, with political junkies frothing, Politico’s traffic during the first five months of 2012 is down, from an average of 4.229 million unique visitors in 2011 to 4.165 million so far this year, according to the Internet marketing research firm comScore. Traffic numbers over the past two years, which have basically plateaued, suggest Politico has captured just about as big an audience as it can for its unique brand of non-stop political news.

Politico charges premium advertising rates in the Beltway, but isn’t immune from the current slump plaguing media organizations nationwide. Beltway publications, which rely heavily on selling ads to advocacy organizations and contractors looking to influence Congress, may have even more trouble finding advertisers given that there is likely to be little movement on the legislative front before November.

At the same time, Politico is doubling down on Washington with the expansion of Politico Pro, its policy-focused subscription service, a signal that the company’s financial future may be increasingly tied to sober, sophisticated reporting on sectors like technology and health care, rather than its signature and sensational takes on politics.

Meanwhile, the political media world has undergone a technological sea change over the last four years, a dramatic shift that was spurred on in part by Politico’s own insatiable need for speed.

In 2008, Politico moved faster than the lumbering giants of legacy media and didn’t shy away from sensationalizing even the most granular movement of politics, leading wags and some competitors to dub the site “Incremento.” Today, longstanding print publications are just as fast in getting quick-take stories and news nuggets online, while the uber-insider conversation has moved to Twitter.

Politico’s newsroom is changing, too, with the company announcing plans this month to hire another 20 reporters and editors for Pro, a move that led one staffer to suggest to Huffington that there could soon be more Pro journalists than those primarily writing for the main Politico site and newspaper. Staffers, many of whom requested anonymity to protect their jobs, wonder exactly how the Politico and Pro newsrooms will be integrated, a strategy now under development, and whether Politico could be viewed by the 2016 election as a paid service with a free website, rather than the other way around.

Contracts will be up post-election for several top political reporters, including Glenn Thrush, Maggie Haberman and Carrie Budoff Brown, along with national politics editor Charlie Mahtesian. With such stars in play, Politico’s cultish, screw-loose culture has come into even starker relief.

Politico has long had trouble retaining talent in its newsroom, where staffers either thrive or barely survive in a
male-dominated, hard-driving environment defined by frantic 5 a.m. emails from editors and weekend assignments. There have been so many departures lately that Politico editors have done away with the traditional going-away cake in the newsroom, which staffers jokingly call the “awkward cake” given what they describe as Harris’ sometimes clumsy send-offs.

While some staff have been told that VandeHei, Harris and Allen all recently signed contracts that will likely keep each of them at Politico for the next several years, people close to VandeHei and Harris say that the entrepreneurial pair may grow restless before 2016 or depart if Politico Pro – and a more trade-oriented news approach — come to dominate and define the enterprise.

In recent years, Politico has become more aggressive than any print or online publication in locking up in-house and outside talent, including influential Capitol Hill reporters like Jake Sherman, Manu Raju and John Bresnahan and chief investigative reporter Kenneth Vogel. These contracts are notoriously hard to break, and yet star reporter Ben Smith, who was under contract through the election, managed to join BuzzFeed late last year.

Although Politico enjoyed positive buzz this spring for its idiosyncratic Politico Live streaming broadcasts on Republican primary nights, including a “Talk of the Town” write-up in the New Yorker, it’s unclear how much investment in streaming video and produced television there will be down the line.

For his part, VandeHei didn’t fixate on contracts or growing pains at the anniversary party in May. Instead, he boasted that he’d take Politico’s editorial and business-side teams — whether Congress, White House, Enterprise, Sales or Marketing — over any other publication’s in the country and reminded staffers that, five years earlier, he said Politico would be better than the New York Times and Washington Post. And five years later, he said, Politico is better.

Indeed, VandeHei did make such a boast over five years ago — to me.

“I think we’ll show that we’re better than the New York Times or the Washington Post,” VandeHei told me in November 2006, for a New York Observer article covering his and Harris’ bombshell exit from the Washington Post to launch a newspaper called Capitol Leader and an “as-of-yet-unnamed” website. Both later became Politico, or POLITICO, to borrow from the all-caps house style it uses to promote the publication’s name in every article. (A year after the Observer interview, I joined Politico as the site’s first media reporter, a position I held until leaving in 2010).

