Politico Aims to Boost Media-Industry Coverage by Removing Paywall (EXCLUSIVE)

Media junkies will soon have a new way to get their fix. Politico, the news outlet devoted to all things politics, is taking much of its media coverage out from behind a paywall and launching a morning newsletter devoted to the topic.

As part of the change, Politico is creating a single online hub, politico.com/media, that will bring together media-industry coverage from across its realm, including the company’s New York media desk; its Washington-based “On Media” blog; work from veteran scribe Jack Shafer for the company’s magazine; and coverage from Alex Spence for readers in Europe. Joe Pompeo will lead a flagship morning newsletter, and staffers will place new emphasis on examining the intersection of politics and media. Some of the staff’s media reporting had been available for free, but now all of it will be easy to access.

“Media is where politics happens, and documenting and understanding these changes in real time is an irresistible journalistic mission,” said Tom McGeveran, editor of Politico Media, in a statement provided by a spokesman for the organization, which is owned and run by entrepreneur Robert Allbritton. The editor said the maneuver was “good for business in that it will expand our relationship with Politico readers and bring in new ones, all of which brings advertising, sponsorship and event upside.”

Politico is betting that it can wring more revenue from advertising and events that it can from the subscriptions that have been the economic foundation of its media coverage. A spokesman, Brad Dayspring, declined to specify how many subscribers the company had to what has been known as “Media Pro,” or daily reportage on the business of publishing, TV news and more.  In his statement, McGeveran said the subscriber base was “healthy” and “doing well on renewals.”

But the costs of following Politico’s coverage of the industry might have been prohibitive to those who toil in it.  Subscription prices, determined by a number of variables, were known to reach into the four- or five-figure sums – too high, one might imagine, for an individual practitioner in the field.

The move is the latest from an organization that has transformed rapidly from grass-roots upstart to major media institution. Politico has become to political coverage what ESPN is to sports. Even so, there have been some twists. Jim VandeHei, formerly the company’s co-founder and chief executive, left in April, along with a handful of other senior executives. Mike Allen, a popular reporter who writes “Politico Playbook,” is expected to depart after the U.S. Presidential election. The media-coverage development likely reflects a desire by Allbritton, now the company;’s CEO, to keep pushing Politico forward under his watch.

Executives believe there is ground to be gained – even though there are a bevy of competitors in the field, ranging from Advertising Age to CNN. “The importance in understanding politics and power has never been clearer than during this presidential election cycle. It’s not just that the individual players—from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz—have made a critique of the media a theme of their campaigns. The Trump campaign’s media manipulation efforts and seemingly constant cable presence has often been a defining theme of the past year,” McGeveran tells subscribers in a letter slated to be issued Thursday morning. “The way the media business is transforming is transforming the election process itself. “

Politico may simply be trying to knit together various pieces of its organization. The company acquired Capital New York, a digital chronicler of New York politics and industry, in 2013. Capital had operated as a stand-alone outlet, meaning that Politico’s “On Media” blog would be churning out items about MSNBC and Fox News at the same time as a New York team would pursue the latest inner machinations taking place at The New York Times. Add Shafer’s analysis, Spence’s overseas dispatches and the newspaper-industry musings of Ken Doctor to the brew and things thicken considerably.

In 2015, Capital New York was renamed Politico New York, and the media desks were placed under the aegis of McGeveran. Now Schafer and Hadas Gold, who helms the “On Media” blog, will continue to hold forth from Washington, D.C., while Spence will continue in Europe. Joe Pompeo, Alex Weprin and McGeveran will write from New York. Kelsey Sutton and Peter Sterne will handle breaking news and stories about big media companies from the New York desk. Doctor will continue to file from the West Coast.

Many media outlets have grappled with the prospect of maintaining a paywall, with mixed results. The Wall Street Journal insists upon a subscription for access to WSJ.com, while The New York Times operates a mixed model that gives readers access for free to a certain number of stories before requiring payment.

The simple fact is that digital readers long ago were trained to expect access for information without having to pay for it. Many newspaper companies granted free access to web-based news stories in the late 1990s and early 2000s, failing to realize a new generation of readers would migrate wholesale from printed product to smartphone screen. The trouble? Prices for digital ads have historically fallen well below those for old-school media like magazines and newspapers.

Politico Media joins a world in which digital media, no longer an emerging medium,  is under pressure from advertisers to demonstrate viability. Ad-blocking software has become a growing concern and many digital outlets are being prodded to prove “viewability” –  that users spend enough time with streaming –video commercials to make them worth the sponsor’s time. No doubt, these are issues that a passel of media-industry reporters being given broader exposure by an aggressive backer will have to examine at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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