Third in a series of 51 to 55 blog posts on Capitol Hill publications.
On a Friday in late October 2010, the staff of CQ Roll Call gathered in an unfinished commercial space at 77 K St. NE. There were folding chairs and speakers on sticks on a floor that employees would later occupy to accomplish the physical part of the 2009 deal that merged Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call — both publications owned by the London-based Economist Group. Laurie Battaglia, then the managing director of CQ Roll Call, appeared before the group and unveiled a new logo, black and gold just like her beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.
She also riffed on an exciting and aggressive online initiative for CQ Roll Call. At the time, the company’s main products were premium doodads — Roll Call was a subscription publication with a paywalled Web site, and CQ Roll Call also produced databases and reports and briefings that cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to tens of thousands. Battaglia was determined to add another cash crop to the product line by better exploiting the free site Congress.org, a wonderfully URL’d site that offered grass-roots activists the Web tools with which to harass their lawmakers. Roll Call and the Economist Group had acquired Congress.org in 2008.
The idea was to shove more resources at the site by linking it with the editorial power of the CQ Roll Call staff — make it an Internet star way beyond the range of a Capitol Hill publication. Advertisers would flood in. “She did talk about cooking something up that was bigger and make a play for the national audience,” says Ryan Teague Beckwith, a former CQ Roll Call manager who was at the meeting.
And even though the meeting was limited to CQ Roll Call personnel, there was no doubting the presence of another organization. Says Beckwith: “Laurie wanted to go in a different direction, make a big play for taking on Politico and not give up the fight on that front.”
Politico, that beast. It had been roaring up and down the Web for nearly four years before Roll Call got around to addressing the threat.
And then it didn’t.
Just a few months after the presentation, Battaglia had completed her term as CQ Roll Call managing director, departing via a quick and unexpected memo from the Economist Group.
Free, apparently, wasn’t of value to the Londoners. “Several efforts to build this thing out were squelched; budgets were proposed and rejected; plans were announced, then scrapped,” notes Paul Singer, a former Roll Call associate editor. “The Economist, people were told, believed there was no such thing as a ‘free strategy.’ … ‘Free’ is not a strategy.” The upshot: “Roll Call had neither a platform nor resources to compete for the public ‘mindshare’ with Politico, and London seemed to be viscerally opposed to pursuing it,” concludes Singer.
Roll Call had every justification for behaving like a hidebound publication. It has a history, after all.
The paper launched on a budget of $90 in 1955. Sid Yudain, a serial newspaper entrepreneur, started it while working as a press secretary for Republican congressman Albert P. Morano. Roll Call’s forefather was no wonk: “The only news coming out of Congress was about legislation, which bored me and, I think, bored most people, including some of the congressmen,” Yudain said, according to Roll Call.
Says Keith White, the executive vice president and managing editor of CQ Roll Call. “Roll Call has just an incredible history of journalistic independence and excellence.”
Not to mention simplicity. If there was a war of words between two Oklahoma senatorial candidates; if some lawmaker’s communications director was off to law school or if there was a change in House rules relating to the gift ban, a Roll Call reporter was somewhere tapping out a story. With this publication, there wasn’t much flirtation with neighboring stories from the White House or high society: Roll Call was, and is, of Congress.
Issue advertisers, at least, saw it that way. Analysts in the Capitol Hill info-scramble agree on the good-old-days preeminence of Roll Call. The publication “glommed onto what I call the default ad-buy position,” says Robert W. Merry, former CEO at CQ. “When these organizations would get together — in their whiteboard meetings — they’d say, ‘Okay, we know we’re going to be in Roll Call, so where else are we going to be in?’ Everyone else would have to take what was left.”
Roll Call staffers thrived on the setup. One day in the late 1990s, says former business-side executive Kenny Day, “everyone at Roll Call got $20,000-plus bonuses. People were crying in the hallways.” Profit margins, he says, reached as high as 55 percent, an assessment corroborated by other observers. A reporter who formerly worked at Roll Call recalls bonuses for three years in the early 2000s that exceeded 30 percent of his annual salary. “That’s how fat and happy” the company was, says the reporter. White declined to comment on the company’s financial history.
That’s the high ground that Roll Call had secured by the time Politico started occupying Rosslyn cubicles in early 2007. And the irony of it: Roll Call’s history of print-based glory and market domination couldn’t possibly have done more to prevent it from responding to — much less recognizing — the threat at hand.
Denial came first. “They cover politics generally. They’re not about Congress,” recalls a former Roll Call business-side employee, capturing the thinking of the paper’s brass regarding Politico. As Roll Callers called up Politico.com on their browsers and leafed through the pages of its free print edition, a mantra began circulating through the office.
