"It was a speeding freight train, and you just had to jump on."
That's how Charlie Mahtesian, Politico's first national politics editor, describes the startup when he debuted there in January 2008. After five years onboard, Mahtesian has disembarked to become NPR's political editor for its digital news team.
"I had a great run at Politico, and I'll always be grateful," Mahtesian says, though he's looking forward to being able to cover politics from a new vantage point. "I've always believed that American politics is best understood through the window of the states. And the way I see it is that it's a great time to be a political journalist."
At NPR, Mahtesian, 45, will be responsible for "overseeing and coordinating" online political coverage, editing various political reporters and working closely with the Washington desk, according to a release sent to NPR staff by Scott Montgomery, senior supervising editor of digital news.
"He brings a unique combination of leadership skill, high level editing experience and a deep understanding of the national political landscape," Montgomery said. "As one of the original editors at Politico, he also knows something about meeting the needs of a digital news audience."
Mahtesian's deep understanding of political reporting comes from a long history in the field.
Hailing from Philadelphia, Mahtesian attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and discovered his love of politics. He worked at Congressional Quarterly during his senior year and stayed there after graduation. He went on to attend American University Washington College of Law while continuing down the political path by becoming a national correspondent for CQ's Governing magazine and then joining National Journal's Almanac of American Politics in 2002. Mahtesian remained there until making the move to Politico, which at the time was in its "garage-band era," as the original editors like to call it.
Mahtesian says that it was Politico's two founders, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, who reached out to him for the position. After accepting the title as national politics editor, Mahtesian had to define what that position meant.
"I oversaw the political reporters and started to create a vision for what our political coverage would sound like and look like and what that entailed at Politico," he says. "We didn't have traditional boundaries, so for me my position included writing and also editing all the copy about the election and politics--so a little bit of everything."
Molly Ball, national politics writer at The Atlantic, worked with Mahtesian at Politico and remembers their collaboration fondly. "Charlie is the best editor I've ever worked for and the man to whom I owe my Washington journalism career," says Ball, who recently won Syracuse University's Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. "He taught me more than anyone else about the national political scene and what makes a national story. He put me through endless post-midnight story edits that made my reporting and writing stronger, more lucid and more compelling."
Mahtesian, who started at NPR on Monday, recalls his first day at Politico's offices in Rosslyn, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington. "When I got there, it was the day of the Iowa caucus, and when I walked in we didn't know whether it was going to be [Barack] Obama or [Hillary] Clinton for the Democratic nominee."
Politico is known for its determination to break news and set the D.C. agenda as well as for its demanding, high-pressure atmosphere. "Certainly it's a hard place to work, but for many of us the ability to have a creative environment, the flexibility of the environment, and the aspirations of the publication created a very gratifying experience. John and Jim had given me so much latitude that for me it was a very exciting time."
NPR is looking forward to what Mahtesian can bring to the table. In the press release, Montgomery references Mahtesian's first Politico blog post in which he explains his propensity for state-focused politics. Montgomery says that the post "captured much of what excites us about Charlie's vision for what we NPR can do online--creating a space that looks beyond the Beltway to convey 'what's happening across the entire political map, whether it's in Newark or North Dakota.' "
Ball, who sees Mahtesian as a mentor, says that "NPR is lucky to have him."
Now that Mahtesian's off the "speeding freight train," perhaps he'll have more time to focus on his hobbies. He participates in a hockey league and plays baseball, though he says he "stopped playing in a baseball league two years ago..too many broken bones!"
But political journalism will always be his primary focus. "I would do just about any job that is intellectually stimulating," he says. "So NPR is a great opportunity."