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Politico CEO Jim VandeHei to Depart After 2016 Election (And Here's the Memo)

VandeHei and fellow co-founder Mike Allen plan to start a new publication.

William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire

Politico CEO Jim VandeHei plans to leave the startup he founded after the 2016 election, a stunning move by one of the most talked-about media executives in Washington, D.C.

The former Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reporter founded Politico with Mike Allen in 2007 and quickly made it one of the most important reads in the Beltway, undercutting the Washington Post’s long-held dominance in the nation’s capital.

VandeHei and Allen plan to depart after the 2016 election to start another publication, according to sources. The CEO had clashed with owner Robert Allbritton over spending, and both VandeHei and Allen decided it was time to move on. The deeper conflict came over what some say was Allbritton’s intense involvement in the management of day-to-day operations.

That didn’t sit well with VandeHei, but Allbritton felt he needed to be in charge. The decision for VandeHei to depart happened only within the past month, these people say.

The source of the tension started a few years earlier with Fred Ryan, the previous CEO of Politico. Ryan had helped turn Politico into a much larger online media brand, and Allbritton wanted to take more control over the growing company, according to the sources. Ryan left in 2013 and a year later was appointed CEO of the Washington Post.

While VandeHei and Allen plan to stay through the election, they’ve already started to reach out to Politico staff to lure them into their new venture. The two have already approached Politico Chief Revenue Officer Roy Schwartz to join and have started to map out a content plan for a new site.

In addition to VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz, Chief Operating Officer Kim Kingsley and Executive Vice President Danielle Jones also plan to leave by the end of the year.

The Huffington Post first wrote about the pending shake-up at Politico.

Allbritton sold his family’s broadcast TV stations in 2014 for $985 million and he set about to expand Politico into other cities in the U.S. and Europe. The publisher acquired Capital New York, a blog focused on New York’s government and media power circles, in 2013 and signed a deal with German publisher Axel Springer to expand the brand into Europe.

Here’s the memo:

From: Jim VandeHei

To: World-Staff

So now you know the news: I am leaving POLITICO after the election.

The timing is poetic: It will mark my 10th Anniversary, almost to the day. I came in just as the Barack Obama phenomenon exploded in 2006 and plan to depart just after his successor is picked and his presidency concludes.

There are two reasons to do this now.

First, I caught the entrepreneurial bug a decade ago when we started this place and can’t seem to shake it. There is no greater challenge than trying to match in a new space the magic and success we pulled off here. This moment in media and in history is putting every sector and idea in play — and it is too intriguing and wide open to play it safe. I plan to start a new venture when I depart.

Second, and as important, I can leave now knowing a template for growth has been set, a first-class leadership team assembled and prepared for this transition, and POLITICO is powerful and durable enough to outlast us all. The true measure of business success is building a company that can prosper when the founders go. We stocked the place with talent during the past three years, in anticipation of this moment.

This change will not be abrupt. I will be here until after the election to help with the transition, throwing myself into expanding POLITICO and thinking ambitiously about our newsroom and journalism.

John Harris, who took a risk pairing up with me a decade ago this fall, will help guide the next chapter and carry on the POLITICO torch. It will take a long note at a later date to express my full appreciation for him.

Robert Allbritton, who took his own risk on John and me when we were two Washington Post journalists with a dream, plans to take a more direct role running his company. Robert is a great publisher who pushed all of us to think more ambitiously. He has big ideas for the publication – including a new burst of investment – and will outline them in the months ahead.

One of the coolest parts of my job is working with talented people who always put the company first. Mike Allen, Kim Kingsley, Roy Schwartz and Danielle Jones, all of whom will be seeking their own new adventures this year, personify high-achievement and humility. They inspire and sharpen me — and all of us — everyday.

This is a tough note to write — and perhaps a tough one to read for some of you. POLITICO is the rare company where co-workers feel like family, and working here is a calling. We have visceral feelings because we pour so much of ourselves into it. And we believe powerfully in what we are doing.

You came here because you believed in us and our ideas, and I love that. But you are also here because you are brilliant and motivated and brimming with possibility. It will be fun and satisfying to watch the next generation of leaders soar. Change naturally rattles the mind but it also presents opportunity. Seize it.

Never let that fire in your belly fade. It is why you will succeed, and what distinguishes you. Life is too short not to allow yourself to burn with passion and ambition, even when it stings a bit. So stay restless.

We believe more firmly than ever that talented people, with the right work ethic and values, can change the world if they possess the self confidence to try and humility to learn. Greatness, in a business setting, is not one or two people doing the impossible. It’s the right group of people with distinct skills coming together at the right time to bring the right idea to life.

Together, we did this. We created one of the most respected and feared brands in journalism — and one of the few with a business model based on real results, not mythology or hope. Our editorial and business formulas, culture and management approach work and scale exceptionally well.

My only regret will be that the so-called “narrative” of our rise features so few characters. John, Robert and I didn’t create POLITICO, hundreds of people did: from my wife, Autumn, naming it, to J-mart and Ben Smith defining it, to Fred Ryan steering and hyping it, to Bill Nichols steadying it, to Kim Kingsley promoting and shaping it, to David Rogers and John Bresnahan validating it on Capitol Hill, to Danielle Jones and Miki King bringing heart and order to it, to Carrie Budoff Brown globalizing it, to Mikey promoting all of it, to Roy Schwartz bringing a real business to finance it, to all of you for making a big success of it.

Think about what you have done — and are doing. You created a global brand, showed a profitable way to fund real journalism, changed forever the Washington media landscape, pioneered a new voice and speed for stories, inspired imitation and built a unique culture and high-achieving staff others admire and covet.

And then think about what we have done for other media companies. Ben Smith, one of our originals, built out and now runs Buzzfeed news; Rachel Smolkin built out and now runs CNN Politics; The New York Times political desk is built around POLITICOs Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman, Alex Burns; Fred Ryan was poached by the Washington Post to man its turnaround. Everywhere you look, there is a POLITICO past or present, all brought in to provide some of your secret sauce.

We have constantly reloaded and revolutionized, each time emerging better, stronger, more essential. And we will do this again in 2016.

Everyone here works their hearts out. But never, not once, has any of us failed to snap back. We pushed ourselves harder and left everything on the field. Vince Lombardi put it best, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

That is us: working our hearts out and standing victorious.

After the election, it will be on to the next battle. To all those who followed us here, thank you with all my heart. You are making me a better, more fulfilled person. You changed my life. You changed journalism. It is my prayer that all of us continue that fight for journalism and ideas we believe in – and, in the end, stand proud and victorious in 2016 and beyond.



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