Politico takes its brand seriously and is fiercely protective of its reputation, earning largely laudatory coverage over the last five years. A few days after I made calls for this story, Politico chief operating officer Kim Kingsley sent a “friendly reminder” to staffers that they should direct any questions from reporters to her, Harris and VandeHei.

Following that email, several Politico reporters and editors either immediately declined to comment or asked to speak “off the record” for this story. Many other sources spoke to Huffington. on the condition of anonymity, including more than a dozen current and former Politico staffers.

Harris and VandeHei worry about Politico’s future with a post-Depression sense of paranoia. Even when times are flush, there’s a gnawing fear that the bottom could drop out at any moment. While the two newspaper veterans can seem preoccupied with being viewed on the same level as, say, the Times and Post, both express concerns about Politico getting weighed down by the baggage and bureaucracy of legacy news outlets and, in effect, becoming traditional.

“There is nothing that animated our thinking in the beginning, and nothing that animates our thinking more today, than a fear of being complacent, of becoming conventional,” says VandeHei. “If we’re complacent, conventional, we’re dead.”

“And so you’re not going to meet two people who obsess about that more than John and me,” he continues. “That’s all we think about. How do you continue to keep this place sharp, on the edge, where it has to be to be successful?”

CONVERSATION DRIVERS

VandeHei, 41, dressed in dark jeans and a black blazer, at times seems more like a coach than an editor, doling out sports metaphors and riding his players to move faster, to crush the competition. Skipping pleasantries, he sometimes paces the newsroom asking reporters whether they’re breaking news today.

Harris, seven years older and a bit stockier, plays the part of the rumpled, sleeves-rolled-up newspaper editor, albeit one not averse to new technology. Though an odd couple to look at, the co-founders often sign staff memos “VandeHarris” and typically read from the same script when it comes to Politico.

Seated on a couch in VandeHei’s office, and frequently tapping away on a BlackBerry, Harris acknowledges that Politico can’t win on speed alone as it did in 2008, when “we were competing against a number of organizations that hadn’t reckoned with the immediacy, non-stop nature of the news cycle.”

“Now that’s kind of taken as a given, and you can put yourself out of contention and make yourself irrelevant by not being fast. But I don’t think you can make yourself really distinctive by being fast. We’re looking for places where we can have comparative advantage,” Harris says.

He adds, “I think still the best way to do it is by being best-informed and smartest, most sophisticated. I think our core politics team is run by people who are recognized, uniformly, really in both parties, as being masters of their beat. The phrase we use, and you’ve heard it, is to be conversation drivers.”

I have often heard that phrase, as has anyone who’s passed through the Rosslyn newsroom. So far in the current election cycle, Politico has sparked the political conversation with legitimate scoops, such as breaking the allegations of sexual harassment against former Republican candidate Herman Cain, digging into campaign spending, and offering provocative analysis, like Martin’s attention-grabbing piece last August, “Is Rick Perry dumb?”

Politico also drives the conversation, at times, straight back to Politico — and not always in a positive way.

In a much-discussed May 31 piece leading the site, VandeHei and Allen suggested that the Times and Post were biased against Mitt Romney for not making a bigger deal of new revelations about Obama’s teenage marijuana use, a topic the president wrote about 17 years ago in his memoir. They also knocked the Post for its deeply reported piece on Romney’s prep school days that included disturbing details of bullying — a story that several Politico reporters and editors themselves aggregated and followed. To bolster their argument, VandeHei and Allen called up two notable Republicans, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer and ex-Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who — surprise! — dished supportive, media-bashing quotes.

Some in the Politico newsroom weren’t happy with the piece. One staffer said it “went over extremely poorly” with the rank-and-file and looked like top writers were simply “picking a fight unnecessarily” with competitors. Times and Post writers weren’t pleased either, suggesting that VandeHei and Allen downplayed or completely ignored their extensive coverage of Obama since the 2008 race. Other journalists mocked the piece on Twitter and critics, like the Post’s Erik Wemple, tore it apart in a series of blog posts.

