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Why I Joined Puck – Puck

Aloha, bonsoir, and welcome to your inaugural Sunday edition of The Best & The Brightest: Impolitic. I’m John Heilemann, officially commencing my tenure as chief political columnist at Puck with this missive, sailing straight into your inbox and docking itself in your cerebral cortex just in time for dinner and a few well-salted margaritas.

Tonight, to kick things off, a brief history of Impolitic’s provenance and prevailing sensibility, a few thoughts on why Puck and I are a match made in heaven, and some expectations-setting about what you will—and, crucially, will not—find in this column-and-podcast franchise as we venture forth together into parts unknown. Hope you enjoy, see you back here next Sunday, and, as always, namaste!

Twenty-nine years ago this month, with the country reeling from the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1996 presidential election looming on the horizon, I quietly began engineering a career move that was, to me, fantastically enticing, but on its face, utterly preposterous. After five fabulous years working for The Economist, first in London and then in Washington, I would cover the forthcoming campaign for two magazines simultaneously: Wired and The New Yorker.

You’d be hard-pressed to identify a stranger pairing of publications. Only two years old but already the most heralded West Coast magazine since Rolling Stone in its heyday, Wired and its messianic founder, Louis Rossetto, were openly contemptuous (if privately covetous) of everything Tina Brown and The New Yorker represented. But there was a certain hallucinatory logic to the deal, which somehow convinced both sides to accept joint custody of me in 1996. For Wired, I would write an 8,000- to 10,000-word feature every month; for The New Yorker, a campaign-trail Talk of the Town piece every other week. For me, the result was intoxicating—so much so that, when Louis called and asked if I’d also be willing to knock out two or three scene-setting paragraphs every day for Wired’s fledgling online arm, Hotwired, I answered without blinking (or, clearly, thinking), “Sure.”

Anyone familiar with the law of unintended consequences can guess what happened next: The Hotwired thing metastasized, taking over my fucking life. The moment I said sure, Louis (god love him) sold The New York Times Syndicate on turning my daily online canapés into full-blown columns to run in newspapers around the country. Which meant those items could no longer be a few quick, observational grafs. I was now on the hook for 800 to 900 words, five days a week, on top of everything else I was writing. Of course, it wasn’t long before the Hotwired column overshadowed the other work entirely. Not because of its sheer tonnage, but because it was the first political reporting ever produced directly for the web—which made it a kinda sexy story (for 1996, that is).

At the time, I considered that column a huge distraction and a massive pain in my ass. But looking back on it now, I can see how wrong I was. Of all the things I did that year, the Hotwired work was the most innovative and long-run consequential. The format we created for the column was something genuinely new—a proto-blog, essentially. Along with the other pioneers of the web, we were on the bleeding edge of a revolution that would transform the news business (for better and for worse). My stint at Wired was my first taste of startup life, of being on the side of the disruptors and not the incumbents. I dug it.

You don’t need to be a member of Mensa to suss out the connections between all this and why I’m now at Puck, and I’ll say more about them presently, in any case. But before moving on, one last thing about that Hotwired column: It was called Impolitic—and now we’re bringing it back to life, retuned and retooled for this even edgier, more thrilling but more existentially uncertain era.

The first time Jon Kelly and I ever spoke, it was over Zoom in August 2021, at the tail end of our collective second Covid summer. I was, at that point, nearly three years into building The Recount, the video-first digital news startup I’d co-founded with my longtime pal and partner John Battelle. For his part, Kelly was about to bring Puck out of stealth mode; the buzz around the company had been building for months. Based on what we’d read and heard, Battelle and I could see that our two outfits were kindred spirits editorially, but not competitive in terms of products or business models. So J.B. and I thought there was a chance we might be able to partner up on some stuff.

I was predisposed to like Kelly from the get-go because we shared a very particular, very important bond: We’d both been close to the legendary, larger-than-life, last-of-his-kind magazine editor John Homans, struck down by cancer in 2020, at just 62—a reality that, to this day, I still find unfathomable. Homans and I had worked closely together for almost 20 years, first at New York and then at Bloomberg. I could write 10,000 words about what made him special and barely scratch the surface. (When he died, the web was flooded with moving tributes from his countless admirers and acolytes.) What matters in this context, however, is that Homans was an unerring judge of people. If he said he liked someone, that was that; the guy in question was jake with me. And Homans, having worked with Kelly at Vanity Fair, had deemed him a good egg.

For various reasons, it became apparent that any Recount-Puck collabs would have to wait awhile. But the more Kelly and I talked, the more I found to admire in his vision for Puck. A core principle was that the company’s journalists would have equity in it—a radical notion in the news business but near-universal among startups (we’d been doing it at The Recount from day one) and obviously a good idea. A business model based on membership, with subscriptions instead of advertising at its heart—the only way to go if your aim is serious, substantive, elevated work and not just chasing clicks. The embrace of email as a unique platform, enabling a different kind of writing—more direct, informal, and free of the hoary stylistic and structural conventions of newspapers, mags, and the web—and a more intimate, accountable relationship between journalists and readers. Smart.

