Politico isn't a newspaper. But it might be the future of print
By Peter Preston/The Observer
Early on Wednesday morning, I did what all modern American election obsessives do naturally. I didn't turn on the radio.
I couldn't be bothered with TV. I just went downstairs and logged on to Politico.com. In short, I chose the future. Not all British newspaper readers are midterm obsessives, of course. Quite a lot complained that what happened in Delaware or Nevada was ditchwater dull. So Obama may have a rough couple of years coming. So what?
But pause on the fine detail of Politico.com, because there's nothing "so what" about it now. Four years ago, two Washington Post political correspondents bailed out, found an entrepreneur, and set up a website, video business and free newspaper that covers lobbying, Congress, the White House and assorted departments of state. "No Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan or World Cup results," says its managing editor, Bill Nichols. This is "niche journalism". It employs around 175 people now. It is in profit already. More than that, it seems on the point of launching specialist areas of coverage – niches within the niche – and stowing them away behind a paywall.
Ah! That P-word again. Even BBC News damped down its midterm fires
long enough to report that News International is claiming 105,000
paying customers vaulting over the wall around the Times and Sunday
Times in its first four months. Enough to make a dent in the £87.7m
losses the papers recorded last year? More a pustule than a dent,
perhaps. There's a long, hard road unwinding. But that's where
Politico, and its profits, comes in.
Find the right niche and you have an audience worth chasing. Most of
Politico's cash comes from the Capitol Hill paper it puts out one to
five times a week. Print ads have a value the web can't reach yet. But
the operation – a brand-new source of multimedia journalism, not a
conventional newspaper – has few of print's hang-ups. "Readers no
longer want to consume news as a single entrée," writes Nichols. "They
want a buffet of sites that give them specialised, in-depth content on
topics that interest them". What about that Illinois Senate race? Come
in: you're welcome.
Dish by dish, you can see Nichols's buffet taking shape. The FT and
the Wall Street Journal are fat, money-making bowls of cream at the
end of the table. But Politico shows many others the way. Barry
Diller, the mogul who bankrolls Tina Brown's loss-making Daily Beast,
was keen on combining the Beast and Newsweek because he says Tina's
web "newspaper" needs a print outlet "just like Politico". And Larry
Kramer makes a parallel point in the American Journalism Review. There
isn't a new model offering salvation, he says. Rather, there'll be "a
patchwork of partial solutions… improvised arrangements based on lucky
alignments of buyers' and sellers' needs".
Prepare for the sort-of good news, then. There can and will still be
strong, well-staffed newsrooms. "But they will not be newspapers or TV
news operations or radio newsrooms: they will be news organisations
built around the content they cover. They will be financial news
businesses, sports news businesses, political journals... Together,
they can produce a great deal of revenue and finance those core news
operations: and that is crucial."
It is, indeed, a future beginning to loom through the mists.
Meanwhile, let me know when your paywall's got hard cash attached
please, Rupert. And give me a call when the Alaska result is in.