Why Politico and Gawker Are Embracing Quality

After years of chasing monster traffic, web publishers are seeking a more refined measure of success.
Pressing engagement: Politico’s Susan Glasser seeks readers who want to read a whole story. Photo-illustration by John Ueland.
Pressing engagement: Politico’s Susan Glasser seeks readers who want to read a whole story. Photo-illustration by John Ueland.

For those who follow digital media, 2015 may be remembered as the Year of Quality. In New York in January, Gawker Media announced that the company would shut down the live chart on its Manhattan office wall showing how many clicks its articles were getting in real time. Gawker’s CEO, Nick Denton, wrote on his blog that his company had “reached the limit” of paying writers a bounty for posts that cracked open the internet. Instead, Gawker would salute high-quality work—“a recognition that we can never play the viral traffic game as shamelessly as BuzzFeed,” sniffed Denton.

The same month, Arlington-based Politico hired Jack Shafer, the highly respected, ruminative former Reuters and Slate media critic. Since its founding in 2007, Politico has driven Washington’s political reporting with high-cadence, incremental scooplets that are easy to mock but hard to ignore if you’re someone whose “business is Washington,” as new editor Susan Glasser described Politico’s audience in her introductory memo to staffers. Shafer’s work is quite the opposite of that model. But it seems to fit Politico’s current MO.

For much of Glasser’s six-month tenure, scoop machines like Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman have been bailing out. To Glasser’s critics, that’s a sign of a newsroom in crisis. In fact, it looks quite intentional: As stalwarts of Politico’s early years have left, they’ve been replaced not by the New York tabloid types the publication once recruited but by talent from slower-paced newsrooms like the Boston Globe (Peter Canellos and Stephen Heuser), the Tampa Bay Times (Bill Duryea and Michael Kruse), and Time (Michael Crowley and Michael Grunwald).

The arrival of Shafer seems to make the swivel official.

Politico editors still get e-mail alerts when Drudge Report—which can drive reams of web traffic—picks up on their stories. Thus prompted, they can fill the favored article with related links in hopes of goosing traffic across the entire site.

But when reached by phone, Politico CEO Jim VandeHei disabuses me of the notion that high traffic was ever something Politico gave a big hoot about. “Traffic for traffic’s sake is a deal with the devil you don’t want to make,” VandeHei says. A publisher who plans to make money by selling mere audience numbers “better be up there with BuzzFeed or beyond.”

Dismissing BuzzFeed as a mere traffic junkie is a recurring theme here; it’s also a bit disingenuous, as the site also runs slow-cooked, important stories by respected journalists. But it still makes its nut with “listicles” like 25 sweaty memories every soccer girl will never forget—which get the kind of clicks you’ll never get with profiles of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.

The numbers bear that out. In December, according to the digital-measurement company comScore, Politico had 7.6 million unique visitors, the web term for individual readers. That’s a heck of a lot of people (and 44 percent more than Politico had in December 2013). But in the same period, BuzzFeed drew 77 million uniques. By pushing out massive volumes of content to grab ever-diminishing seconds of readers’ time, “quantity players” like BuzzFeed shrink what advertisers are willing to pay for clicks.

“When you have so much supply out there, it just inevitably pushes the prices down to pennies,” VandeHei says.

Which is why publications like his are changing focus. Last year, Chartbeat, another digital-readership tabulator, won approval from the Media Rating Council to sell advertisers on a measure of the quality of readers’ attention. Chartbeat’s software doesn’t just track when people click on a story—it captures how they interact with it, whether they scroll down, whether they hit any keys, whether a tab sits open and untouched. All of this makes them more appealing to advertisers—that is, more valuable to media companies—than folks who open an article and then forget about it.

Which means there’s a business case for quality. Midmornings, Politico will likely continue to pull in prized eyeballs by serving up tidbits to Hill insiders about, say, breakaway Republicans forming a “House Freedom Caucus.” Come afternoon, when readers have a little downtime, it’ll float a 2,100-word chronology of President Obama’s middle-class economic policies. The more deliberative pieces will allow Politico to “hit the reader from 360 degrees,” VandeHei says.

Other Capitol Hill players will be watching closely: In its short existence, Politico has a way of changing the game for everyone. When it launched, “everyone was kind of slow, and we came along and we were fast and fun,” says VandeHei. Now that the competition has sped up, “we still want to be faster and more fun than any publication around, but we also want to think about how to break through when everyone visits 20 sites per day.”

In announcing his own company’s pivot to quality, Gawker Media’s Nick Denton said: “Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.” Or they may remember it as the moment at which traditional media, battered by the brutal economics of the web, yielded yet another selling point to digital upstarts.

Senior editor Andrew Beaujon can be reached at abeaujon@washingtonian.com.

This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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