That, in a sense, is also the calculus for success at Congressional Quarterly, which sells information that is available elsewhere at no cost but at considerable hassle. If you are, for instance, a lobbyist who needs to know the status of a particularly worrisome piece of legislation, CQ can sell you, through its BillTrack database, the full text and an analysis of the bill, its status in committee, a profile of that committee, a district-by-district breakdown of the members of the committee, a dollar-by-dollar breakdown of those members’ campaign contributors—in short, everything a clever lobbyist needs to know before that information comes to another clever lobbyist for the opposition. This is what Robert Merry, CQ’s president and editor-in-chief, calls “information paranoia,” a particularly virulent affliction in Washington.
CQ sells access to thirty-five different databases. It has four niche verticals—homeland security, health, a budget tracker, and its political money line. It does give some information away for free. So do The Wall Street Journal—a story at a time—and the Financial Times—a limited number of stories each month, before the paywall goes up. But these are, from a marketing standpoint, the journalistic equivalent of movie trailers on Fandango: If you loved our report on this stimulus package, you’ll want to see . . .
Merry thinks of CQ as a pyramid. At its base are the many visitors to CQPolitics who pay nothing but who do deliver eyeballs. At the top are those so ravenous for particular slices of news they can use that they will pay $10,000 or more a year for access. In other words, CQ sells various products for various media to audiences who differ not by geography or income but by need. It was doing so well before analysts like Wang and Mignon began preaching the virtues of the “hybrid” model to their sometimes-reluctant clients.
The Wall Street Journal will soon expand its existing free-for-a-single-story “hybrid” model into one that includes micropayments. The New York Times is considering such revenue streams as metered payments (like those at the FT) and premium content memberships that presumably would cater to the paper’s most loyal readers. It is one thing for the Times, the Journal, and the FT to impose fees on some of their content because their content is so highly regarded by so many. But what of those general news publications that have done away with so much of their original coverage of anything that is not local, and have diminished even that? Are they doomed? Or can they save themselves by redefining their content, and by extension, news?
General news has long been predicated on the idea that people’s primary interest in news was defined by where they lived. But that was never completely so. The ethnic press, for instance, is as much about where you are from as about where you landed. Similarly, magazines are now almost exclusively defined by the particular interests of their readers. (The demise of the general-interest magazine offers a powerful and emotional parallel to the fate of the general-interest newspaper: a generation ago it seemed impossible to envision an America without The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look.)
Yet most newspapers still represent a model defined by borders. This makes for a relatively easy business to run when most readers lived in one place—a small town or a city. With the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs, however, the urban newspaper model built on cops, courts, fires, and politics was essentially picked up and transplanted not to one locality but to many disparate places where, it was assumed, readers had little interest in the goings-on across the town line, and the ever more remote downtown. Gone was the big-city paper; in its place came the regional daily.
But now, The Washington Post, for one, has begun to embrace the idea of defining itself not as the newspaper of Washington, the physical entity, but as Washington, the idea—just as The Wall Street Journal, which the Post’s new editor, Marcus Brauchli, used to run, is not about Wall Street, a district in lower Manhattan. In a memo to her staff last December, the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, wrote of the paper as “being about Washington, for Washingtonians and those affected by it.” The latter phrase is key. It suggests that the paper is both acknowledging the physical boundaries of a portion of its coverage—“the indispensable guide to Washington”—while expanding beyond them. It means that Washington is, in a sense, everywhere—in every tax dollar, FAA hearing, wherever Washington’s institutions and influence reach. A new and different hyper-local.