When the authors of Politico’s Playbook newsletter scored an interview with President Donald Trump, it was a victory for the duo, who had been angling for a sit-down with the president for months for their book. There was only one problem: They forgot to tell any of their colleagues at Politico about their interview.
The years-old incident—well-known within the organization—was representative of the relationship Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer had with some at the publication over the past four years. Since taking over the newsletter in 2016 following the acrimonious departure of its founder Mike Allen, the Playbook authors, while personally well-liked by many newsroom colleagues, have been somewhat polarizing within the outlet in their work helming the signature product: credited by some for saving the newsletter; criticized by others for not being good enough team players.
Now, the writers of the widely read newsletter have left the company to launch their own publication, Punchbowl News, a daily newsletter and events company focused largely on Congress.
Their departure did not come as a shock, insiders said, as an editorial rift had grown between the high-profile writers and some of their newsroom colleagues, including at times some of the publication’s most senior leaders. And it has set the stage for a possible shakeup of the D.C. media landscape along with a retooling of the product that launched Politico to stratospheric heights.
The two sides have tried to keep the split as drama-free as possible, offering positive public and private reasons for the separation. Palmer and Sherman emphasized that they’d been at Politico for years and wanted a change, and privately told friends and colleagues that there are entrepreneurial benefits to striking out on their own.
Sources said, for their part, Politico higher-ups also wanted to avoid the open drama and hostility that occurred when former Politico CEO Jim Vandehei left along with Allen, a high-profile D.C. reporter in his own right, to start rival media company Axios. In public statements, the publication praised Sherman and Palmer’s work. Politico also kept the duo on after the departure was announced, and did not discourage them from promoting the new organization while continuing to work there.
But numerous Politico insiders said the seeds of the breakup had been growing for a long time, and differences on both sides led to the split.
Following Allen’s departure before the 2016 election, Palmer and Sherman were tapped to take the reins. It was an uncertain moment for the publication: Since launching in 2007, Playbook has been Politico’s most notable editorial offering, a major source of revenue, and an even more important symbol for the political news brand. But Allen had been its author since the inception, and many at the publication wondered if it could survive without him.
The publication needed someone to maintain its signature editorial product, which a source familiar with it said brings in millions worth of revenue annually. Sherman and Palmer had a broad mandate to cover what they wanted, and thus had relatively little editorial oversight. They made the calculated choice to orient the newsletter with a focus first on Congress, where their sourcing was strongest and they believed they had a competitive advantage along with a loyal base of readers.
Many at Politico believe the calculation paid off: according to people familiar, the newsletter tripled its subscribers, doubled revenue, and developed a firm identity under Sherman and Palmer. But over the past several years, a noticeable rift has grown between the Playbook writers and some others in the newsroom.
Multiple sources said there was a sense among some editors including editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski (who took over in 2019) that the newsletter was focused too intensely on Congress, particularly at a moment when the White House antics were captivating millions of Americans and consumers of political news. Some newsroom higher-ups believed that while Playbook was nearly unrivaled in its coverage of Congress, the newsletter needed to increase focus on campaigns and the White House, particularly because Politico already had Huddle, a daily congressional newsletter. On other occasions, a source familiar said, higher-ups were frustrated that the Playbook duo had dedicated some of the newsletter to recapping the reporting of legacy outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
For their part, the Playbook authors felt they never got the sense that newsroom higher-ups were ever displeased with elements of the newsletter.
Nevertheless, incidents including the Trump interview left some other Politico reporters feeling burned, while some felt like Allen had been more generous with linking to stories on outside beats, often a major source of attention normally difficult to come by (though the pair were well-liked, particularly by many of the publication’s congressional reporters). And for their part, the Playbook duo felt frustrated by what they felt was a clunky internal bureaucracy that slowed down the famously fast-paced news organization. Major decisions about the newsletter or events that used to be made instantly by the duo now oftentimes had to run through numerous hoops including a product team, marketing team, and multiple editors.
The outgoing Playbook team’s tensions within the company had also apparently on occasion reached as far as Politico ownership.
According to multiple sources, the outlet’s owner and chairman Robert Allbritton felt that Palmer and Sherman’s previous contract negotiations, which involved representatives like the duo’s CAA agent Rachel Adler, were needlessly tense. Allbritton was also at odds with the Playbook hosts on some other high-profile occasions including when, as NBC News reported last year, he pushed for correspondent Tim Alberta to serve as the outlet’s contributing moderator to the December 2019 Democratic presidential debate instead of a considered plan for Palmer and top editor Carrie Budoff Brown to take on the role.
Ultimately, as Palmer and Sherman neared the end of their current contract—which they negotiated together several years ago—it became clear neither Politico nor the Playbook authors seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of re-upping for another two years. After contract negotiations began, the duo decided they were not interested in the publication’s pitch to re-sign, and decided to strike out on their own.
And in the wake of their departure, Politico higher-ups have decided now is the time to revamp its signature news product.
Top editors hope to broaden the focus of the newsletter away from congressional issues and aim to expand the authorial roster to have four to seven bylines, with the hope of expanding the scope of expertise, broadening coverage, and lessening the early-morning load on authors (Allen, Sherman, Palmer, and former writer Daniel Lippman all regularly woke up before dawn every morning in order to put out the newsletter).
The organization is looking to bring back some old talent to helm the newsletter. Former Politico reporter Rachael Bade is expected to join, and could broadly focus on congressional issues as a new Playbook author, while Ryan Lizza, the outlet’s current Washington correspondent, is expected to bring sourcing in Bidenworld for the newsletter. As Axios noted, former Politico White House reporter and ABC News correspondent Tara Palmeri is likely to rejoin the company as well. And while Washington Free Beacon editor Eliana Johnson has also been mentioned for a potential role, and is set to guest-edit Playbook next month, sources said that at the moment she seems unlikely to join given her recent elevation to the top editorial role at the Free Beacon. Politico was also in talks to bring in New York Times reporter Astead Herdon, a breakout star of the 2020 presidential election cycle, but he balked at the publication’s offer. While the lineup is not set, some members of the group recently gathered at a dinner in the backyard of Lizza’s house to bat around potential ideas for Playbook’s future (Cafe Milano lent several of its heat lamps for the occasion).
Meanwhile, interest is swirling in Beltway circles about Palmer and Sherman’s new media venture.
Punchbowl officially launched its website on New Years Day, saying it will be a “membership-based news community” that will “ focus relentlessly on the people in Washington who make decisions, and on the news and events that will move political markets.” The pair has also canvassed New York and D.C. media for interested stakeholders, including a few potential rivals. According to one source, one backer is Kindred Media, a subsidiary of prominent media and tech financier Aryeh Bourkoff’s investment firm LionTree. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that the team has even consulted with Vandehei, who remains close with Sherman and John Bresnahan, the longtime Politico congressional reporter who is also joining Punchbowl. They also sought out funding from Albritton—a consummate businessman—who has also offered the pair informal advice, despite the previous disagreements that preceded their exit. It’s well known that Vandehei and Allbritton remain on bad terms, and view the others’ ventures as rivals.
In an interview with The New York Times published Sunday afternoon, Sherman said he wanted Punchbowl to emphasize exclusive and breaking information, and avoid reaching moral verdicts on members of congress.
“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,” he told The Times. “But there is a massive segment of the world who wants to understand what Mitch McConnell does and why he’s doing it.”