A Visit to Politico
by Peter Osnos
J. Ryan, Jr., the CEO of Politico, startled me in a brief corridor chat by
calling it “this newspaper,” which for people in Washington it is. Politico appears in print on a daily basis
when Congress is in session, otherwise weekly, and is distributed free to its
intended local readers. Last Tuesday, the paper was twenty-eight pages, with
ads from Chevron, Boeing, Novartis, and Kaiser Permanente, among others. Living
in New York
So there it
is: a newspaper with advertising directly addressed to its target audience in
the nation’s capital, and a Web site with reach and (as is the Internet’s
strength) an infinite potential for visibility. What adds to Politico’s breadth and financial depth
is its ownership by Albritton Communications, which includes WJLA, the ABC
affiliate, and the twenty-four-hour News Channel 8. Politico shares expansive premises in
That multi-platform capacity, all of which can attract advertising revenue and potentially share in subscription volume from, say, cable television programming is what distinguishes Politico from other leading news sites such as The Huffington Post, which for now, at least, is relying on Web-based advertising alone or ProPublica, the investigative collective, which is backed by philanthropy.
The history of Politico (in a nutshell) is that Harris and Jim VandeHei, two leaders of the political reporting team at the Washington Post, had a concept for a site to cover the 2008 election cycle that would take advantage of the urgency of the Internet and their belief that they could make themselves a key destination for the campaign and beyond. The Albritton people were discovering at the same time that their efforts to close a deal for an existing Capitol Hill newspaper, the Hill, were going nowhere and decided to back Harris and VandeHei instead. As Harris explains it, the investment and infrastructure provided by Albritton was essential, as were the attractions of starting from scratch rather than accommodating the traditions and competing demands for attention they would have faced at the Post. So they jumped.
Harris says that Politico lost $3–$4 million its first year, $2 million in its second year, and, he says, is on track to break even or turn a small profit this year. Print advertising covers about 60 percent of the revenues, with the rest from the Web and smaller streams of income (it costs $200 to get the newspaper delivered, for example). I’m guessing that Politico’s results and potential are significantly affected by being embedded in the greater Albritton enterprises. The real test of its viability is its contribution to the company’s overall volume and overhead. By all accounts, Albritton is more than satisfied with Politico’s growth so far.
In the Washington Post the other day, Howard Kurtz said that Politico’s online readership reached 4.6 million unique visitors in October and is now about 3 million, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. By contrast, nytimes.com is almost back to its October number of more than 20 million, reflecting, of course, its vastly broader array of material.
Content seems to be both Politico’s strength and its limitation. “No one comes to us for Redskins news,” as Harris said, but if they want to know what seven White House reporters can find out, double or more than what other news organizations deploy, then Politico is the place to go. (In all, there is a staff of around one hundred, divided about evenly between the editorial and business sides).
The major value
of Politico, aside from its focus on
Everyone in the news universe is looking for the ways to do pretty much the same thing: make themselves invaluable to a projected audience.Politico seems closer to getting it right than a lot of others in the hunt.