CEO addresses being objective in the world of politics

Patrick Steel is chief executive officer of Politico.
By Michael R. Malone

Patrick Steel is chief executive officer of Politico.

CEO addresses being objective in the world of politics

By Michael R. Malone
The chief executive officer of Politico, a digital news platform, told an audience during a recent virtual lecture that his publication strives to be “essential, trustworthy, and non-partisan.’’

In a conversation on Thursday with the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, Patrick Steel, the chief executive officer of Politico, stressed that being “myopically focused” on delivering solely news on politics and policy and the public’s hunger for non-partisan news has buoyed the success of the digital news platform. 

The leading executive of the digital news platform that strives to “inform the most powerful people and ultimately hold them accountable” shared insights on Politico’s success, his concerns and optimism for the country’s future, and hope that local newspapers will survive to fulfill their vital purpose, in a conversation with business school Dean John Quelch as part of the school’s Virtual Distinguished Leader Lecture series. 

“No sports, no cooking, no weather, no travel, and no crosswords—it’s just politics and policy, and people know exactly what they come for when they come to Politico,” Steel said. “There is a real value in being myopically focused and prioritizing just one piece of the media landscape.”   

The CEO said he knew little about the business of journalism when he was invited by Politico owner Robert Allbritton in May 2017 to assume leadership of the publication. Yet, he looked to apply the business acumen he had developed as a successful investment banker and that, having worked in the Clinton White House early in his career, he had “always been passionate about politics.”  

He realized on his second day on the job, as the newsroom scrambled to report on the firing of former FBI director James Comey, that letting the editorial team dictate content was the wiser approach. 

“There are only three directions that I give the editorial team: Our content has to be essential, trustworthy, and non-partisan,” he said. “There are relatively few places left where a media organization on a relatively sophisticated level can speak to all sides of an issue. That lane is quite narrow, but it is an incredibly valuable space. 

Launched in 2006 as an exclusively “inside-the-beltway” publication, Politico now employs 725 people, with 550 working in the United States. While most of them work in Washington, D.C., many are with state bureaus. There are nearly 200 employees in Brussels, Belgium, where the European Union is headquartered.

“We’ve been incredibly successful over 13 years in finding lightning in a bottle,” Steel said. “We’ve got great writing talent complemented by a mature and experienced staff of editors—it’s a model that works exceptionally well.” 

Asked about the presidential debate, Steel described the chaotic exchange as “a reflection of the deep polarization of the country. We’re a deeply divided country, and people believe in a different set of facts. That causes the opposing side to call everything out as a lie and an untruth, and that’s a very unfortunate place for us to be.” 

Still, he added, there are millions of people in the country who remain truly persuadable and hungry for facts and information. 

“That vital center of our country is not gone—despite what you read—and we’re going to stick to our strategy and communicate with those people,” Steel said. “The ability to speak to both sides of an issue and delivering non-partisan news is central to our business.” 

While Politico’s business model uses subscription revenues and digital ad income to operate, Steel lamented the demise of legacy, or older newspapers with financial situations that have worsened because of a loss of advertising resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The local media holds the powerful accountable, and we have to figure out how to preserve this local lifeline,” Steel said. “There are only two ways—either supported like public television and public radio or come up with a business model that works. My gut tells me that a subscription model will be best.” 

Steel admitted that the scenario of escalating tension and skepticism regarding the outcome of the election is disconcerting. 

“We have checks and balances in the system, and I ultimately believe a presidential winner will be declared. It will be clear, and the Constitution will prevail,” he said. “I know people are terrified that the system is going to be challenged in ways, and I understand why the president’s public statements make you scratch your head. But I believe we will have an election winner on Nov. 3, that a president will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, and that the country will continue to move forward.” 

Steel, who has a son who attends the University of Miami, also expressed his appreciation for how the University has managed the COVID-19 scenario. 

“This has got to be one of the most difficult situations an administration or faculty could have ever had to manage,” he said. “You’ve treated the students like adults, developed and executed on a plan, and you’ve never wavered. As parents, we’ve been really impressed and thankful for how you’ve managed this.”