Lo and behold: even if the story was a transparent attempt at currying favor with the Romney campaign, the net effect was that political insiders online, on Twitter and on cable news — Politico’s target demographic — were talking about it. For better or worse, Politico was again driving the conversation.

Harris and VandeHei tout their top political reporters as the reason they stand out this cycle, regardless of their competitors’ cranked up metabolisms or the Twitterverse micro-controversy of the moment. Harris described Martin as “one of the most authoritative forces covering the presidential campaign,” called Haberman “almost supernatural,” and described 26-year-old reporter Alexander Burns, who started as the top editors’ researcher straight out of college, as “indispensable.”

When it comes to covering the current president, Harris says he’d put Thrush “against any competitor in terms of his ability to interpret and to understand what’s going on in the White House.”

VandeHei concurs.

“We’ve got a really fricken’ good politics team, full of these amazingly creative minds who break news and drive conversation even in a world where it’s really hard to do that. And that’s the trick.”

Harris wouldn’t comment on specific employment situations, but he explained why they asked numerous reporters and editors to sign contracts spanning several months to years, a management move that’s common in the television industry but unusual to this degree in print or online journalism.

“What’s clear is that we created a platform that allows people to enhance their value, makes them more competitive,” says Harris. “So if we’re doing that, that’s our end of the bargain. Your end of the bargain — you, being the person under the contract — is to give us a certain amount of stability. We don’t want you taking off in the middle of an election where you’re playing a critical role for the publication.”

Ben Smith, who’d been with Politico since the beginning, did just that. A few weeks before the Iowa Caucus, he became editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a site better known for pumping out viral memes than for original, political reporting.

Despite imposing language in the contracts about the risk of a lawsuit if employees break them, the company didn’t sue Smith. It seems as if Smith called management’s bluff, knowing that a public spat wouldn’t be good for either party. However, the two sides struck a new deal in which Smith would write a weekly Politico column on the 2012 election and hold back his byline on BuzzFeed until the Republican nomination race was over and perhaps until the GOP convention – a curious move considering Smith had already swapped his “benpolitico” Twitter handle for “buzzfeedben” and was regularly linking to his un-bylined pieces on BuzzFeed.

Then Smith stopped writing the Politico column in March and began using a byline on BuzzFeed, even though Romney was not yet the official nominee.

“We love Ben. We’re not talking about that contract,” VandeHei says. Smith declined to comment on his contract.
Politico staffers say Smith was understandably focused on running BuzzFeed, and his weekly columns weren’t considered as strong as his previous work. While Harris similarly wouldn’t discuss any specifics about Smith’s contract, he explains “mak[ing] a decision to modify the column arrangement” with his former reporter after just a few months.

“I felt Ben had taken on an assignment that deserved his mindshare,” Harris says of Smith’s BuzzFeed job. “I think he underestimated and I underestimated to what extent a column would work in his interests and work in ours.”

In recent months, Smith has told journalists that he can’t yet poach from Politico, sources say, presumably because of a stipulation with the exit agreement. On Tuesday, Smith hired BuzzFeed’s first Washington D.C. bureau chief and plans to staff up more through the year. So it remains to be seen if any Politico staffers, perhaps post-election, will follow him to a site that’s emerged as the most talked about newcomer in this Twitter-fueled campaign news cycle — in some respects, the Politico of 2012.

Smith’s departure wasn’t the only big shake-up on the politics desk this cycle, with staffers describing a “mutiny” in recent months that led Mahtesian in April to focus on blogging and writing pieces, rather than editing Politico’s top reporters. Mahtesian and Burns have had a frosty relationship for a long time and in recent months there have also been tensions between Mahtesian and Haberman. To staffers, it appeared like Burns, the VandeHarris protégé, had won out (Mahtesian and Burns declined to comment).

Harris says he has simply freed Mahtesian from day-to-day editing duties so he can write more for the site. “We know we have this genius, this rain man of politics in our midst, and we were not getting his insights onto the site often enough,” Harris says, adding that Mahtesian is “the smartest guy in Washington when it comes to politics.”

