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Story Pick: Mike Allen and the future of journalism

In Washington journalism circles, the latest New York Times Magazine cover story has been the subject of much chatter about the meaning of the news business in the age of the Internet. The story, penned by former Washington Post feature writer Mark Leibovich, profiles another former Post reporter, Mike Allen, who now writes for Politico and creates a popular morning email newsletter called Playbook -- a must-read roundup of news stories, politicians' talking points, and other related items.

What's so riveting about Playbook that, as Leibovich writes, "some of America's most influential people will read [it] before they say a word to their spouses?"

Here's the opening paragraph of today's Playbook: "With YouTube and e-mail, Obama amps up midterm push -- George W. Bush's 14 'Decision Points' out Nov. 9 -- Gibbs increases access after Chen meeting -- Kyra Phillips, John Roberts engaged."

Here's the second paragraph: "SEN. SHELBY is on “GMA” at 7:09 a.m., live from the Russell Rotunda."

Here is a shortened version of the third: "NYC’s LAST NEWSPAPER WAR – The Wall Street Journal hit the streets this a.m. with its first GREATER NEW YORK section, designed to nip at The Times’ ad and circ. dominance...EXCLUSIVE: PDF of the inaugural section front."

And here's the fourth: "BREAKING – YouTube: “President Obama Announces Vote 2010.”

The debate swirling among journalists since this Times Magazine story appeared has centered on whether Allen's Playbook represents a savvy form of modern, self-branded journalism, or if it constitutes journalism at all. Is Allen a reporter breaking and analyzing news? Or, is he a news distributor -- a curator selecting the day's most interesting stories and talking points and sending them out to time-crunched VIPs? According to Leibovich's often funny and sad profile, the answer is that Allen is both. He seems to be a journalist. He also seems to be the anti-journalist.

Sometimes, Allen is the first to break a big story on his own, such as the time he reported that The Post had been planning to host paid salons for lobbyists at the home of publisher Katharine Weymouth. But other times, Allen plays a traditional, perhaps dated journalistic role as the recipient of an "exclusive" interview or statement. The Atlantic's Andrew Sulllivan ripped Allen in December, calling him former Vice President Dick Cheney's "chief spokesman" after Allen published Cheney's entire statement attacking President Obama's strategy against terrorists. "There he goes again, the mouthpiece for Rove and Cheney, believing his 'access' as a stenographer makes him a journalist. It doesn't. It makes him a stenographer," Sullivan wrote.

In his Times piece, Leibovich explores Allen's secretive private life. Allen, 45, is not married and has no children, and for some reason, is loathe to show anyone where he lives. "He kisses women's hands and thanks you so much for coming, even though the party is never at his home, which not even his closest friends have seen," Leibovich writes.

For some reason, Allen has given different accounts of his birthday to friends. (I tried checking out his Facebook page, but he keeps his page extremely private to outsiders: Only his photograph is visible to non-friends like me; not even his Wall of friends' comments or Info page listing his birthday, employer, etc. is visible, even though we share several mutual Facebook friends.)

By the article's conclusion, I felt a bit sad, both for Allen and the future of journalism. I see the value in his distribution of stories to Washington's big thinkers and power players, especially since they have little time to page through all the major publications themselves. But, given Allen's experience and doggedness, wouldn't it be better if he were working on longer-term stories or investigations that served the public good? In other words, is Playbook really the best use of Allen's talents?

By Ian Shapira  | April 26, 2010; 9:28 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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