The Covid-19 pandemic may have turned much of the US media business into a smoldering bull’s-eye, but Politico is holding up fine, according to an email from Patrick Steel, the Arlington-based publication’s CEO. Revenue at the company’s Politico Pro and audience solutions business was up in the first half of 2020, Steel writes, and revenue on Politico’s “consumer side”–including the website/newsletters many D.C.-area schmoes are familiar with—has “more than offset” losses due to the evaporation of live events and ads in Politico’s print edition.
Politico will be able to invest and expand in the second half of 2020, Steel writes, and says it’s “operating from a position of strength should the economy take a turn for the worse.”
In non-fiduciary news, Politico has launched a bunch of new products, marked the four-year anniversary of Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer’s stewardship of Playbook, and approached the racial reckoning in the US with typical vigor, with virtual events and editorial focused on criminal reform. Inside Politico, Steel notes, “people of color now comprise a quarter of POLITICO’s staff, which is an increase of more than 70% since 2016,” and “we know that we can, and must, do better.” Among other moves, the company has updated its stylebook to capitalize Black, made Juneteenth a company holiday, and promoted Robin Turner to the position of Director of Editorial Diversity Initiatives.
Politico staffers also received a note from honcho Robert Allbritton, who informs them they’ll work from home until at least January 4, 2021. “COVID-19 has changed the way we will work forever,” Allbritton writes. Memos follow.
A little perspective: Seven months ago this week, POLITICO co-hosted a presidential primary debate in Los Angeles, a moment that capped an incredible year for our publication. The irony? All of our predictions that night about what was important… and what was to come… were wrong. Never could any of us have imagined the road that lie ahead.
Fast forward: Our country has lost over 135,000 people to a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of others infected by the virus are still recuperating. Tens of millions have lost their jobs, and many businesses—both small and large—are fighting for survival. The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks—on top of far too many other Black lives taken—fueled nationwide protests for racial equality and justice, and sparked a global reckoning to finally address societal biases that have inordinately impacted people of color. And all of this happened in the midst of the most polarized, and consequential, election of our lifetime. Every year tends to bring a few “big” moments that can alter the course of history. This year, however, has put those other years to the test, delivering one blow after the next, making it hard to fathom the fundamental ways in which our world has been permanently changed.
How has POLITICO weathered this unprecedented storm? I am writing to share that our publication continues to thrive. A quick summary:
- Both our B2C (Audience Solutions) and B2B (POLITICO Pro) business arms grew revenue by double digits.
- Digital revenue on the consumer side grew significantly, which more than offset the loss ofrevenue in key segments that was beyond our control (live physical events, print edition, etc.).
- The renewal rate of POLITICO Pro subscriptions improved materially, and cross-sell, a key measure of the increased size and scope of our relationship with current subscribers, grew by approximately 20%.
- Our AgencyIQ team is providing an invaluable service evidenced by a solid book of subscribers with contracts that average in the high five figures.
- THE TAKEAWAY:Our strong first half performance allows us to continue to reinvest in the business and expand product offerings for our readers and clients. We are exceptionally well positioned for the 2nd half of the year, and are operating from a position of strength should the economy take a turn for the worse.
These are no small achievements. The key to our success is drawn from the indispensable nature of our journalism and content, and the diverse revenue model that supports it.
- OUR JOURNALISM HAS NEVER BEEN STRONGER: POLITICO Nightly draws on talent from across the newsroom, quickly becoming a key high-profile platform for our political and policy coverage surrounding the pandemic, and is a vehicle for experimentation with our visual journalism and video. We continue to build upon our outstanding health care coverage—which has seized the spotlight like never before—with a new stream of coverage focusing on the global race for a vaccine and this week’s launch of our new Future Pulse newsletter, focused on the intersection of tech and health. Last week Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer celebrated four years at the helm of POLITICO Playbook, a product that has never been more relevant and continues to literally blow away the competition. And recently we launched “China Watcher,” a newsletter written by David Wertime, which has open rates north of 50%, placing it in the top tier of our newsletters from an engagement standpoint, with a rapidly growing subscriber base, more than doubling in size since launch. The strength of our state-based coverage of the pandemic has set the stage for more systematic coverage of power players across state capitols and major cities in the weeks to come. And, to pull from Carrie’s recent note (only because one simply can’t demonstrate it better): The magazine has “put a spotlight on criminal justice reform. Reporters across our newsroom have convened discussions with key newsmakers at the center of the debate, examined the ways that the Black Lives Matter movementis reshaping politics in Washi
ngton and beyond, and elevated more personal conversations among our own journalists.”
