October 29, 2013
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A Washington publication is developing expertise in key policy areas, like energy and health care. It is working on insiderish stories on these subjects, plus updates as news unfolds. It’s all designed to appeal to lobbyists, law firms and everyday Washington types who need their news to go deep on their areas of expertise.

That’s Politico Pro, right? Yes. But it’s also National Journal, the Foggy Bottom shop that’s looking to compete with Pro on the policy front. Yesterday the outfit launched National Journal Health and today sends out its first Health Care Edge newsletter. Those offerings come on top of National Journal Energy and the Energy Edge newsletter, an opt-in product that launched early this month and now has 4,700 subscribers. Next come technology and defense.

National Journal President Bruce Gottlieb calls the addition of the topical “verticals” a “sort of new skin” on the outlet’s newsroom. “Everybody in Washington is an expert in one or a couple of areas that they follow closely,” says Gottlieb. “And everybody is interesting in the big picture in the context of what’s happening in Washington. We want NationalJournal.com to serve both of those needs.” In addition to the free verticals and other political information on NationalJournal.com, the outfit also has a “membership” component in which it offers Beltway companies and trade associations a range of customized information services and briefings; members also receive featured information in the new verticals.

One key difference between National Journal verticals and Politico Pro’s relates to price. National Journal Energy and National Journal Health are free, whereas Politico Pro charges several thousand dollars for its verticals, though pricing details are a touch scarce.

So what makes National Journal think they can climb the “vertical” curve? Well, maybe the site’s editor, Tim Grieve. He arrived at National Journal in the spring, after a stint as the top editor at . . . Politico Pro. When asked whether National Journal chose Grieve with the specific intention of launching the verticals, Gottlieb said no — the idea came about organically. “Tim came here because he wanted to create a great Web site that everybody interested in Washington would visit,” says Gottlieb, who credits Grieve with engineering a sharp uptick in Web site traffic. “Being really smart in these verticals is obviously something he knows how to do.”

According to spokeswoman Emily Lenzner, the energy vertical has three staffers — Amy Harder, Alex Brown and Clare Foran — and will “draw extensively” from the contributions of Coral Davenport and Patrick Reis, both veterans of Politico. Putting together the health-care report will fall mainly to three journalists, including lead guy Sam Baker, though “virtually everyone on the NJ staff will contribute in some fashion,” notes Lenzner.

Those staffers will have to put in some massive hours to match Politico’s productivity. There are around 150 journalists in Politico’s newsroom, about double that of National Journal. The selling point of Politico Pro centers on relentless messaging: The service’s e-mail updates pound away at the inboxes of subscribers with news ranging from marginal to massive.

The Erik Wemple Blog was utterly unsuccessful in getting Politico’s leaders to address whatever threat they may or may not see coming from National Journal’s build-out. They offered no reason for declining to participate in the story; perhaps they don’t want to acknowledge the existence of National Journal.

Despite Grieve’s centrality to the Politico-National Journal competition, deep-dive info on policy and legislation is far, far from a two-player game. CQ Roll Call, for instance, has been playing on these fields for decades. Meg Hargreaves, senior vice president and publisher for the company’s Federal Legislative Services, pointed to difficulties in comparing National Journal’s health vertical to her company’s stuff. “Our premium products go beyond news on the topic. For example CQ Healthbeat is much more than a newsletter. It helps legislative professionals follow any health-related issue, track legislation and monitor regulatory activity as well. Clients can access news and analysis, schedules, government documents, verbatim transcripts, regulatory materials, and much more.” There are morning and evening newsletters as well. More Hargreaves: “CQ Energy & Climate Executive Briefing is also more than a straight newsletter. Subscribers receive a Morning Take at 9 a.m. with links to additional online materials that are part of their subscription. The online component includes access to all energy-related schedules, major legislation and Federal Register listings.” Prices vary by customer.

Bloomberg’s BGOV has a powerful online machine that crunches all manner of government data, contracting information, legislative tracking — and adds analysis and news from the company’s fleet of reporters. It’s a premium service that goes for $5,700 per year.

Instead of competing for subscriptions, National Journal is playing for advertisements, presumably from the same companies that show up on the pages of National Journal, The Hill, Roll Call, Politico and Washington Examiner, not to mention cable-news airwaves and a growing number of political Web sites. A crowded and ultra-competitive scene, in other words. “We have always been an ad-supported and paid-content business. I believe we’ve been the most consistently evenly balanced between the two,” says Gottlieb.

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