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August 18, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:11am

Politics Home editor Alan White on standing out in a ‘crowded’ field and how Twitter ruins politics reporting

By Andrew Kersley

The question of how to stand out in the “crowded” world of politics reporting is possibly the number one concern for Politics Home and its editor-in-chief Alan White.

Politics reporting might be the most saturated part of journalism, with dedicated titles including Politico, The New Statesman, The Spectator, The Economist, Prospect, The Week, The New European and Byline Times – not to mention the Westminster lobby desks at every national newspaper and some of the biggest regionals too.

For White, who took over as head of Politics Home and its sister magazine The House in 2020, the aim is simple: write the stories no one else could so they become invaluable to their readers.

He wants the site to be a place that “approaches stuff sideways or breaks its own big stories”, as he explained to Press Gazette.

That’s easier said than done, especially when bigger outlets poach your top journalists. Noa Hoffman – the Sun reporter who revealed that Tory whip Chris Pincher resigned after allegedly groping two men, in a scoop that helped trigger the eventual downfall of Boris Johnson – had been working for Politics Home just a week prior. In fact, Hoffman missed her own Politics Home leaving drinks because it fell on the same night her Pincher story dropped.

[Read more: The Sun’s Noa Hoffman and Kate Ferguson on their part in Boris Johnson’s downfall]

White said he “refuses to be annoyed” about missing out on that scoop, but explained Hoffman was emblematic of exactly what he wants for the future of Politics Home. The 25-year-old, who arrived at the website freshly off her NCTJ training, got the role as a reporter despite “reams of more senior people going for that job” because she seemed to have the best sense for digging up unseen stories.

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“Engaged readers and subscribers matter to us in a much more significant way as a small publisher. We can’t take on a big tabloid site,” White explained.

Its advantage, though, is that The House, as the official magazine of parliament, gives the two titles the kind of access to MPs and ministers that other outlets would kill for. The sites even have an advisory committee of MPs from across the political spectrum that gives the team an inside track on breaking stories in Westminster.

White spent seven years as news editor for Buzzfeed UK – which shuttered its dedicated news operation in 2020 – watching how “bizarre memes” or “Kim Kardashian gossip” would go viral far beyond “stuff from the political sphere”. In contrast, he said his approach at Politics Home is to focus on the stories more than just clicks or views.

“I’m sure I can bore your pants off talking about click-to-open rates on newsletters, but fundamentally if someone comes into my office with a good story I’ll drop everything,” as White put it. “Journalism is at the heart of it all.”

Political journalists and social media

Throughout his conversation with Press Gazette, White was most energetic when talking about the existential future of the media at large – from the surprising growth of left-leaning news site Novara Media despite the end of Corbynism to the “outdated” thinking of most publishers on social media.

He revealed that Politics Home is planning to hire a social media reporter – not someone to just curate the outlet’s social media feeds (a practice White called a “really silly” limitation) but who actually uses social media as a new home page from which to do original reporting tailored to the platform.

Despite this, he remains wary about Twitter’s role in political reporting. “It’s a good brand-builder but I absolutely worry about what Twitter does to the wider political culture,” White admitted.

“Some of the things that you have seen people do on Twitter by way of regurgitating things they’ve been told rather than following normal journalistic process is really damaging to the trade.

“And it’s people with a million followers and they’re using Twitter as a sort of notepad, which is crazy because they’re bigger publishers than a lot of places.

“The negatives outweigh the positives,” he went on, adding: “I think there’s just a cultural thing that if you spent all day in Westminster you end up living and breathing parliament, soaking in tweets in the bars with politicians. You become a strange person.”

Changes are paying off

The new social media reporter would be just one of a huge swathe of changes that have come since White took over leading the title from editor Kevin Schofield, who left in 2020 to work for gambling lobby group the Betting and Gaming Council (and has since returned to journalism as Huffpost UK political editor).

White cancelled a struggling daily newsletter, launched a new Saturday newsletter, relaunched the Politics Home podcast and changed the topics covered by the two titles to stop any duplicated coverage. There has also been an expansion of staff, including the appointment of a new political editor, audience editor and two deputies below White.

Its focus on scoops and insider knowledge is paying off with readership and profit. White said Politics Home and The House see one million visits a month across their shared website, with 15,000 newsletter readers. Ipsos iris data seen by Press Gazette shows the site had 944,294 unique visitors in the UK in June.

Politics Home is funded through banner ads and memberships while The House Magazine relies on print advertising targeting its elite Westminster readers, and both are currently profit-making.

Their parent company is Merit Group, which owns Politics Home publisher Dods Parliamentary Communications Ltd, but little is known about it bar the fact its majority shareholder is Tory super donor and former peer Michael Ashcroft. Ashcroft is known for his unsubtle political interventions, including penning the book accusing David Cameron of having sex with a dead pig’s head. White said Ashcroft is, rather ironically, a quiet benefactor – one he said he has “never had any communication” with since joining.

White said his next main aim, particularly for The House, is to develop more reporting on social affairs outside of the Westminster bubble – a new step for an outlet that prides and defines itself on being “as insider-y as you can be” to Westminster.

White said these two aspects are in fact intimately interconnected: “Imagine being able to break a story like Windrush and your first audience is politicians. If you care about doing journalism in order to have a positive impact you’re in quite a good place for it.

“The simple fact is we do have the ability to impact people in a more direct way than others.”

Picture: Alan White, Politics Home

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