Every newsroom can be a cauldron of personality conflicts, staff rivalries and heated spats between reporters and editors but Politico has still gained a reputation over the years as a stressful, hamster wheel environment, where expectations aren’t just about staying late to cover breaking news — as any Politico reporter would do — but essentially being on call, nights and weekends, for even the most granular piece of political news.

Politico staffers routinely talk of a Politico “star-system” in which a handful of reporters in the VandeHarris orbit receive preferential treatment from company leadership, while the majority are left drifting in a far off journalistic galaxy. One former staffer likens the newsroom to "The Hunger Games," in which young people fight to the death for the enjoyment of a privileged class.

Last fall, a plagiarism scandal involving a young Politico reporter who had been churning out transportation policy stories for Pro led to several damage control meetings involving managers and staff. In response, Politico set up a mentorship program to help reporters making their way in its competitive newsroom.

Still, current and former staffers don’t expect Politico brass to have much tolerance for complaints about the workload and several recall COO Kingsley famously dismissing anonymous grumbling in a 2010 Times profile of Allen. She said “people who whine about working at Politico shouldn’t be at Politico,” and that “they likely lack the metabolism and professional drive it takes to thrive here.”

To be sure, Politico offers reporters a platform read widely in the corridors of Washington power and a brand name that will allow even cub reporters to get their calls quickly returned from Capitol Hill and the White House. Yet many of them do burn out. Some staffers who’ve left the newsroom over the years have recently started a Facebook group for alumni: the “Politico Survivor’s Club.”

POLITICO GOES PRO

As the Politico alumni network grows, so does the newsroom. Despite newsroom war stories having filtered out over the years, the company is still a very desirable place to work for many ambitious journalists.

This month’s announcement of a sizable Pro expansion signaled that executives are pleased with the results of the premium service after just over a year on the market. Subscriptions, targeted at Congressional offices, agencies, trade associations and corporations, start at $3,295 per year, but can reach into the five digits for larger memberships.

Because Allbritton is a private company, it’s impossible to know exactly how much Pro is bringing in. While it’s unclear how many customers Pro has, those that ordered a package are apparently happy with the results. Miki King, Pro’s executive director for business development, recently told Nieman Journalism Lab that Pro exceeded market renewal expectations in the 85 to 90 percent range during its first year on the market.

Pro competes in a subscription market against established properties like CQ and well-financed upstarts like Bloomberg’s BGov and aims for up-to-the-second information for customers who need to make immediate decisions in policy areas such as energy, technology, health, transportation, and in the near future, defense and financial regulation. Customers won’t be curling up with Pro content as they might with a 10,000-word New Yorker piece, according to Pro editor-in-chief Tim Grieve.

“It’s [not] what we’re trying to do,” he told Nieman. “If you’re racing around the Hill trying to make progress on the policy area you care about, that’s a really lousy way of getting information.”

Management won’t give away potentially lucrative Pro content for free, but editors have been making moves to further integrate the two editorial operations and increasingly bring some of Pro’s policy coverage, often written in a more staid tone, onto the homepage.

At Politico, the “web lead” is of paramount importance to reporters fighting for the site’s top billing and editors hoping to shepherd pieces into that highly coveted slot, a cable news agenda-setter eyed each day by TV bookers across the networks. Increasingly, Pro stories have occupied that spot. Still, inside Politico, there’s long been a sense that Harris and VandeHei — drawn to the day’s hot-button political controversy of the moment — are less interested in policy. Both are quick to publicly talk up Pro’s importance to the overall operation, but staffers doubt that that’s where their passions reside.

In fact, some at Politico suggest that a Pro-dominated franchise will likely mean that VandeHei and Harris, both more passionate about national politics, may eventually depart. Harris called such speculation “way off-base” in an email, and pointed out that Pro will help the company reach its long-term goal.

“We want to be the dominant politics and policy news organization in Washington and Pro’s expansion has allowed us to do that,” Harris says. “Much of what Pro’s doing is aimed at a highly specialized audience. We want some of their work to be aimed at a broader audience of politically sophisticated and really highly engaged people, and the way to do that is through the main site.”

