Post-Mike Allen, Politico remakes Playbook for a social media landscape

Born in the Blackberry era, Politico Playbook is now forced to remake itself for smartphones and social media — without its biggest name.

Politico is losing its star contributor, Mike Allen, at the most inopportune of times. For nearly 10 years, Allen has pumped out Playbook, Politico’s lucrative newsletter that provides a daily dose of scoops and personality bits to more than 100,000 political insiders. Now, right in the middle of the presidential campaign, he’s leaving with Politico CEO Jim VandeHei and other executives to start a new political publication.

But along with naming Allen’s successors, Politico is using the transition to recharge the newsletter, which has been largely unchanged since its launch. That means a bigger social push and down the road, a dedicated presence on Politico.com, called Playbook Plus.

“Because the news cycle is no longer as simple as it was when Playbook launched, we wanted to have a place to share tidbits and nuggets at any time,” said Politico digital editor Blake Hounshell, who will be overseeing Playbook’s editorial direction.

Starting July 11, the newsletter will be written by Politico reporters Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, with help from Daniel Lippman, who had been assisting Allen. That edition will boast color photos and graphics for the first time and the ability for readers to share individual sections of the newsletter to social media.

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A preview of the Playbook newsletter, which will have photos and color for the first time.

Phase 2 will come in September with the launch of Playbook Plus, an online home that will give Sherman and Palmer a place to provide updates outside the daily newsletter cycle. Playbook is as much about the personalities of Washington as the hard news, and the plan is to create a searchable database of personality-related fodder from the newsletter, such as birthdays, wedding photos and events tidbits.

“We’re trying to go to people where they are,” Hounshell said. “Playbook started in the age of Blackberry, and the world has changed.”

With the departure of Allen and his 314,000 Twitter followers, Playbook is losing a big megaphone. But Politico is banking on Sherman and Palmer’s youth (they’re 30 and 34, respectively) and connections as a way to bring more young people to Playbook. (Allen is 52.) “Jake and Anna are in touch with a different generation of sources and readers,” Hounshell said. Their sources “are Gen X and millennials that are now making the majority of decisions that make this town work.”

Under Allen, Playbook brought in $3 million in advertising a year, including its live events, with weekly sponsorships running from $55,000 and up. Politico downplays the impact of Allen leaving, saying Playbook is more than just one person. Adding social sharing tools increases the chance of Playbook to reach a bigger audience and target them based on their social history, pointed out Erik Requidan, vp of sales and programmatic strategy at Intermarkets.

David Ellis, chief content officer of Politico rival CQ Roll Call, said it’s smart for Playbook to make its transition now, when attention to politics is at a high, with the conventions looming. “Making it a more attractive package and a destination is smart,” he said. “Having a troika solves the problem of being overly dependent on one person. They’re trying to address that by offering readers more visuals, more data.”

There are no concrete plans for Facebook Live and Snapchat, but Playbook expects to experiment with those platforms, too, with a focus on bringing readers behind the scenes, Hounshell said. Playbook isn’t getting a dedicated social staff, but the parent company has been growing its social team, which will benefit the brand overall, Playbook included. Other political news outlets have been using those platforms longer, but Hounshell said he doesn’t think Playbook will have a problem catching up.

“I don’t think anyone’s doing anything that’s really knocked my socks off,” he said. “We’re not going to be exploding watermelons. We’re going to be taking readers to places they want to be.”