In Remembrance of a Beloved and Very Online Journalist

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janvier 11, 2023

Blake Hounshell, a witty and astute political observer who possessed a special knack for understanding the dynamics of internet journalism and became one of the driving forces behind POLITICO’s success over nearly a decade, died Tuesday morning at age 44.

According to a family statement, Blake died “after a long and courageous battle with depression.” The unexpected news spread rapidly through Washington and policy circles, as colleagues remembered him as a remarkable editor, generous colleague and critical mentor to younger journalists. Across his stints at Foreign Policy and POLITICO, he edited hundreds of bylines, from senior policymakers to interns, making every story sharper and every headline snappier.

A native of California who grew up in Delaware and Pittsburgh, PA, he graduated from Yale, where he studied political science and managed The Whiffenpoofs — the storied a cappella group. Hounshell was long fascinated with the world beyond, an interest that only deepened in his senior year in the wake of 9/11. He moved to the Middle East after graduating in 2002, to study Arabic in a quest to understand the dynamics of Islamic extremism and the dawning of the War on Terror.

In Cairo, he worked at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, an Egyptian think tank founded by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a critic of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Colleagues and friends from that era remember the center, which was one of the Islamic world’s leading voices on human rights, as being filled with idealistic Egyptians and foreigners, all working together to advance ideals of democracy. There, he met his future wife, Sandy Choi, an accomplished professional musician and Middle East consultant.

Now a couple, they moved to Washington in the mid-2000s, arriving just as the capital’s media landscape was remade by the rise of the internet and social media, and where Hounshell’s career in journalism then paralleled — and helped shape — the rise and evolution of digital media at multiple publications.

Hounshell’s interest in international affairs and the Middle East led him online: He founded a foreign policy blog, called “American Footprints,” and wrote for the American Prospect’s blog in an era where Prospect hosted many of the nation’s hottest emerging voices, like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, and the site’s unique voice was helping to pioneer a new style of journalism in Washington, D.C.

With little journalism training and background, Hounshell wove and wrote his way into the field primarily by devouring news and hoovering up more information than anyone around him, eventually landing a role at Foreign Policy. In the wake of the magazine’s 2008 purchase by The Washington Post Company, incoming editor Susan Glasser remembers being immediately struck by Hounshell’s wide-ranging interests and unparalleled metabolism.

“He was faster and smarter and more immersed in the news cycle than anyone I’ve known,” Glasser recalled. “Although Blake wasn’t born with an iPhone in his hand, he was the first and most digital native person I knew.”

Working together, Glasser and Hounshell reinvented Foreign Policy, remaking the longtime print publication, which had been run by the Carnegie Endowment for 30 years, into a daily online magazine just as magazines were imagining a web-first future. David Kenner, whom Hounshell first hired as an intern and later into a staff role, recalls Hounshell’s voracious reading ability.

“He had his encyclopedic knowledge of the world that was unparalleled among our staff. At FP, his job was to oversee the whole world, really, and the joke was always that we’d have lunch with, like, a Swedish diplomat, and he’d be like, ‘I was reading this obscure Swedish document and had this very specific question’ — things that no one could fathom how someone who had such a broad remit could know,” Kenner recalls.

Despite his wide-ranging interests and his role overseeing global coverage, it was clear to colleagues that a part of him remained fascinated with the other path — the reporters who specialized, learned the local languages and dug deep into single subjects and regions — and while his Arabic skills never rose above what he self-deprecatingly called “mangled,” he always followed closely the careers of those he’d met early in Egypt, like Ben Hubbard, now the Istanbul bureau chief for the New York Times.

Hounshell succeeded in feeding his voluminous intellectual appetite in part by being brutally efficient in his emails — he and Kenner reached a point where Hounshell would reply to the writer’s long pitches just with a “Y” or an “N.” As Kenner recalls, “He was incredible — this multi-tasker who could answer all these questions and keep all these plates spinning.”

