POLITICO: A Business Model that Works

If office snack quality is any indication of financial success, than you could say POLITICO knows what it’s doing when it comes to establishing a sustainable business model.

But wait, isn’t journalism’s business model at the root of our collective journalistic woes? Ordinarily, yes. But in sitting down with POLITICO’s VP of Audience Solutions, Cally Baute, we learned what, exactly, the ten-year-old publication is doing right.

Baute explained that POLITICO was founded on two key principles: 1) to speak truth to power and create journalism of consequence, and 2) to find a way to actually turn a profit. Ostensibly, these are goals that every publication shares (we’ve yet to meet an editor who didn’t want to publish impactful stories, or a business developer who didn’t want to turn a profit) but how to accomplish these objectives in the internet age has become another question entirely.

It was always on our road map to make sure ambitious journalistic endeavors were supported by streams of recurring revenue. The outlying recurring strategy of what POLITICO was going to be from day one was to allow our journalists to do really cool and crazy shit, and we were going to get that supported. So we were going to hire a best-in-class business team. 

The team splits their time between POLITICO’s two core businesses: audience solutions, and a subscription newsletter service called Politico Pro.

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Baute explained how this model fosters a symbiotic relationship: Because POLITICO’s journalism is appealing to powerful and influential people across the country, the business team is able to sell that audience to companies who want to reach this very audience.

We’re creating a different value proposition for our partners based on the audience that we have. So, it’s this very symbiotic relationship where their journalism is appealing to incredibly powerful and influential people across the country, and so the audience is this really rich quality. We, on the business side, are able to sell that audience in a way that is not the same as – I’ll use my mom as an example – is not the same as my mom in Tampa, Florida. She’s a wonderful woman but she’s not having an impact on legislation or regulatory changes. But the people that we’re reaching, are. And so I can go to a company and say, if you really want this mayor to think favorably about your company than you should partner with POLITICO because we reach that mayor. And that’s the virtuous circle that we find ourselves in: The journalists trust us, we trust the journalists, so we work hand in hand.

The documentary team has been asking all the journalists we interview “what limitations, if any, do you face as a result of journalism’s business model?” At POLITICO, we found ourselves turning the question around and asking, instead, “what opportunities are afforded to you by POLITICO’s business model?”

Daniel Lippman, a co-author of the Playbook morning newsletter, said that he (understandably) appreciated the freedom of not having to go to bed wondering whether he would have a job in the morning..

I feel very lucky that I work for a company that has found a business model and that does bring in profits and revenues at a high level because it makes me feel more secure as a journalist that I don’t wake up thinking that I’m going to lose my job.

Freed from the limitations of a “like” and share-based business model, Lippman is able to focus only on producing what he perceives to be meaningful journalism..

It’s not just racking up page views because those views could be cheap clicks where it’s not very useful information, and I didn’t go into journalism to write clickbait. 

To be fair, we haven’t spoken to any journalists who wanted to be writing clickbait, or who wanted to be focusing on how many likes a particular article was getting rather than on how much of an impact it was going to make. If anything, our visit to POLITICO showed us just how fortunate their newsroom is to have an audience that is willing not only to read to the end of an article, but to actually pay to read it.

Sudeep Reddy, one of POLITICO’s two managing editors, highlighted the difference between producing content for a “deeply engaged” readership, versus writing for the public at large..

We are extremely lucky to have a highly educated, deeply engaged audience, people who are very much into understanding details about what’s happening. That is generally one of the challenges of media right now, that a lot of the audience might want to only read a few paragraphs of a story or might want to just see what’s on Facebook and on twitter and not actually delve deeper into what’s happening. Our audience is just fundamentally engaged in whatever we are writing about.

As politics becomes even more a part of everyday conversations, the content that POLITICO produces is only becoming more relevant. Given their focus on avoiding perceived bias, speed, and highlighting the most relevant information, they appear to have carved out a sustainable niche in the news media market.

Can other news media organizations do the same?

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