Politico gives its advertisers a great deal to choose from. There’s a print product and a roaring website; there are events and breakfasts; there are high-volume newsletters with sponsorship windows; and now there’s going to be Politico magazine, a glossy print vehicle headed by new hire Susan Glasser of Foreign Policy magazine.
Competitors of the Rosslyn-based journo-mill wish them luck, sort of: “God bless them,” says Beth Bronder, Senior Vice President & Publisher, CQ Roll Call. “They’re trying and grappling with a lot of things. They may have deep enough pockets and big enough egos to do that, and that’s a nice position to be in.”
Says a market observer: “It doesn’t seem like there’s a demand for an additional print magazine.”
The leaders of Politico have heard this sort of attitude before. “Some of the questions greeting this new effort is a familiar phenomenon for us,” notes Politico editor-in-chief John Harris. “We faced skepticism from some timid members of the media community, and from people who are bearish on the future of ambitious journalism, when we launched nearly seven years ago, and with every new major initiative we have undertaken since. That has been a time when we have grown in staff, grown in revenue, grown in depth and breadth of coverage.”
With those words, Harris expressed his faith in the great elasticity of the Washington issue advertising market. Over the years, this pool of money from big companies and trade associations — estimated at around $100-$150 million per year — has proven quite accommodating, making room for publications like the Hill and Politico as well as a whole range of digital properties. How long can the expansion last?
“We are more bullish than ever,” notes Harris.
Harris probably hasn’t spent a lot of time recently with Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, an outfit that tracks classic Beltway influence-peddling advertisements. Getting a handle on the relative advertising performance of the main Capitol Hill publications — Politico, CQ Roll Call, the Hill and National Journal — is tricky in light of their differing frequencies, sizes and the like. Publicly available data comparing their performance simply doesn’t exist. Another complication relates to politics. Year-over-year revenue comparisons in the Beltway publication market can be deceptive, because spending follows the four-year cycle of a presidential administration. The first year of a new administration is generally a prosperous one, as companies seek to influence the new boss in town. The middle years are middling, and presidential election years are generally subpar from an ad-buying perspective.
Despite these killer constraints, Wilner says that the Beltway ad market this year is cratering, no matter the point of comparison. The first year of a second-term administration, she says, won’t be as robust as the first year of new administration. But even so: “It’s down precipitously. You’re on a roller coaster and you go down the hill and your stomach’s in your throat — it’s down like that,” says Wilner, describing the drop between 2009 numbers and comparable 2013 numbers as exceeding 50 percent. Her comments are rooted in the more trackable numbers for issue advertising in Washington-area broadcast outlets.
The consensus culprit for the slowdown is Congress, a gridlocked institution that just doesn’t pass enough sexy legislation that big-time advertisers want to influence.
“The beltway advertising market may be experiencing its worst year ever, or at least since the market was created under two decades ago,” says an industry observer. “Print advertising across the market is down in double digits and digital is sluggish in a year when everyone expected legislative activity and resultant advocacy spending to be up. Everyone — and I mean everyone — is feeling the pain.”
If so, not everyone is acknowledging it. CQ Roll Call’s Bronder says that advertising is up. Hugo Gurdon, top editor of the Hill, says, “We’re actually up on both print and digital” and the publication is redesigning its Web site. Politico’s Harris: “Looked at in two-year increments, which absorb any cyclical variations, we have had big gains in every period over the preceding one throughout our history. This is true on every Politico platform — print, on-line, subscriptions, events.”
That sounds like the perfect economic environment for the Washington Examiner. This tabloid has spent the last eight-and-a-half years as a vessel of local news and conservative commentary. That failed financial experiment ends on Friday. Next week marks the Examiner’s full-bodied accession to the ranks of Capitol Hill publications, with a free website and a free magazine — debuting on June 20 — aimed at influentials. The publication is selling itself as a centrist purveyor of Washington information with a “center-right” editorial perspective, says Examiner editor Stephen G. Smith. Some fun facts about the new Examiner, via Smith:
*Editorial staff will be in the vicinity of 40.
*Circulation of the magazine is 42,000, 30,000 of which is in the Washington area.
*There are currently no plans for paid subscriptions.
*Stories in the magazine will max out around 1,300 words.
*The magazine will be a “40-page book,” says Smith, about a third of which will consist of commentary.
OK, so just what’ll make the Examiner stick out among multiple print and digital offerings? Smith: “I think our distinctiveness comes from the combination of down-the-middle reporting and center-right commentary. Of all those publications and news organizations, not one of them is doing that,” says Smith, noting that the Examiner’s parent company, Denver-based Clarity Media Group (owned by Philip Anschutz), did “several months” of research on the competition.
Nor will the Examiner geek out too much. “Having a well-edited product that isn’t a fire hose is a real plus today for people,” says Smith. “If you dig into Politico, they do what they do very well, but you’ve got to be very interested in it. For a point of differentiation, we’re not going to be a trade magazine. We are out there . . . for ordinary people who are interested in politics and policy but not total junkies.”
CQ Roll Call’s Bronder works at an outfit that has seen its share of upheaval in recent times. Last year, for instance, it laid off approximately 30 staffers, mostly from the business side of the publication. This spring it gave buyouts to five staffers, a shift that the company attributes to its move toward digital-first strategies. The key to squeaking through to a prosperous future, says Bronder, doesn’t rest in launching conventional journo-products. “I think there’s this perception outside the Beltway that there’s more money in digital and in print than there actually is. Those that have done it for a long time know that that pie is shrinking,” says Bronder. “But other areas — events, advocacy and engagement tools — deliver multi-faceted solutions for advertisers.”