In retrospect, we probably were too cocky for our own good. We had such a good run in 2007 and 2008 that we assumed that growth and success would keep flowing. We did not appreciate that the same trend that made Politico possible in the first place—the massive fluidity and fragmentation of the news business—could cut the other way.
But the fragmentation never stopped. Now Politico is seeing its audience and ad market sliced up in the same way that battered the big legacy publications.
I also never would have guessed that the economy would stay in the dumps for five years. And the rates advertisers are paying for Web impressions are still pathetic. I hate to say it, but the Cassandras were right.
And it wasn’t just some amorphous “bad environment” that put us in this position. We lost some of our edge. I well knew the hazards of newsroom culture—complacency and blah, addiction to outdated habits and bureaucratic routines. I had seen how this had dulled creativity during my years at The Washington Post, a newspaper I love. What stunned me was how quickly bad habits could develop at a new enterprise, or how hard they are to root out.
How’s Politico doing in 2014? We are doing fine by most measures. But doing fine is not good enough. Constant innovation and clear thinking are the only salvation for the media in this chaotic new age.
I’d like to depart from CJR’s clever device and speak from the real-life perspective of 2009, not the imagined one of 2014. Politico was founded two years ago with a couple of distinct ideas in mind.
The first was that in this crowded media environment, journalists are not commodities. The best journalists have distinctive strengths, with a disproportionate ability to have impact and drive conversation. In a Web era, these journalists have in many cases built their own franchises. This is different from earlier generations, when the most important factor behind a reporter’s influence was his or her institutional platform. It is an entrepreneurial age, not an institutional one. Politico seeks to take advantage of this trend by assembling a roster of journalists with a demonstrated ability to thrive on the Web, and then helping them build their franchises. This is an expensive model, but it has paid dividends for us in public profile, audience growth, and, yes, advertising dollars.
The second idea on which Politico is based is that today’s niche publications have certain intrinsic advantages in their business models—advantages that are amplified by the Web. Legacy news organizations typically had business models that thrived on inefficiency. Perhaps only 1 percent of The Washington Post readership, for instance, is looking at any moment to buy a car. But car dealers paid handsomely to reach 100 percent of them.
Politico is different. We basically cover four related subjects: Congress, the White House, the Washington lobbying and influence industry, and national politics. No one is coming to our site for Washington Redskins news, or Fairfax County crime news. That means we are able to cover our areas of expertise much more intensively. And it means that advertisers know precisely—with a high degree of efficiency—who they are reaching on our site. If you want to reach sports fans, talk to ESPN.com. If you want to reach an educated and affluent demographic that cares intensely about national and civic affairs, talk to Politico.
What we have done at Politico has been relevant to the conversation about where journalism is going. But by no means do I believe that we have cracked the code on the awesome challenges facing our profession. Both of the time-travel flights I sketched above contain elements of my real-life perspective. I am bullish on the future of journalism, and think the pessimists are not just a drag, but in their own way, naïve. I also think that complacency is a curse, and that constant innovation is indeed the only remedy.
So there is no rest for the weary, and no time to worry much about anxiety dreams. I am wide awake now.