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November 6, 2015

Politico Europe executive editor: ‘The future is niche… generalist papers are legacy of the 19th century’

By William Turvill

On hearing Politico was launching in Europe last December, President Barack Obama said at a press conference: “I think there’s no doubt that what Belgium needs is a version of Politico. The waffles are delicious there, by the way.”

Just over six months after launch, Press Gazette visited Politico's Brussels office to find out if Obama was right.

Politico was launched in the United States by two Washington Post journalists, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, in 2007. That year, it had around 30 journalists working for it. Now it has a newsroom of 240 in the US and claims to attract up to 8m unique users a month.

Politico launched in Europe, as a joint venture with German publisher Axel Springer, on 21 April this year with a website and free weekly newspaper. In September, it rolled out Politico Pro, a subscriptions service.

Like Politico's founders, Europe executive editor Matthew Kaminski (pictured) began his career in "legacy media". Before coming to Brussels to set up Politico in January, he had worked on the Wall Street Journal for 18 years.

He watched the growth of Politico from the outside. "I was probably one of the people early on like: ‘Oh, who needs another political publication in Washington?’ And then within a few months: ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’"

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Kaminski speaks with pride about having worked for a "great journalistic institution", but makes clear his doubts about the sustainability of newspapers.

"We realised that they were still working on a 19th century business model: you print words on paper, you stick an ad next to it and people buy it and you get 28 per cent margins."

A crisis of business model, not journalism

When traditional print media began to run into trouble "with the rise of the digital age", Kaminski says Politico's founders thought: "We don’t think there’s a crisis of journalism.

"The problem isn’t journalism – people want information, people want it even more than ever because it’s a complicated world, there’s so much noise.

"Who’s going to cut through it? Who’s going to give you the kind of journalism that you like to read, also that gives you the inside that makes it easier for you to do your job [and] that makes you smarter in front of other people?"

He adds: "So they felt it was really a crisis of business model.”

Kaminski says Politico's approach is not about having "a newsroom of 21-year-olds working on algorithms of how to maximise traffic".

"For us, traffic is not actually the key metric of our success. It’s about providing the content that people who are premium subscribers, a premium audience, feel they need to read. And off that we can build a business. And you can’t really do great journalism if you don’t have a business.

“That’s something that also I realised [in old media]. Because I was a witness to a very slow but unhappy decline. It’s not fun to be at a publication which is always cutting back… Rupert Murdoch has invested in my former publication, which is a credit to him, but it’s tough there and it’s certainly tough in most other print publications.”

Kaminski believes traditional newspapers will succeed if they “adapt smartly” but does not think the “generalist newspaper” has a future, describing it as a “legacy of the 19th century”.

"A reader now can create their own publication through their Twitter followings or on Facebook or just by scanning the net: the best fashion writing’s here, and the best sports writing’s on this site and the best foreign news is on this site."

Kaminski adds: “Our overall philosophy of publication is that the future is niche as opposed to generalist. We prefer to go deeper than wider. And if we go wider we will go deep too… We want to be better than anyone else at politics and policy. That’s all.”

Emulating US success

Asked why he feels Politico was a success in the US, Kaminski says: "They would say that they were lucky. I think they were also smart… They were lucky I would say for two reasons, and this again is as an outsider.

“One, because the Washington Post had really lost its way. The Washington Post had decided… politics is kind of boring, that people want to read about lifestyle issues, health, their suburban high school sports leagues…

“The Washington Post started to think to itself: We are not the main paper in the most important capital in the world – arguably, right? – but we’re a local paper for the city and it’s suburban areas that just happens to be called Washington DC."

He adds: "That’s why their guys started this thing – because they were political reporters who really felt the Post could be doing much better.

“Reason number two is that they happened to start and they happened to walk into one of the most fascinating campaigns the US has seen in a very long time. You’ve got Obama versus Hilary: you’re going to get the first black president or the first female president."

But can this success be emulated in Europe?

Kaminski believes that in Politico’s first six months it has “forced people to take us seriously”.

“We break news constantly,” he says. “And I dare anyone in this town to find someone else who has broken more news than we have in the last six months.”

He adds: “We’re now indisputably in the premier league. Are we the dominant publication on European affairs? I don’t think we’re the dominant, but we’re certainly in the premier league and we’re certainly in the same sentence as publications who’ve been here for hundreds of years.”

'Insidery, accessible, fun'

Politico Europe's managing editor Carrie Budoff Brown (right) has worked for the title since its founding in 2007.

She describes Politico as “insidery”, “accessible” and “fun”.

On its expansion from the United States to Europe, she says: “We write stories that people say they never thought would be written.. 

"There were thousands and thousands of readers here who care intensively about this stuff who weren’t getting the stories that they wanted to read about for years, and we’re giving it to them.”

She adds: “A lot of people doubted that would work, but it’s working.”

Budoff Brown worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer before joining Politico.

On her decision to leave, she says: “The Philadelphia Inquirer’s a big reputable newspaper, won tons of Pulitzer Prizes… I thought I’d be there for a very long time – I was in my late 20s at that point – but the place was dying.

“They were laying off people, it wasn’t growing, the internet was happening and they weren’t responding to it and people always lamented the old days.”

She adds: “And then I went to Politico and it attracted a certain type of journalist that wants to be competitive, that is more innovative.”

'This is not Americans marching into this town'

One of the challenges Politico faced on moving to Europe, says managing editor of expansion Florian Eder (right), was showing readers it wasn't a US brand trying to change European politics.

Eder, who joined Politico from partner Axel Springer, says: “We made very clear from the beginning that this is not Americans marching into this town and teaching everyone else how to properly cover politics and how to properly do journalism."

He feels Politico is covering a side of Brussels that previously fell "under the radar".

"I think that many media still underestimate the political dimension of Brussels.

"There are many people who are really focused on policy making here, so as soon as there is legislation on emissions for the car industry and banking supervision that is something that is of course reported, widely reported, but it often lacks the political dimension…

“It’s not always Germany against Brussels or Germany against France or something. It’s not always just that one dimension of one member state… there are a lot of interesting dynamics here that I think are worth covering, as we’ve seen in the first few months.”

Performance and future

Undoubtedly, Obama was right about the quality of Brussels' waffles. But does Europe need a Politico, and is it proving a success?

The website claims 900,000-1m unique users a month, with around 10 per cent of these coming from the UK. 

The title has not released figures on take-up of its Pro service but says it has built up a subscriber base of more than 100 organisations, covering thousands of individuals, across 17 countries.

According to Gabriel Brotman, executive director of strategy, marketing and growth, Politico is "on the path to profitability" in Europe and it is planned that half of its money will come from subscriptions to Politico Pro and the other half from advertising.

He says: "It’s good to have a model of profitable journalism and say 'how do you continue on this path to profitability and how do you build a solid foundation'.

"So fortunately we don’t have a lot of the challenges that legacy media publications have: how to downsize, how to pivot away from platforms that are no longer sustainable. All the challenges that we have are what any high-growth start-up has.”

As for staffing, Politico currently has 40 full-time journalists in Europe. The plan is to increase this number to 45 by the end of this year and 65 in 2016. 

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