September 9, 2013

Back in early May, Politico publisher Robert Allbritton sent out a memo declaring his intent to sell his company’s various local TV properties, a move that would enable him to focus on more future-oriented media projects. He cited a “hope to find and nurture future media enterprises infused with a similar journalistic and business spirit.” Similar, that is, to Politico.

Tom McGeveran and Josh Benson, the founders of news site Capital New York, found the memo encouraging enough to send an e-mail to Rosslyn: Should we talk about a deal? The note hardly came out of the blue; McGeveran and Benson had made a presentation to Allbritton back in 2009 for a New York news site when they worked at the legendary New York Observer. Though those talks didn’t advance, McGeveran and Benson left the Observer and launched Capital New York in 2010. That same year, Allbritton launched Washington-area news site TBD.com, a generously funded project that fizzled in near-record time under the editorial guidance of the Erik Wemple Blog.

The big shot behind the Capital New York deal has “big ambitions for this publication: to do in New York what we did in Washington with POLITICO. We are making a substantial investment to sharpen the focus of Capital and vastly expand its reportorial presence. The publication will focus laser-like on New York and its power centers, including the media, city and state politics, culture and business. It will target a sophisticated insider audience of New York’s most powerful,” wrote Allbritton in a note to Politico staff.

And what better way to replicate Politico than to plant Politico’s beating heart in the new property? Allbritton announced that Jim VandeHei, the restless executive editor of Politico, will serve as president of Politico North. VandeHei and Politico Editor in Chief John F. Harris, says the memo, “have a very smart plan for aligning Capital’s expansion with our own efforts here to take advantage of our considerable business expertise.”

That’s pretty much the way Capital New York sees things. On the topic of what Politico has to offer Capital New York, McGeveran tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “They had results in a lot of the same areas where we had hypotheses.” Specifically, two areas. Capital has seen encouraging progress in advocacy advertising, says McGeveran — mainly locally based, not the national advocacy advertising that funds Politico. The current mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, argues McGeveran, has been “impervious” to lobbying, leading him to believe that “lobbying city government is a much more anemic enterprise than it’ll be with the next mayor,” when the Politico-powered Capital will be working New York’s powerful.

Also, subscriptions. Politico has Politico Pro, a premium service in the areas of defense, energy and transportation, finance, health care and technology. Politico officials have boasted of insane renewal rates for Politico Pro customers. If Capital can “get very deep into some of the areas we’re in” — including state politics, for example — it can “definitely” wring revenues out of a subscription model, argues McGeveran.

So: Politico’s revenue machinery will plug in to Capital’s business, with the hopeful result that the site will reach a new level. Says McGeveran: “What we’ve always been looking for a way to do is not to have to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and really try to kick ass” on the journalism front. “We thought it’d be great if we had a pot of money to put lots of boots on the ground,” he says.

Right now, Capital has eight boots on the ground, via four staff reporters, in addition to an editor and two co-editors/co-founders. Allbritton pledges in his memo to “vastly expand its reportorial presence.” Does that mean that Capital New York will be posting 15 or 20 items on every medium-size news story, or that staff members will be moving at Politico pace? “If we have enough reporters,” says McGeveran, “we’re going to be able to deliver news. I just think that it’s going to — naturally — the pace of this site is going to pick up.”

Well aware of the commonly lobbed criticism that Politico is high on frequency and low on depth, McGeveran responds, “Well, I mean, I like Politico.” He’d better. With VandeHei installed as president, Politico values become Capital values. When asked whether VandeHei would be able to veto Capital editorial decisions, McGeveran responded, “I don’t know; I don’t think so.” VandeHei’s role, says McGeveran, is broader editorial direction that’ll help Capital make money.

Which is a key consideration, given Capital’s balance sheet. It’s not profitable, says McGeveran, though the site managed to get $1.7 million in funding in 2011. Capital’s red ink, of course, puts it in league with any number of web and print properties that have set out to cover the news. Local news coverage, even in such thriving places as the Washington, D.C., area, is the business of miserable margins, vanishing clients, staff reductions and daily morale checks.

Armed with its trademarked bravado, the Politico people refuse to be discouraged. Allbritton: “I believe firmly that publications with intense focus on a specific set of topics can break through quickly, editorially and financially. To succeed, these publications must exist in areas where reader interest is very strong and the potential to sell targeted ads and subscriptions is very high. Any company that has these characteristics can work. But for them to work exceptionally well, they need inspired leadership on both the editorial and business sides.” VandeHei was unavailable to speak with the Erik Wemple Blog but said this to Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post: “We’re coming to play. We don’t do small ball. This is going to be some serious resources into media, city hall and Albany.”

Under Politico management, Capital may well prosper journalistically without commensurate progress on the revenue front. Politico’s extraordinary staff build-out, after all, comes courtesy of the Beltway’s issue-advocacy advertisers, which each year cough up an estimated $100 million or more to Capitol Hill publications and political websites. This glorious gold mine explains why Politico’s successes on the business front lack universality: Even if local and regional newspapers around the country copied Politico’s journalism model, they’d never be able to pull in clients like the National Biodiesel Board, the government of Canada or BAE Systems.

Those limitations notwithstanding, the Capital deal signals Politico’s belief that its model is portable, perhaps even a savior for the world of journalism. For that reason alone, the new Capital demands close monitoring.

By acquiring Capital, the Politico brain trust shows that it’s learned some things since the quick and spectacular failure of TBD.com under the editorial guidance of the Erik Wemple Blog.

No. 1: Capital is unchained to a legacy television station, whereas TBD.com launched under a partnership with WJLA-TV, setting up a destructive clash of news cultures. What’s the opposite of synergy?

No. 2: TBD.com, in the best spirit of the Internet, made a huge community-outreach play, with a staff of folks entrusted with establishing alliances with area bloggers and otherwise hooking the grassroots on the site. Politico-Capital, on the other hand, is going after “a sophisticated insider audience of New York’s most powerful.” Its community, in other words, is the community of rich people. Capital currently has four “verticals,” or topic areas, on its site: politics, media, culture and sports.

No. 3: TBD.com started big — with about three dozen editorial staffers at its peak — and moved toward small — losing its last employee in June 2012. Capital is small and is heading toward bigger.

That’s a better direction.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.