Monday, 29 September 2008

Politico as a model for newspapers? (Fishbowl)

Four Questions for Politico's Jim VandeHei

Politico, the Washington-based paper/website that has become a major player in this election season since launching in January of 2007, announced this morning that come November 4 it was actually planning on (gasp!) expanding.

FBNY caught up with Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei to find out, among other things, how in this age of print journalism demise his paper is thriving; whether he thinks other newspapers could use Politico as a model in terms of how to make a profit; and whether Politico hopes to become a sort of collective Washington bureau for newspapers nation-wide.

At least once a day FBNY pens a story about layoffs and closures at newspapers nationwide, how is it that the print version of Politico is not only surviving but expanding?

Our print version is not heavily reliant on retail and classified advertising, two categories getting creamed by the economic turmoil. Our advertisers are predominantly companies and groups trying to shape elite opinion or influence a pending legislative debate. We see this as a strong growth area, even in unnerving economic times. There are countless interests who not only want but need to have their voices heard in Washington — and we are among the most efficient and effective ways of reaching those key decision-makers here and around the country. It is no secret that lawmakers, staffers and policy-shapers are inundated with information like the rest of us. With limited time, they turn to the publications and reporters they trust most. That is why we went out two years ago and hired the best reporters in town, with well-earned reputations and followings among political insiders. Because we are essential to these readers, we are essential to our advertising base.

According to today's story in the NYT clocks 3 million unique visitors a month. The website has become a real go-to place for online political coverage (not to mention breaking stories), are you concerned about a significant drop in traffic post Nov 4? And how will the upcoming changes affect Politico online?

Nielsen had us at 3.6 million unique visitors last month — our internal data shows a much higher number. I do anticipate traffic will level off or drop a bit after the election. But I do not think it will drop precipitously because there is a huge audience out there for news on the president, Congress and special interests. I can not imagine public interest will fall given the historic nature of the outcome (either the first African-American president or first female VP.) We will continue to break news on the big stories of the day and provide smart and timely analysis — it's in the DNA of the place now. We anticipate we will continue to draw an elite audience (our numbers show our readers are very well educated and pretty wealthy), which is attractive to higher-end national brand advertisers, as well as the issue advocacy community. The public focus will shift to the White House and Congress — and so will we in a pretty big way. We will have among the largest WH and congressional teams in the country. The day after the election, we will launch Politico 44 — a new and we think quite innovative way of covering the most powerful person in the world. This is a long way of saying I don't think things will slow down — in fact, we are bracing (and staffing up) for even more action post-election.

There is a story in The American Prospect right now about the demise of the Washington News Bureau. One of the goals of your expansion is to share content and ad sales with newspapers, something we saw early evidence of at both the conventions. Do you foresee Politico becoming a sort of AP-like Washington bureau for newspapers that no longer have the budget to afford their own?

We could never compete with the Associated Press. It is a massive wire service that covers countless topics. We cover politics and Washington governance. Can you imagine getting your sports news from a place called Politico? Our ambitions are pretty clear and focused: We want it to be emphatically clear to our readers that we provide the fastest, smartest, most essential coverage of Congress, the White House, politics and those who try to influence all three. It is sad and true that many newspapers are being forced to pull back or eliminate their Washington coverage. John Harris and I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of journalism and talking with newspaper editors about ways we can work together to provide coverage in our core areas. We partnered with the Denver Post and St. Paul Pioneer-Press for the conventions — and both efforts were a huge success, in our eyes. We recently launched a new experiment called the Politico Network that allows newspapers to use some of our content. In exchange, we get the rights to sell some of their web advertising inventory. It successful, this would allow Politico to spread its content around the country and make some money for the newspaper partners and Politico.

Politico is unique in that its print version is aimed at a very local audience while its online reach is national. Do you think this might be a format that other print newspapers might be able to follow, or is it only something that could exist and be profitable in Washington?

I don't think our model can be easily replicated, at least on the print side (unless the federal government moves to another city). John and I do think there is a very robust future for niche sites online. The new media formula is pretty simple: If you can build a desirable audience that a class of advertisers wants to reach, you have a darn good chance at success. Advertisers want efficient ways of reaching their target audience, and niche sites offer it (if you can build a big enough audience). We have some thoughts on variations of POLITICO that might work elsewhere — and we might have more on that next year.


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