But the place where Kelly and I were most simpatico was editorial focus. From the jump, Puck made consistently, abundantly clear what turf it intended to dominate: the intersecting corridors of power that stretch from Washington to Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and beyond. When I first read that, I thought, Now that’s my brand of vodka. Since starting in this racket 35 years ago, I have schlepped my fat ass up and down those corridors more times than I care to recall. My first assignment at The Economist was to cover the media and entertainment industries worldwide (a sort of beta version of Belloni and Byers, except abroad). A few years later, I moved to San Francisco to write the Letter From Silicon Valley for The New Yorker; a 70,000-word (yes, 70,000) opus I uncorked in Wired on Bill Gates and the Microsoft antitrust trial became the basis for my first book. At New York, the column I cranked out for a decade was called The Power Grid and often covered the likes of Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and other banksters. And then there’s the straight-up political stuff, in print and on TV, which is likely how you know me, if you know me: Showtime’s The Circus, Bloomberg TV’s With All Due Respect, Game Change (the book and HBO movie), Double Down, and my regular, long-running turns on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and Deadline: White House.

Given all this, it might seem blindingly obvious that Puck and I are chocolate and peanut butter, or gin and juice, or Bey and Jay—a match made in heaven. Kelly and I agree! (Right, Jon? Jon?? Jon???)

Now, I’ll admit it took a while, maybe longer than it should’ve. Having been around the track more times than A.J. Foyt, I know a thing or two about the gap between vision and execution, even when leaders and their teams are supremely talented and adequately funded. But watching Kelly, the squad he assembled, and Puck in toto—as a business and a journalistic enterprise, with its ever-expanding roster of A-list talent—perform over the past two years has been a sight to see. Meanwhile, the main things that changed to make this marriage possible were more about me than Puck. At the start of last year, Battelle and I sold The Recount, removing its attendant set of responsibilities from my plate; at the end of last year, Paramount declined to renew The Circus for another season… ahead of the most consequential presidential election in any of our lifetimes. (If your reaction to this was W.T.F., take it up with this guy.)

All of which meant that, for the first time in a long time, I had the bandwidth to take on a big new thing. Also, for the first time in a long time, I felt the itch to get back to writing. A year with Hell & High Water on hiatus had me jonesing for podcasting. A year with The Recount in the rearview mirror made me realize how much I missed the startup vibe—the energy, the camaraderie, the yen for experimentation and improvisation, the instinctive disregard for old rules, old thinking, and the old guard. And given the bleak and forbidding landscape facing digital media and quality journalism of every kind, the idea of being part of a venture that might help forge a path toward a new, sustainable economic model (or models) for the essential work that the Fourth Estate does in a free society… well, that was downright inspirational.

So here I am—hello! For anyone wondering what to expect from this column or the podcast we’ll soon be launching under the Impolitic banner, my hope and intention is that both will be consistent with the spirit and ethos I brought to Impolitic in its first incarnation—and, really, to all the work I’ve done before and since then, under any title.

First and foremost: reporting, analysis, and commentary that aims to be 100 percent #realtalk and 100 percent free of bullshit or bad faith, and that’s also as free as possible of pretension or pomposity. No fake news, no outrage porn, no performative piety. And, unequivocally, no false equivalencies. In this jurisdiction, there will be no treating Joe Biden and Donald Trump as if they dwell in the same moral, legal, or political spheres. One of these geezers has been indicted in four jurisdictions on 91 federal criminal counts, speaks openly about his desire to be a dictator, refuses to commit to accepting the results on November 5, and therefore poses a clear and present danger to the future of American democracy. The other geezer… doesn’t. Biden and Trump aren’t Coke and Pepsi. They are Coke and battery acid.

But just as Impolitic will be a false-equivalency-free zone, there will be an equally strong aversion around here to another pernicious construct: false binaries. In this world of ours, there are way fewer black-and-white issues or controversies than those that frustratingly occupy one or another shade of grey. And there are way more questions to which the right answer is and/both than either/or. The fact that battery acid will kill you dead doesn’t mean that Coke is health food. And the fact that Biden poses no threat to the republic doesn’t mean that he’s perfect (or close to it), or should be immune from criticism or accountability. I’m sometimes amazed that these things need to be said, but given the debauched state of our political discourse and civic life, I suppose they do—and there’s no better time than on the first day of class.

Oh, that reminds me of one last thing, which relates both to my new boss and our dearly departed friend and journalistic bhagwan. Whenever Kelly is asked why this company is named after the servant to the Fairy King in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jon invariably invokes a quality of the character Puck that we see all too rarely in these grim, divisive, bitter times: “mirth.” So if you do me the honor of joining me on this ride by subscribing to Puck (click here to claim my personal offer of 25 percent off), I’ll offer a sacred pledge that you will always find at least a modicum of mirth in the Impolitic empire.

What you’ll also reliably find up in here is a baseline take on the world that I took as a central inheritance from Homans, whose stock reaction to any newsworthy, noteworthy, or merely interesting turn of events on the national stage—good or bad, salutary or disgraceful, uplifting or appalling—was to widen his eyes in wonder and marvel: “Can you imagine?”