How Politico ‘experiments’ towards a quality future

It set about doing this by hiring ‘the most talented editors, reporters and newsroom staff’.  Eight years on, a series of new products – including a European operation – have been launched. John Harris, co-founder and editor-in-chief, explains to Jon Watkins how he continues to deliver on these promises as the business expands…

John will be one of near 80 speakers at the FIPP World Congress, taking place from 13-15 October 2015 in Toronto, Canada. Some 700-800 executives from around the world are expected to attend the Congress (register here to join them, if you haven’t yet).

• See the provisional programme here

• See more speakers here

Eight years on from your launch in the US, what indicators of success can you share with us?

In the case of all our publications – from our original publication in Washington, to our Politico Pro product in the US and our European experiment – it’s true that we care about traffic. But our business is always dependent above all on the quality of the audience we bring to our advertisers. We prove that via subscriptions, which show that we are being read by influentials and elites in the political and policy-making processes. We’ve had some nice traffic surges, not least around the UK elections in April and the on-going Greek finance situation, for example, which saw a tripling of our traffic, albeit from a small base. But that’s not fundamentally how I’m looking at the business. I’m pleased the traffic is going up, but it’s not our core measure of success. That’s based on our subscriptions and who we are engaging. I’m pleased to say that we are reaching that elite audience that is so critical to us. So that’s our symbol of success – that we are becoming indispensable to the most influential people in the political and policy-making institutions.

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Is data helping you drive success – by helping you understand more about your audience and who you are engaging?

If you look at our original Politico, which started in 2007 in the US, that was driven 100 per cent by advertising revenue. Now, we’re roughly 50 per cent advertising and 50 per cent subscription here in the US. Of course, with subscriptions, we have 100 per cent awareness of who our readers are and how often they are using our editorial content – through open rates and the renewals on subscriptions etc. With the advertising, you’re quite right that advertisers want more precision about who they are reaching and what effectiveness their message is achieving. Data has allowed us to do that with a lot more specificity than we were able to do six or seven years ago.

You’ve recently launched in Europe for the first time, through a joint-venture with Axel Springer in Germany. Why did you decide to partner rather than launch alone?

For us, the appeal was a partner that had done business successfully in Europe – so knew the advertiser networks and existing communities, rather than us having to go and build those ourselves from scratch. That’s appealing. They also know the regulatory hurdles, which are different in Europe, and they have business expertise in the region that is invaluable to us. I would say that most important, however, is their help in creating a publication that is truly international in character. I think people would be viewing our venture more sceptically if they thought this was the Americans coming into Brussels with US-style coverage. Similarly, I don’t think readers would have been excited about simply a German publication coming into Brussels. I think part of our appeal is that we are not a publication that puts its coverage through an ideological filter or a national filter. We’re not an American publication or a German publication – we are an international publication. That’s very much reflected in the character of our newsroom. We have somewhere in the region of 40 employees and, among those, 20 different passports. Some of our staff hold dual passports, but nonetheless that gives you a sense of the mix. We didn’t plan that, but I love the fact we have a diverse newsdesk and a publication that is international in perspective. Axel Springer has been a big help in that.

How is the European venture progressing?

The team that reports up to me in the newsroom – headed by Matt Kaminski, our executive editor, who came from the Wall Street Journal; and Carrie Budoff Brown, the managing editor, who came from the very early days of Politico – are working so hard right now, if not harder than they have at any point in their careers. But when I am there, and I spend about one-third of my time there and two-thirds in the US, I can see that this is by far the most successful launch Politico has done since we started. It’s gone much easier and the growth and success have come much more quickly than our original Politico more than eight years ago. It has gone more smoothly than the launch of our Pro services four years ago, and it has gone more smoothly than any of our state launches. While these guys are working late hours, sweating every word and working harder than they ever have right now, the results are already clear and now we’re established it should calm down for them.

As you expand and launch new productions on new platforms in new areas, does it become more difficult to protect the ethos that you will only deliver quality content? How do you keep the bar raised?

The pressure that we have is to be indispensible to a very discerning audience. Our typical readers in many cases are the same people as our sources – they are really immersed in the world of politics and policy. So they are tough customers who know the subject well and if we aren’t breaking news, if we aren’t being revelatory, if we aren’t making the professional side of somebody’s life easier through the quality of our content, then the feedback is instantaneous. We’ll see it instantly in our traffic and in our subscriptions. So we have a responsibility for sure and that’s what drives us. The pressure we have, however, is very different to the pressure of, say, Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed is run by Ben Smith, who got his start at Politico and went on to be editor in chief there. They have created a big traffic machine and their pressure is to keep that traffic up. We are largely liberated from that. We love traffic but our business doesn’t depend on high traffic. It depends on high loyalty. I’m glad that we have that model. I think it’s easier to protect quality and protect your business than it is with a traffic model.

Can you tell us about the live events you now run and what they add to the brand?

Live events have become an important part of our business. Journalistically they allow us to use our convening power. The fact that Politico has a brand that people want to know means they are willing to come to our events as newsmakers as well as the audience. That means we use those events to make news. When events are really successful, they produce news for Politico and other news organisations. As a business, the audiences we assemble at those events are appealing to advertisers. We are seeing some success in getting sponsors to put their names to those events, so that’s a new and useful stream for us. The live events weren’t part of our business plan when we launched in 2007, but in 2010/11 they started to become an important part of our business and they continue to be.

While your key objective is a loyal audience, rather than traffic, what does social offer you?

Social is an opportunity to ensure we are engaging with our audience – and I would say it’s probably more important to us in Europe than it is in the US. In Europe, my observation is that a lot of the newsmaker conversations and the expert conversations take place on Twitter. So it’s important for us to be immersed in that conversation.

Will there be further internationalization and expansion going forward?

We regard the European expansion very much as an experiment. The company as a whole has two big experiments going on right now. The first is here in the US, where we are looking at how we can take our Politico brand and the way we approach the news, and make that work outside Washington. The second experiment is the expansion in Europe, which is certainly the biggest experiment we have taken on. If that works, and I think it will, then it’s a natural conversation for us to have about where else we could make this work, in another marketplace with a different audience. The short answer is that, yes, the European experiment opens up possibilities but, no, we don’t have plans at present to enter other markets.

You’ll be speaking at the FIPP World Congress later in the year. What excites you about those events and what do you hope to learn?

I mentioned the word ‘experiment’ when we were talking about the launch in Europe and we have always had experiments going – ever since we launched. We feel fortunate that a bunch of them have worked well – although they haven’t all worked well. And what I like is hearing about experiments other people have been doing. When you get a concentration of smart, ambitious people from other news organisations and publications, they may be competitors in normal situations but, at gatherings such as the Congress, they are a source of ideas, an opportunity to gain exposure to different perspectives and a chance to do some great note-sharing. I find all of that really rewarding. You hear about other people’s experiences and, with a little bit of luck, you take something away that can help your business be even more successful.

What do you do to relax when you’re not driving the business?

Well I’m not sure I do it to relax, because it’s often more stressful than my time in the office… but I like to be out on the golf course, working hard at improving my game. The truth, however, is that Politico is doing plenty better than my golf game is.

John will be one of near 80 speakers at the FIPP World Congress, taking place from 13-15 October 2015 in Toronto, Canada. Some 700-800 executives from around the world are expected to attend the Congress (register here to join them, if you haven’t yet).

• See the provisional programme here

• See more speakers here

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