The reinvention of Foreign Policy was seen as a bright spot in an industry still struggling to come to terms with the impact of the internet, and won Glasser, Hounshell and the upstart magazine a digital National Magazine Award for its blogs. On the train ride back from New York to Washington, their Alexander Calder “Ellie” award awkwardly perched with them, Glasser recalled that Hounshell confided that his wife had been offered a professional opportunity in Qatar that would force him to leave the magazine. “In journalism people come and go, and I just couldn’t do it,” Glasser says, recalling that she told him he should keep his job in Qatar: “Somehow we’ll make it work.”

The timing proved fortuitous, as the Arab Spring broke out soon after his return to the Middle East, putting him at the center of one of the biggest stories in the world and in a region that had uniquely captured his heart. “He basically live-tweeted the whole thing,” Glasser recalled.

“It meant so much to him to throw himself back into a story — and specifically an Egyptian story. His Twitter feed was just nonstop, it was 20 hours a day — following the most minute details of the politics,” Kenner recalled. “It was one of the first times I’d ever seen it used like that.”

Hounshell’s Twitter following grew to hundreds of thousands, in an era when such followings were all-but-unheard of, but he was hardly only a keyboard journalist: He reported on-the-ground from Tahrir Square and experienced the uprising up-close; his reporting for Foreign Policy was a finalist for the Livingston Awards, the prestigious recognition for the best journalism by journalists under 35.

After Hounshell returned to Washington he and Glasser were recruited to POLITICO in 2013 to launch the brand’s first foray into longform journalism, a project that became POLITICO Magazine.

The magazine, which Glasser, as editor, and Hounshell, as deputy editor, launched in 2013 quickly established itself as a must-read, recognized as one of the industry’s hottest new magazines, scoring two National Magazine Award finalist nods in its first year, and both the Michael Kelly Award and the George Polk Award for its coverage of the rise of ISIS.

In their collaborative transformation of multiple agenda-setting publications, Glasser and Hounshell’s unique editorial partnership over a decade surely ranks as one of the capital’s deepest, one that helped forever remake the metabolism of Washington journalism and reshaped the industry’s understanding of digital magazines. As Glasser says, “He was not just a colleague, but my indispensable partner.”

Hounshell’s role in the POLITICO newsroom expanded steadily — he became the newsroom’s digital editorial director in November 2014, a role that saw him install a siren and red fire-engine-style light in the newsroom to mark when the website published scoops. He wowed colleagues with his ability to quickly grasp unique angles, conjure creative headlines, and understand what would connect with a web audience. He also led the site’s first top-to-bottom redesign.

Later, he spent three years as editor-in-chief of POLITICO Magazine before becoming managing editor for Washington and politics, helping to shape over the years everything from the site’s frenetically paced breaking news team to its star congressional team to its signature morning Playbook newsletter.

“As anyone who knew him will tell you, Blake relished the story more than anything,” POLITICO Editor-in-Chief Matt Kaminski wrote to the newsroom Tuesday afternoon, breaking news of his death. “And yet one of his most lasting legacies here will be in what he built as an editorial leader. … Blake cultivated the current Congress team. He thought we needed better offerings on national security (NatSec Daily came to life). He pushed for deeper coverage of the presidency (West Wing Playbook). Everything he touched, it seemed, turned to gold.”

Even as his stature in the newsroom rose, he feared that management would take him away from the world of ideas that he loved. He loved the craft and give-and-take of editing and preferred being in the editorial trenches with reporters, thinking about ledes, headlines and angles; when Donald Trump’s new administration issued its surprise so-called “Muslim Ban” on the first Friday of his presidency, Hounshell raced to Dulles Airport to cover the chaos, resulting in a first-person piece, “Scenes from a Constitutional Crisis,” that harkened back to his reporting on the Arab Spring.

As his colleague Charlie Mahtesian recalled, “His brilliance came to him at speed — the connections occurred to him immediately. He always understood what the story was right away. He was an idea factory. He did not have a sharp ideological edge, which left him open to every possible possibility.”