Harris adds that Politico editors “want to make sure it’s one newsroom and not two distinct newsrooms.”

As for his future amid Politico’s growth, Harris wrote, “at the moment, I’m expecting to stay for as long as I’m welcome.”

AN ESPN OF POLITICS?

In addition to hiring up policy reporters, Politico’s also now looking for an executive producer for Politico TV.

Politico drew attention this spring on several primary nights with its distinctive Politico Live streaming broadcasts, which include such unique elements as a “Mikey Cam” that follows the indefatigable Allen around as he pulls up breaking news on a BlackBerry. C-SPAN also aired several of the broadcasts, thus landing Politico on a national television network. While Politico’s PR team has proven highly adept at getting reporters and editors on air from the start, and TV regulars like Allen, VandeHei and Patrick Gavin are found daily during the “Politico Playbook” segment of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, a regular television component hasn’t come together.

Don Ennis, whom Politico hired in late 2007 as an executive producer to help create TV content, says his first conversation with VandeHei included a discussion of becoming the “ESPN of Politics.” Both editors, he said, longed to do something “less traditional” than the usual punditocracy, but couldn’t pin down exactly what that would be. They didn’t want Politico’s TV brand to be over-produced, which seemed inconsistent with emulating ESPN, a network where shows like SportsCenter are tightly structured to let viewers know which specific stories are coming up.

Ennis helped create Capitol Sunday, which aired on Allbritton’s ABC affiliate, WJLA-7, and featured the station’s top anchor, Leon Harris, as host, with a rotating cast of Politicos coming in. Ennis said Politico writers were usually great at answering specific questions, but their attempts at longer riffs on politics — the type of insidery banter that comprises much of the Politico Live broadcasts — didn’t work well in a visual medium.

“What’s that expression from Saturday Night Live, not ready for primetime?” says Ennis, now a freelance writer/producer based in New York.

In April 2008, a few months after Capitol Sunday got off the ground VandeHei told the New York Observer it was soon going to be relaunched as Politico TV. At the time, VandeHei told the Observer that they “want[ed] to create TV that has some of the Politico edge to it,” which “takes a lot of experimentation.” He also described Politico as vying to be the “ESPN of Politics.”

A month later, Capitol Sunday was canceled and Ennis left soon after.

Politico flirted with the idea of a Sunday show in early 2010, according to a source with knowledge of the talks, and even had discussions with Mark Halperin about hosting. Halperin, known primarily as Time’s editor-at-large and an MSNBC senior political analyst, also served as Harris’s co-author on the 2006 book, "The Way to Win." Halperin didn’t respond to a request for comment on his past talks with Politico.

Lately, Politico has once again signaled an interest in television, but more akin to streaming video shows around major political events, or perhaps, a regular web series on the site or on a dedicated YouTube channel. VandeHei says Politico is now “trying to experiment with a bunch of different things, everything from short bursts of programming to live programming.”

VandeHei likens the next couple years in television and online video to 2006 and 2007, a time of “massive upheaval in print,” which coincided with the birth of Politico. He mentioned new players like Google, YouTube and Apple TV, and The Huffington Post — which is launching a 12-hour streaming network — joining more established industry players.

“All those people are looking to build channels, are looking to build content that’s going to be delivered differently than it is today,” he says. “We think we’re well positioned, because of the size of the newsroom, and because of the type of people we recruit here, to be able to produce that content.

“Is there a big market for that? Over time, can you sustain that financially? At this point, we’re not as worried about the financial question. We’re more worried about the experimentation question. I think over the next six months, hopefully you’ll see different experiments that tip our hand where we think things are going on video.”

“NOT MONOPOLY MONEY”

Politico’s editors maintain that their company is profitable and isn’t borrowing money to fund its expansion. Since Allbritton is privately held, it’s impossible to dig into the financials and verify that claim and there have long been doubts about whether Politico actually has earnings putting the company in the black.

Since wealthy people have been known to bankroll money-losing media outlets for the influence they carry, there have also been suggestions that Politico is a vanity project for Robert Allbritton, son of local media titan Joe Allbritton, who once also owned the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper as well as the scandal-plagued Riggs Bank.

