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June 20, 2024updated 04 Jul 2024 1:21pm

How Total Politics is making un-paywalled political journalism pay

Mark Wallace on how Total Politics does business with free mags, events and selling ads for both sides.

By Bron Maher

The chief executive of Total Politics Group, Mark Wallace, says the business is “in a profitable place” as its titles cover the first election since the group was formed in 2022.

The company, which owns titles including Politics Home and Parliament’s The House magazine and holds a majority stake in website Conservative Home, makes its money mainly from events and advertising.

Total Politics Group was formed after the Lord Ashcroft-owned Political Holdings Limited, which already owned Conservative Home, bought several titles from Merit Group in October 2022. (Ashcroft is also the largest shareholder in Merit Group.)

The new business is yet to publish its first accounts and Wallace cautioned that “when you undertake an acquisition there’s quite a big discovery process to do”. But he said: “I think it’s fair to say that we’re in a profitable place.”

The last accounts for Merit Group prior to the acquisition, covering the year to 31 March 2022, recorded a loss for the year of £1.6m. The “political engagement” business segment that included The House, Holyrood, The Parliament and Politics Home was the largest part of the company by revenue, contributing £9.8m that year and £7.5m the year before. At the time, the company employed 109 staff in editorial and production roles.

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[Read more: Lord Ashcroft’s Political Holdings agrees £4.5m deal to buy Politics Home and other Dods media assets]

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Free journalism can pay when written for ‘high-value, high-impact’ audiences

Print copies of The House, Holyrood and The Parliament magazines are distributed for free to parliamentarians in Westminster, Edinburgh and Brussels, respectively — although it is possible to purchase subscriptions to them.

The rest of TPG’s portfolio of publications, including Politics Home and trade titles Civil Service World, Public Technology and Training Journal, are free to read online.

Wallace said: “If you really want to deliver advertising that just goes to the ten people who definitely, definitely will be around a cabinet minister on Tuesday morning or something, you could do a lot worse than make sure you’re on the right set of emails that go out in Politics Home, through The House magazine, through Holyrood” and its other publications.

Wallace described the company’s business model as increasingly being about “integrated campaigns” — encouraging a sponsor to run ads through all the channels available in the Total Politics Group, among them print advertising, promotional content, digital advertising, newsletters, website takeovers and events. He contrasted such campaigns against “fire and forget, one-shot adverts”.

To that end, Wallace emphasised that policymakers are not the only relevant readers of Total Politics content.

“The millions of pairs of eyes that go on across those titles are all voters and in a democratic system are all part of an electorate too…

“If you want to just deliver a message to a policymaker, and the policymaker has no particular reason to believe that the wider electorate has any interest in or concern about the issue you want to talk about, you’re probably not doing your whole job.”

At the time of Total Politics’ 2022 pre-merger accounts Politics Home was averaging above 300,000 unique monthly users, the documents say.

Wallace said the pandemic had increased corporate interest in public affairs, particularly in the technology and digital sectors.

Until Covid, he said, there were “a lot of businesses that didn’t have any public affairs activity, or maybe outsourced it to an agency that would send them an email that they might or might not read about what’s being said in Parliament somewhere in one of their many markets…

“A lot of people have realised that being part of a conversation before you need it is a better thing to do than racing to find out who on earth you might need to talk to.”

At multinational advertising agencies, Wallace said, “the way marketing budgets are often spent is… about numbers, and it’s about really large scale”, rather than TPG’s “really high-value, high impact audiences that are not always gigantic in number”.

But despite this, a recently-concluded campaign run by Total Politics and Mastercard is currently shortlisted for the PPA Award for commercial partnership of the year. The campaign emphasised the ways card payments might help economic growth in the UK.

“We’re having increasing success working with larger agencies, working with marketing activity and so on,” Wallace said. “But that’s an ongoing process of growth, I think there’s quite a lot of expansion to do there.”

Selling ads for reds and blues

Wallace said the commercial significance of an election to Total Politics Group was that it “creates a huge amount of opportunity to reach new readers who can stay with you after an election”.

Asked whether a party political site like Conservative Home could expect the value of its ad inventory to drop should its side lose power, Wallace noted that the blog began when the Conservative Party was in “the depths of opposition”.

He said: “As everybody’s noticed in the course of the last decade, you want to make sure that you’ve got flexibility and you’ve got diversification within your business model.”

One example of that diversification is the deal announced in April whereby Total Politics Group will take over ad sales for Conservative Home and Labour List, which were previously dealt with by Paul Staines’ Messagespace.

Total Politics Group does not own any of Labour List, which is effectively the Labour counterpart to Conservative Home.

Wallace said there was “more overlap in readership on some of these sites that people imagine”.

Wallace, himself a previous chief executive of Conservative Home, said he had been a reader of Labour List since it was founded.

“I remember seeing, a couple of years ago, that Conservative Home was the most-read media outlet among Conservative MPs — but it was also quite strongly-read among Labour MPs, because any savvy politician will tell you it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on what the other side thinks.”

The more important thing, though, was that Total Politics Group treated the brands neutrally.

“That nonpartisan nature of our business is really crucial, because it’s about trust,” he said.

“Our journalism is valuable because it’s expert, but also because it’s trusted. And that comes down to the neutrality of us as a publisher… the independence of our journalists, not just from outside influence, but their independence from me.”

Wallace left the impression that, while the election was editorially exciting, the business had far more of a focus on what follows.

“We’re already working very hard in preparation for what happens afterwards,” he said. “The next edition of The House magazine will land with new MPs, a couple of days after they take their seats and arrive in Westminster for the first time. And for a lot of them that is a part of a rite of passage.”

The pace of things won’t stop once the new intake of MPs have found their offices: autumn means party conference season, and Wallace said Total Politics Group typically runs “100 to 120 fringe events across five different party conferences in September and October”.

“It’d be a mistake to call an election campaign a ‘calm before the storm’,” he said, “but election day itself might be. We get to take a deep breath for a few hours while people are voting, and then after that it’s getting on with things and making sure we can get under the skin of this new world that every election creates.”

The House magazine highly commended at Private Eye’s Paul Foot Award ceremony

Last week The House magazine was highly commended by the judging panel for Private Eye’s prestigious investigative journalism prize, the Paul Foot Award, over freelance Justine Smith’s work on the “crisis” in children’s mental health service provision.

The panel called it “a compelling and important read, putting the plight of vulnerable children right in front of MPs in parliament’s trade magazine”. 

Wallace said: “You can’t have a better accolade than that for investigative journalism. And for a publication which is not, in its core, an investigative enterprise.

“But that’s something that comes out of having good editors — great editors — with the freedom and independence to innovate, backed by decent resourcing to do a good job. And so that’s something I’ll always try and champion.”

Total Politics pays freelances up to around £500 per thousand words, which compares well to other titles. Asked about this, Wallace said: “We have to all keep a watch on how we can control our costs.

“But we also are, rightly and justifiably, opposed to salami slicing. I think it’s really easy to cut costs and thereby destroy value.”

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

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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