To cover American politics, Politico deploys an editorial staff of 150. This is more than any news organization in the United States for the same beat. It all started five years ago: a niche website launched by three seasoned political reporters who sharpened their claws in mainstream medias. As envisioned by John Harris, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Politico was to start with a kernel of 12 hardcore political reporters who would aggressively run after all the balls.
Four years later, as a new presidential campaign gears up, Politico owns the news cycle, from 4:30am to midnight, on all vectors: web, mobile, television and... print. And it does so in rapid-fire mode.
Last week, I chatted with Bill Nichols, Politico's managing editor. Before Politico, he spent 24 years at USA Today. There, among the many items on his impressive résumé, he covered six presidential campaigns as well as the State Department. Bill was in Paris to deliver the inaugural lecture at the Journalism School of Sciences-Po where I happen to have a gig (highlight of the lecture summed up in French on Slate.fr). His talk provided the students with a great start for their year; they were listening to a fifty-plus journalist who didn't hesitate to leave the comfort of a great newspaper to jump into the unknown. Even in 2007, going after the Washington media establishment with a website was quite a bold move. Today, Nichols is obviously having a lot of fun -- which is the best message to convey to a crowd of aspiring journalists.
The lessons to draw from Politico's success are connected journalistic and business ones.
Politico has literally sliced and diced the news cycle with an array of dedicated products fitting all possible subjects, reading time and formats. Anyone serious in politics or government affairs will begin his day with a peek at the mobile version of the Politico Playbook. Described as " Must-read briefing on what's driving the day in Washington", it is written by Mike Allen, the chief White House correspondent. The site features eight other "tip sheets":
- Huddle A play-by-play preview of the day's congressional news
- Pulse The latest in health care policy every weekday morning
- Morning Money Political intelligence on the intersection of D.C. and Wall Street
- Morning Score A pre-dawn guide to the permanent campaign
- Morning Tech Daily download of technology news from D.C. and Silicon Valley
- Morning Defense A daily briefing from inside D.C.'s national security apparatus
- Morning Energy The one-stop source for energy and environment news
- Influence Intelligence and analysis on lobbying
The idea is to hook the reader on the day’s “must-follow” items. Then, developing stories will be made available in all possible forms: stream of stories as the news dictate, a great deal of support through countless TV appearances (Politico maintains its own studio linked to all networks and all reporters are required to promote their work). Many times a day, breaking news, alerts, warnings are pushed on mobile. Then, to maximize the impact, top stories will be re-edited to feed the eponymous daily. It is published five days a week, only when congress in in session, and its 34,000 (free) copies are distributed at various strategic spots in DC.
Then, the Politico tone. As Bill Nichols acknowledges, Politico's pitch is slightly more tabloidish than mainstream media. It doesn't pontificate, nor does it endlessly circle around a subject. It reflects internal newsroom discussions and the talk of the town. A few days ago, recounts Nichols, the editorial staff was discussing Republican Texas governor Rick Perry's intellectual ability to run for the presidency; instead of going for a convoluted story loaded with nuances, Politico went straight with this headline: Is Rick Perry Dumb? This treatment was later supplemented by an informative 1600 words piece about Perry’s 2010 book "Fed Up!", itself a great gift to his opponents. (To nail it, Politico published a Nine questions for Perry article listing subjects the candidate will have hard time eluding.)
That's Politico's way: aggressive, relentless, fun, witty, but also dedicated to providing in-depth, well-reported journalism. Last year, the New York Observer ran an interesting story on how The Atlantic (great magazine, along with an equally great site) was fighting back Politico on the Washington scene. David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media company, had this comment:
"It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world. Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly. (...) They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum. That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end."
To which Jim VandeHei retorted
"People come to us because we break news, we are authoritative and we help readers understand how Washington really works. I think Bradley’s description is clearly motivated by business interests. That said, we take all competitors seriously."
Business is important as well to Politico and its powerful backer, the Allbritton family. As a privately held company it does not disclose financial data. Even with its large staff of 200 in total, it is said to be profitable thanks to its multi-pronged product strategy:
--The web site had an audience of 4 million unique visitors last July, according to Comscore (it should triple during the 2012 campaign). This is rather small compared behemoth such as the Huffington Post or the NYTimes that are more into the 50 million UVs range. But the value extracted from each visitor is quite high.
-- Around half of its revenue is coming from the newspaper which sells high premium ads. Thanks to the geographical concentration of the Washington elite, the paper does not cost too much to distribute and its pagination and printing costs are adjusted to the advertising load.
-- Last November, Politico launched "Politico Pro", an in-depth paid-for service focusing on three critical (and lobbying-intensive) issues: energy, technology and healthcare. The price is $2,500 per month (story in the Columbia Journalism Review). "Pro" relies on several dozens of reporters and editors integrated with the rest of the newsroom.
-- Recently, Politico added an event department: get-togethers for the Happy Few with big political names, moderated by staffers. The guests don't pay, but big sponsors do -- happily it seems. Events will be organized not only in Washington but on the campaign trail as well.
-- Last June, Politico announced an e-Book venture with Random House. The concept: quick accounts, 20,000 to 30,000 words (80-120 pages), of the 2012 campaign. Produced at little additional cost, promoted by the brand, these could be pure gravy.
Politico's potential revenue pool is huge. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington spent $3.51 billion (!!) in 2010. This is an affluent market, highly concentrated, both geographically and interests wise.
On the surface, Politico’s method of squeezing money from every slice of its market looks logical and reproducible. But its unique ecosystem makes Politico's success difficult to replicate elsewhere.