Allbritton wasn’t available to comment before this article closed, but Harris contends that Allbritton cares about Politico being financially successful.

“It’s not monopoly money for him, it’s real,” Harris says.

A focus on a paid subscription model with Pro suggests that Allbritton wants to increase revenue rather than spend lavishly on more brand-name political writers for the main, free site. After all, Politico didn’t rush out to replace Smith with a top-tier writer and is instead adding writers to produce more policy-driven stories.

There are, of course, non-financial benefits to owning Politico for Allbritton and Fred Ryan, Allbritton’s president and Politico’s president and chief executive.

Ryan, who worked in the Reagan White House, also serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Chairman of the White House Historical Association Board.

Two journalists who helped run Allbritton’s highly anticipated hyper-local 2010 venture about the Washington area, TBD.com, suggest that Allbritton and Ryan want influence and were willing to accept Politico’s early losses to gain that foothold.

Digital First Media editor-in-chief Jim Brady, who helped conceive TBD.com as general manager but left after just three months online, said he and his staff believed they had a “five-year runway” to work toward profitability. But that never happened: layoffs hit the 35-person staff within the site’s first year and the numbers continued dwindling. The Washington City Paper reported recently that TBD had “lost its last full-time employee.”

Brady said that Politico “got the runway it needed to take-off,” unlike TBD and that he “never got the sense the corporate folks got the same passion for local news as politics.”

Steve Buttry, who was TBD’s director of community engagement and now holds the position at Digital First Media and the Journal Register Co., said he had the same impression.

“I don’t think Fred Ryan was ever as committed to TBD as he was to Politico,” Buttry said. “Politico made him politically relevant again and that was important to him, and I think he had more patience for that than for TBD.”

Harris places Allbritton and Ryan in the “core group that started Politico,” along with VandeHei, Allen and himself. When discussing his future with Politico, Harris said Allbritton knows the two top editors “will do everything we can to make sure we help him build a publication that can prosper for the very long haul.”

While it’s difficult for outsiders to dig into Politico’s books, several top editorial and business side executives tried explaining to the newsroom how the company makes money at an in-house presentation in May called “Understanding Our Business Side.”

Politico staffers crammed into a conference room in the Rosslyn offices and enjoyed pizzas and sodas while VandeHei, Harris, Miki King, chief revenue officer Roy Schwartz and vice president of events Beth Lester spoke to the audience, according to sources not authorized to publicly discuss the meeting.

During the discussion, Schwartz described Politico as pulling in online ad rates significantly ahead of Washington competitors. VandeHei added some specifics, telling staff that Politico has a two-tier CPM (or cost-per-thousand impressions), which hinges on site-visitors’ locations.

Politico’s CPM outside D.C. is $10-20, while within the Beltway, the company brings between $50-60, depending on the timing and location of the ads.

VandeHei noted that Politico is geared toward a niche audience and doesn’t have to continuously grow traffic as do more general interest sites that don’t command premium ad rates.

Four days later, in his office, VandeHei touched upon this theme, saying that while every site hopes to grow traffic, it’s not the most important thing for Politico.

“We’re not reliant on big traffic,” he said. “Our whole business model is being indispensable to this city, to people who do this stuff professionally, to people who are addicted to it.”

VandeHei says that Politico is “a niche play, and we’re dominating our niche,” adding “that’s why we’re expanding into all these different areas, always with a focus on Washington.”

Traffic chatter bores him, he says.

“I get a little bit weary when people try to compare this to, ‘Oh, the New York Times has so much more traffic than you or The Huffington Post,” VandeHei says. “Right, you guys have about forty different sub-channels, you’re in different countries, you’re covering sports, you have pictures and girls and all this stuff that generates a lot of traffic. We do politics. That’s what we do. We do policy. That’s what we do.”

Rebecca Ballhaus provided research assistance for this article.

This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store. Following publication, Politico became embroiled in a controversy over comments made by White House correspondent Joe Williams on cable news and Twitter. Williams left Politico on Saturday.

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