They don’t do what we do.
It was true, too, though not in the way that Roll Call was hoping.
Roll Call most certainly didn’t do what Politico did on the Internet, though reporters at the legendary Capitol Hill title tried. “We wanted to beat them,” former Roll Call staffer John Stanton says. “The same with any other publication: You read what somebody else had and you wanted to beat them. They had so many people covering Congress. They had this huge shop, enormous shop on the Hill.”
Much of the stuff posted by Politico’s Hill shop drew sneers from the Roll Call braintrust. Newsroom snark referred to Politico stories as “snowflakes — there are a million of them and they melt immediately,” recalls Beckwith.
They also generated millions of page views. While Politico was skimming American politics for the day’s most search-friendly political stories, Roll Call was sticking to its decades-old focus. Evidence to that effect pours from the archives of Roll Call’s activities vis-à-vis the 2008 presidential race.
A Nexis search for “Barack Obama” in Roll Call during the key months of his battle against Republican nominee John McCain turns up a deep well of results, not so much about the presidential election itself but rather how it might affect congressional races. Like, for example, the Virginia 2nd District showdown between Rep. Thelma Drake (R) and challenger Glenn Nye: “With Republican strategists increasingly anxious about the downballot effect of the presidential race and Democratic turnout efforts led by Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) White House campaign, whether incumbents like Drake can hang on will determine the size of the Democratic majority in the 111th Congress,” reads a story from the period. That’s how Roll Call covered the presidential campaign.
Drake v. Nye: Not link bait.
Only gradually did Roll Call begin to stray from its topical cow path: “For the 2012 campaign cycle, we have made a more concerted effort to write stories about the presidential race,” Roll Call’s former editor Scott Montgomery said last year, before moving to another job.
Following the 2012 campaign, the company finally positioned itself to go head-to-head with other political sites for the 2016 campaign. In mid-November Roll Call tore down its paywall and also rolled CQ Today and Roll Call into a single print publication under the Roll Call banner. A release on the changes touted the new RollCall.com as “a free site ensuring the digital user experience is one that is innovative and forward-thinking.” That this step took Roll Call forever is a tribute to the stubbornness of the publication’s exclusive heritage: If it really just threw its content out there at no cost, how could it have ever charged for it?
How far Roll Call has fallen from its market-leading heyday is tough to quantify, although last summer provided a clue, when the company cut some 30 jobs, almost exclusively on the company’s business side. It also bumbled through the embarrassing cancellation of a print publication for last year’s national political conventions, a step that required scrapping convention travel for many staffers. Those moves reflect the struggles of a publication that has relinquished its “default” ad-buy position, a notion that CQ Roll Call Senior Vice President and Publisher Beth Bronder doesn’t dispute: “The market for print advertising has contracted so dramatically, we’re all under the challenge of broadening our offerings,” says Bronder.
Whatever the bumps, CQ Roll Call executives are jazzed about the recent platform adjustments. Bronder says the move to a free Web site will please all the clients who used to rave to her about content on RollCall.com yet became frustrated over their inability to “fire it out because it’s behind a firewall,” she says. (Even in the paywall days, some Roll Call content was free.) The newly liberated site has seen some “monster hits,” says Roll Call Editor David Rapp, who notes that the absence of the pay hurdle makes other news providers “much more willing to refer to us than they were in the past.” A CQ Roll Call spokeswoman says that traffic over the past nine weeks sans paywall is up 20 percent over the previous nine weeks.
On the print front, says Bronder, the recent consolidation has boosted Roll Call’s circulation by 20 percent, to 25,000.
As far as meeting the threat from Politico, Bronder emphasizes her company’s roots. While Politico has made clear that it aspires to be the “ESPN of politics,” she says, CQ Roll Call is going for the “be-all and end-all of Capitol Hill. We’ve stayed really true to our focus and our mission.” Don’t forget about the company’s acquisition of CQ, either, whereby the Economist Group braced for future trends, in Bronder’s view: “It anticipated the pending falloff in the print advertising world, and that was one of the reasons it invested in CQ, which was a subscription company. It wanted to have two robust revenue streams,” says Bronder.
Whether those revenue streams will stave off additional staff reductions at CQ Roll Call is another matter. Rapp is now working on a budgeting plan for Roll Call’s bold and webby future. “I’ve been assured that I’m going to be able to have the resources I need to fulfill that game plan,” he says. And can he guarantee that such assurance means no staff reductions? “No, I never can,” he says, sounding like the manager of any publication in 2013.
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