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May 11, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:16am

Politico editor-in-chief interview: Coronavirus cuts? No, we’re still thinking about expansion

By William Turvill

Matthew Kaminski must be one of the very few bosses in journalism still thinking about expansion. While thousands of publications across the world face cuts due to a collapse in the advertising market, the editor-in-chief of Politico is still thinking about growing the title’s UK team.

“We started off with one reporter in London back in 2015, and I think we’re probably looking at an office of at least a dozen, but there are plans to expand,” he says. “Politico in Europe sees the UK as a great growth opportunity. And those plans haven’t been pushed back because of the corona crisis.”

Speaking to Press Gazette on a Zoom call (video below) from his home in Washington, Kaminski later tones down his positivity a touch. “We haven’t made any cuts so far,” he says. “We are cautiously optimistic for Politico. And we reserve judgement on what, longer term, is going to happen to the economy – to the global economy, to the American economy.”

But he does believe Politico remains in a relatively strong position. “More than half our business is long-term, premium subscription contracts,” says Kaminski. “That gives you a lot of stability. And you can plan ahead much more easily than [with] advertising, which as you know can go up and down very easily.

“The second thing that makes us cautiously optimistic is that our advertising business is not directly exposed to the hardest-hit sectors. We don’t have a lot of retail advertising. We don’t really have general interest consumer kinds of advertising.”

Politico was founded in 2007 by two Washington Post journalists, John F Harris and Jim VandeHei,  who felt there was room in the US capital for a new publication specialising in politics and policy.

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With the backing of Allbritton Communications, Politico started out with around 60 employees in the Washington area. It now has 600 people working in various offices across the US and Canada, and more than 170 staff in Europe, where it is headquartered in Brussels to cover the European Union.

Kaminski joined in 2014 to be launch editor of Politico Europe, a joint venture with German publisher Axel Springer. Kaminski, who started his career at the Financial Times in Europe and went on to work for the Wall Street Journal over 17 years, moved back to the US in 2018 to be global editor of Politico, and he has been editor-in-chief since April last year. Politico Europe, which is run separately from Politico in the US, is now led by editor-in-chief Stephen Brown, formerly of Reuters.

Politico’s B2B information arm

While Politico is probably best known for its in-depth political news coverage, a large part of its operation is focused on business-to-business publishing. Subscriptions to Politico Pro –a policy intelligence platform that specialises in numerous areas including, as examples, healthcare and agriculture – are sold to businesses, with prices starting at $10,000 and going up to six figures depending on the package.

Having a small army of reporters across North America, Europe and in various specialist subjects, like healthcare, helped Politico triple its website traffic in March when it claims to have attracted more than 70m readers.  

“The publication is now big enough and mature enough to rise to the occasion in a way that it couldn’t have just a couple of years before when we were smaller and organised differently,” says Kaminski, adding though that website traffic volume is not a priority. 

“We always joked that in Washington our Playbook – which is our anchor newsletter, it’s got around 200,000-plus subscribers now [Politico later clarifies that the number is closer to 300,000], read everywhere – but in fact we only need one or two readers. If Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill read it every day, that’s all we really need for this to be a hugely influential newsletter.”

In the current climate, Kaminski’s bold belief in the future of Politico will offer some encouragement to journalists with concerns about the future of the industry. But it’s worth noting that this optimism does not extend to all corners of the sector.

Politico editor interview: Big titles will be stronger post Covid-19 crisis

In the US, he believes titles like the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal – which have all built up strong subscriber bases – will be better off in the long run. But Kaminski is not hopeful for general-interest newspapers that are heavily reliant on advertising revenues.

“The crisis is obviously accelerating a lot of trends that were underway, that were clear, before,” he says. “So the troubles that you’re seeing with local journalism, those have been aggravated by this.

“The decline in print journalism, and the viability of print, has been really accelerated by this. Partly people don’t go out to buy papers any more, partly it’s because those papers are primarily sustained by advertising, and that is just going to drop. Any time you have an economic drop this sharp you’re going to have a general advertising drop. I think it will expose weaknesses in business models, and companies overly reliant on more fickle sources of revenue are unfortunately going to suffer.”

He adds: “That said, people consume information now more than ever before. The need for viable information is greater than ever before. A lot of the really great old brands in American journalism – the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal – have pivoted quite successfully to passing the cost of what they do from advertisers to subscribers, and that’s a very stable bedrock for them.

“I think for better and for worse, the big, strong players are going probably to emerge strong. [They] will see a short-term impact on their bottom lines, but longer-term will probably emerge stronger.

“Is [less media plurality] healthy for democracy? That’s an interesting question for the Columbia Journalism Review to chew over.”

And where does Politico fit in?

“I think niche players like us – where we have a very clear editorial mission, and we have a very clear focus on who we need to bring in as readers, and then a business model that is tied very clearly to that editorial mission – I think we should thrive.”

This article has been altered to state for clarity that Politico Europe has a separate editor-in-chief and more than 170 staff, and to note that the Playbook newsletter has around 300,000 subscribers.

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