April 20, 2017

I’ve read a hundred stories and written a few myself on the halting efforts of legacy magazines over the last decade to develop a complementary digital presence.

That makes Politico Magazine a novelty. While many publications struggle to convert their ink and paper to pixels, the four-year-old glossy bimonthly is reversing direction with a foray from digital into print.

Scanning the magazine’s stylish and highly substantive current issue (Trump vs. World), my business analyst’s eye settled on some oddities. The 84-page issue carries just three ads. Also there were no bind-in or blow-in subscription cards, no cover price — no evidence, in short, that readers were being asked to pay.

Without either of those two main traditional revenue streams for a print magazine, I wondered whether Politico’s was at death’s door — or perhaps playing a game I thought I understood by a different set of rules?

Politico Editor-in-Chief and co-founder John Harris assured me in a phone conversation last week that the print publication makes all kinds of sense editorially for Politico and is hitting its marks as a developing part of its business as well.

“When we started, the first thing was the idea of pushing Politico editorially into more ambitious projects,” Harris said. “I don’t care for the term longform, because length isn’t the objective; it’s stories with some depth, driven by a reporter-editor concept, rather than breaking news.”

As Harris saw it, developing that kind of content would move the scoopy, up-to-the-second Politico in a new direction, distinct from “agenda-setting in the moment” that had been its early online calling card, especially with Mike Allen’s wildly popular Playbook newsletter.

“But we were also hard-headed that there needs to be a business rationale versus its being supported by something else, ” Harris continued.

As hoped, he said, stories originating from the magazine, profiles and investigative work, have proved to have a “much longer shelf-life” online than quick news hits, a plus for Politico’s digital advertising.

What’s more, a premium product turned out to be an attraction for premium advertisers, those who might be prospects for a lucrative package including sponsorships of events or newsletters.

The new genre of content has also led Politico into continuing series — like a vertical on cities — that are an added attraction for its sponsorship/event/newsletter business.

As with the sites of other serious magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, the digital version runs many stories — 100 a month or so carrying a “Magazine” identifier — that do not appear in the print edition. “We don’t think of it as just a six-time a year glossy, it’s also a daily platform.”

The free distribution model was borrowed from Politico’s daily print newspaper, delivered to Congressional offices and other Washington power centers.

That’s a magazine circulation strategy, sending to a small controlled and qualified audience — that has worked well through the years for high-end business titles magazines like Institutional Investor or CFO.

Politico Magazine goes out to about 30,000 people a month in the targeted free audience. A handful more are paid subscribers who have hunted down an offer and pony up a pricey $200 a year.

Harris offered a quick disclaimer: “This was built on the model we grew up with. I’m certainly not saying that (legacy magazine execs) are not as smart as we were — had Newsweek or Harper’s only known….”

If the business strategy is unconventional, the Politico print magazine isn’t. It features half a dozen takeouts by A-list writers, including Michael Grunwald and Michael Crowley, both former cover story stars at Time.

Founding editor Susan Glasser contributes regularly as well as hosting a regular foreign policy podcast. Some time ago, the magazine pinched an accomplished editor/writer duo, Bill Duryea and Michael Kruse from Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times.

Harris justly notes that the magazine doesn’t skimp on visuals either, and thus avoids the heaviness of wonkish analysis publications.

The Trump issue includes a fabulously illustrated story on Trump’s “Dictator Chic” taste in interior design by an author who published a book about the style a decade ago. A second photo essay harvests more than a dozen well-selected street-art takedowns of the new President from around the world.

As we were talking business models, Harris dropped a striking statistic as an aside. Early stories on Politico regularly reported that more than half its ad revenue came from the free print daily.

“Now we are about 50 percent high-end subscriptions (to premium information services) and 50 percent advertising and sponsorships. Only a small portion of that is in print ads or banners.”

“The Capitol paper is down to single-digits (as a share of total revenue) — probably more like 5 percent than 50.”

From which I take away that Politico has the DNA to keep moving on to next generations of product introductions, a culture that legacy newspapers and magazines are still struggling to match.

I had heard that owner/publisher Robert Allbritton was a big fan of the magazine, and he confirmed that in an email:

“The magazine was transformative for Politico both editorially and from a business perspective. The success of Politico Magazine confirmed our bet that readers are not monolithic — some prefer short bursts of news, while others appreciate opinion style journalism, deeper dives, or the incredible design that Politico Magazine delivers. We chose not to limit ourselves and as a result, Politico has far more readers today than just a few years ago.

Our audience is uniquely engaged with the Politico brand, but the reality is that the way that they consume information and content is evolving. As Politico enters decade two, we want to deepen that relationship with our audience even further and evolve with it. That means providing unique news value, insights and information through content that can live not only on Politico.com, but in different formats and on a variety of platforms where readers spend their time.”

That said, I’m left wondering how expenses and revenues, even indirect ones, balance for the print magazine. Those three ads in the current Trump issue were all for corporations in special need of reputation rehab — BP, Koch Industries and mammoth HSBC bank (stung in a money-laundering exposé four years ago). There are only so many of those.

The May/June issue will focus on media and be out next week in conjunction with the White House Correspondents’ dinner. It will carry four ads, and the January/February edition had eight, according to spokesman Brad Dayspring.

Not going after paid subscriptions or a big-number circulation guarantee spares Politico the mammoth cost of selling startups and renewals. Nor does it need a platoon of dedicated ad sales reps.

But everything else is expensive. Printing “the first copy,” as magazine pros say, when the format is heavy paper and all color, costs a lot, a longer press run comparatively little. And even if they do plenty more than just the print magazine, that’s a large and gold-plated staff.

So maybe the print edition could be viewed as a loss leader in isolation — unless you factor in a heavy dose of branding.

Albritton’s comments hint at that, and Harris said so explicitly. “There is still a generational benefit (for some) to holding it in your hand.” Appearing on coffee tables in Congressional offices and other waiting rooms doesn’t hurt either.

And those who dip into the magazine content in print or digital formats will come away with an impression that Politico does first-class ambitious work, not just bird dogging the daily and hourly cycle (it won its first ASME award last year, for feature photography).

“It’s a brand-builder, Harris said, “and that’s a principle that has animated us for 10 years…But we are not attached for sentimental or any other reasons to anything that doesn’t work.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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