Elizabeth Ralph, the current editor of POLITICO Magazine whom Hounshell mentored for years, recalls, “Blake completely appreciated the unconventional. He was always encouraging me to go down weird rabbit holes and telling me to follow my curiosity. He hated conventionality — anything vanilla. And he wanted Impact, with a capital I.”

Glasser says, “He loved scoops; he loved news. He was great at headlines; he had a gift for framing and getting to the edge of the story and then getting beyond it.”

Ben Schreckinger, a longtime POLITICO Magazine writer, recalled Hounshell’s ability to understand the unique twist that would make a story capture readers — like when he proposed Schreckinger write about the workout regime of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by actually doing it himself. “He had his lowkey presence, but he could just come up with the most brilliant ideas,” Schreckinger recalls. “The speed and sophistication that he could look at a political story and tell you what mattered, he had his incredible ability to do that day in and day out.”

“What he understood about this job is that part of what makes it great is to write about the curiosities and the oddities — those are great stories. Blake helped pivot POLITICO to doing more of that,” recalls former POLITICO reporter Daniel Strauss.

“Blake was a pioneer in a business where there are lots of sheep. He was early to grasp the power of a personal voice and sensibility online, and created a community that any news organization would envy,” wrote Mike Allen, the creator of Playbook, whom Hounshell worked with for years. “He was gifted as both an editor and a writer, with crossover talents that are so very, very rare.”

He was renowned and beloved inside POLITICO particularly for his recruitment and mentorship of so many younger reporters, playing a key role in the hiring of a generation of talent to the newsroom, shaping their stories as an editor and championing their stories inside the 4 pm editorial leadership rundowns, where his sardonic wit truly came alive. As Strauss says, “He always felt he was inviting people to the party.”

On Twitter in the wake of the news of Hounshell’s death Tuesday, Tim Alberta, a former POLITICO Magazine staff writer, shared how Hounshell had helped him early in his new job navigate a panic disorder that manifested in ferocious, debilitating anxiety so bad Alberta wasn’t sure he’d be able to continue writing. “His response was something I’ll never forget. ‘Want to compare notes?’ he asked me. So we did. My new boss, a dude I barely knew, became my mental-health confidante. We’d start every work-related conversation by trading stories about our respective struggles. I started to improve. And my new boss was a big reason why,” Alberta wrote. “Wouldn’t you know, we started churning out hits together at Politico Mag — some of the best work of my career. He never took any credit, but he deserved all of it. Because without him, without his patience and humanity and empathetic ear, I might have never reported again.”

A stroke just before the 2020 election led Hounshell himself to reconsider how to balance his passion for following the ins and outs of the daily news cycle, particularly as the father of young kids he adored and posted about regularly on Instagram. He took up exercising — an interest that quickly turned just as intense as his daily reading and eventually included a rock-climbing phase. “We would go to the gym together, and eventually stopped because he got so much more fit and ahead of me,” recalls Strauss, now a staff writer atthe New Republic.

In 2021, he left POLITICO for the New York Times, where he returned to his early writing roots — helming the newspaper’s nightly “On Politics” newsletter. John Fetterman, the newly elected Pennsylvania senator who himself suffered a stroke mid-campaign last campaign, recalled on Twitter Tuesday how Hounshell brought his own life challenge into that daily column: “Blake Hounshell was a fellow stroke survivor, and one of the first interviews I did when I returned to the campaign trail and struggled to find my words. He showed compassion and humanity in a way few others had. This is heartbreaking.”

Conversations and long dog walks with Hounshell were as likely to range from Henry Adams to the rapper Tyler, the Creator, from weightlifting podcasts to Generation Z’s political affiliations, which was the subject of one of his final “On Politics” columns for the Times last Friday. He often surprised colleagues with his astute cooking skills — once unexpectedly winning a guacamole contest at Foreign Policy after carefully carrying out a study of each individual component and assembling a seemingly perfect dish. As Mahtesian says, “Everything seemed to capture his attention.”

“You’d just wonder, ‘What fantastic thing does he have today?’” Strauss recalls.

He is survived by his wife, two children, and a brother in California, among others.

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