One of the most important questions facing the news industry in its search to sustain journalism online is how the models of financially successful national news sites, which have the benefit of higher traffic volume to make up for measly online ad rates, translates to the local level. To help answer this and many other questions about the future of journalism, CJR.org’s News Frontier Database has been scouring the country, gathering data and writing original profiles (more than one hundred thirty of them, so far) of both national and local digital news operations.
One profiled organization is Politico, which has become synonymous with national politics through features like Playbook, Mike Allen’s agenda-setting morning e-mail, and constant scoops and scooplets on everything Washington. The site, with its print component, has been a financial success and built itself up to legacy-media-sized staff levels, with more than one hundred thirty journalists, and fifty workers on the business side.
But although most have been quick to give Politico the bulk of the praise (and blame) for the new reality of political reporting, it didn’t invent the idea. As best we can tell, that distinction deserves to go to a site in Austin, Texas.
Quorum Report began covering Texas’s legislature in 1983. Harvey Kronberg bought the newsletter in 1998, made it online-only, and began notching three thousand hits a day—a decade before Politico launched. Readership has only grown, and now it charges subscribers $325 a year for access to features like The Daily Buzz, a constantly-updating section on the latest legislative maneuverings. Kronberg takes credit for speeding the Texas legislature’s pace, for better or worse: “In the last legislative session, we’d send out an e-mail blast. Then, we’d watch [legislators’] phones light up as hometowns got the news.” Kronberg launched a sister site, The Texas Energy Report, in April 2009, nearly two years before Politico premiered Politico Pro, its high-priced, niche news service.
Back east, CTNewsJunkie, which itself preceded Politico by two years, is filling a similar role and riding a new surge in traffic after adding a morning e-mail blast in March 2011, inspired by Politico’s Playbook, called Morning Coffee & Politics, which tracks Connecticut’s political scene. Doug Hardy, the site’s business manager, recently quit his newspaper job to focus full-time on building what has already become a must-read for the state’s political insiders.
In the case of political news, at least, the question is not if national models can work at the local level, but who will build such sites for states lacking them. It’s another thing to watch in the lead-up to the 2012 campaign season.