It's 5 a.m. and Mike Allen has already been awake for nearly two hours. The baby-faced, 44-year-old reporter for Politico, the Beltway-obsessed Web site, gets up each morning at about 3:30 to compile Mike Allen's Playbook, a daily, scoop-soaked breakfast in bed for about 12,000 of the country's most powerful people. The sun isn't up yet at Politico's Arlington, Va., headquarters, but it's not too early for Allen's first Diet Dr Pepper of the day, which he nurses as he scans a dozen newspapers and magazines—the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post—to cobble together today's edition. Each Playbook usually arrives in inboxes no later than 8:30 a.m., and it's built for speed, so there are rules. At the top of the list, he says: no paragraph may be "longer than the average BlackBerry screen."
Allen is known in the trade for his superhuman dedication and impressive network of sources, but he doesn't just deliver the news. He gives it dimension and context, noting, for instance, how many column inches The New York Times devotes to a salient story, or interpreting how a swing-state newspaper front page speaks to a reader ("Dominated by Senator McCain holding up a 6-month-old," he wrote of the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week). For politicians and those who cover them, nothing is more prized than a Playbook cameo. It's a two-way street: both campaigns leak him news to break (Playbook readers learned first last week that Al Gore would campaign in Florida for Obama) while TV producers and newspaper editors routinely feed him upcoming stories to generate buzz. Subscribers include New York Times politics scribe Adam Nagourney; Republican operatives Ken Mehlman and Kevin Madden; and CNN analyst Donna Brazile. "He's had only four days off in a year and a half," said Peter Baker, a New York Times reporter and longtime friend. "He doesn't sleep."
"Mikey," as Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei calls him, grew up in Long Beach, Calif., with parents who subscribed to four newspapers. He made his name in journalism the old-fashioned way: by climbing from a small-town paper in Fredericksburg, Va., to The Washington Post. (He's also worked for Time magazine and The New York Times.) His workaholism is legendary. At Baker's bachelor party in Las Vegas in 2000, Allen reported stories about Bill Bradley's presidential campaign from the casino floor. "We're playing craps," Baker said, "and he's walking around with his laptop." He's had a particularly good year in 2008. Remember when President George W. Bush said he gave up golf to show solidarity with the troops in Iraq? That was Allen's interview. When John McCain couldn't remember how many houses he owned? Allen again.
One of Playbook's strengths, though, is its easy way with lighter fare—the grace notes that make the Beltway feel like one big, bipartisan dinner party for friends and frenemies. Along with the usual campaign dirt, readers also learned last week that CNN anchor Campbell Brown and her husband, a former Bush official, will have their second child in April. Thanks to Playbook, subscribers knew to congratulate Obama campaign manager David Plouffe when his beloved Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, and to offer kudos to Bush staffers who recently ran a half marathon. "He knows everyone's family, interests, favorite sports teams, big events, alma mater, color," says VandeHei. "This sounds corny, but it is a big reason so many people open up to the man." Allen puts it all into his Playbook, he says, "because we all know each other." And in Washington, knowledge—whether it's a kid's birthday or the back story on a campaign blunder—is power.