- BETTER, FASTER PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: In addition to POLITICO Nightly, which was launched in a matter of hours, we expanded our global platform with the launch of the Global Translations newsletter anchored by Ryan Heath, which is sold out for the remainder of the year and has already surpassed its yearly subscriber goal. Using the springboard of our Google audio partnership, we released POLITICO Dispatch, a short-form daily podcast providing listeners with behind the curtain insight on the big story of the day from top reporters across our newsroom. We are approaching three million downloads of Dispatch since mid-March. We launched a flexible new consumer app that is available on iOS and Android, with the ability to alert our readers to breaking news, highlight our video and podcast offerings, and feature the excellent work of our interactives team for our mobile readers. A much-requested joint Sustainability offering was unveiled to both our consumer audience with “The Long Game” newsletter, and to our Pro Subscribers in a new Sustainability vertical. Speaking of Pro, we have successfully implemented new pricing and packaging, a restructuring which better aligns our competitive strengths to what our subscribers, current and future, most value. We revamped the Pro dashboard, unveiling a consolidated and personalized front door that is designed to showcase the unique value that we offer subscribers. And as if all of this was not enough, we have taken our events completely virtual, booking big time guests most recently featured on “America at a Tipping Point,” a virtual town hall that delved into policing, justice and inequality, as well as the state of our politics and culture amid a reckoning on race.
- DIVERSITY MATTERS, EVERY BLACK LIFE MATTERS: In addition to courageously and professionally producing journalism that defines and distinguishes us (as outlined above), our responsibilities demand that we commit ourselves anew to making POLITICO an even stronger and more diverse publication. Though we have made progress—people of color now comprise a quarter of POLITICO’s staff, which is an increase of more than 70% since 2016— we know that we can, and must, do better. I have spent the last six weeks reaching out to many of you. Mainly because I wanted to listen and learn, and I will continue to do so. Your feedback has made clear that now, more than ever, it is time for our actions to speak louder than our words. Over the last several weeks we have taken the first steps, starting with recognizing Juneteenth as an official company holiday and updating our newsroom style guide to recognize the word “Black” with capitalization when used as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense. We have created new positions with the mandate to bolster and implement our diversity and inclusion strategy. In her new role as Director of Editorial Diversity Initiatives, Robin Turner will advance diversity and inclusion in the newsroom, including the recruitment and mentorship of journalists of color. Robin recently discussed her new position and the Politico Journalism Institute (PJI) with the Maynard Institute, which I encourage all of you to read here. And on the business side, Terrell Mizell has been promoted to Diversity and Inclusion (DNI) Partner, where he will lead and manage our DNI Committee and initiatives and partner with leaders across the organization to ensure effective DNI practices and allyship are embedded into POLITICO’s culture at every phase of the employee experience. But these are only first steps. I am pushing our leaders to do more, and move faster. I fully expect additional steps forward that will be announced and implemented once vetted and when they can make the substantial impact and change that we all must commit to achieve. Stay tuned.
These accomplishments, in totality, are frankly, remarkable. In spite of them, I understand that these past few months have been difficult and in many cases traumatic. It is not easy to transition—literally overnight—to work from our homes and be separated physically from colleagues and friends. It is not easy to have our familial and personal lives turned upside down by the life circumstances that we have been dealt. And, when that reality is coupled with the tragic events that we have witnessed, it becomes even harder to find inspiration in our victories. But it is my sincere hope that you can do so. Your work is informing and engaging more readers and clients than ever before in POLITICO’s history. Our mission of providing essential, trusted, and non-partisan information is exactly the tonic that is needed to effect and inspire change.In short,your hard work and dedication to being the best at what you do has had immeasurable impact at a truly historic moment in history.And that is worth recognizing.
Thank you for all the work that you do. Thank you for your strength and resilience. If recent past is precedent, it is likely that this year will continue to bring unforeseen challenges. We are committed to listening and working with you to solve them. Do not hesitate to reach out to me, or any of our leaders with questions, thoughts, or just to say hello. And please remember to take care of yourself and your loved ones, and to take time off this summer to recharge.
With great appreciation, Patrick
Congratulations on a such strong first half during these incredibly challenging times. Following up on the note from Patrick, I want to share with you how we are thinking about a return to our physical offices.
WORK AT HOME EXTENDED – JANUARY 4, 2021
Since early March, a small team of POLITICO leaders has been diligently researching best practices and working to plan a safe return to our offices. They have researched best practices and used a “portal-to-portal” standard to pressure test various scenarios, since a return to the office is far more complex than thinking about what happens after an employee walks thru the front door.
- Far more than half of our employees rely on public transportation, which increases risk given that Metro is running at a limited capacity for the remainder of the year.
- Approximately a quarter of our employees are parents, and with children facing an uncertain school year, balancing work schedules with childcare needs is made even more difficult (and stressful) by a commute.
- In order to properly ensure physical distancing requirements, we simply cannot welcome the same number of people back into our workspaces as there were in February. Our largest conference room holds fewer than 25 people with social distancing, and most conference rooms would hold fewer than 10, so most meetings would need to remain virtual.
- Beyond our immediate workspaces, common areas (both in our office space and throughout the larger building) and food services add additional complexities and risk.
- Convening groups of people requires contact tracing and imposing self-quarantines on those potentially exposed to the virus.
These are just a few of the many factors that we’ve considered. None of us want to work inside of a plexiglass bubble.
From day one of this pandemic, our guiding principle has been your health and safety. I’ve made clear that we would not return to the building until we can guarantee that it is safe for you to do so. Currently we cannot do that. As such, we are extending our work from home status for at least the remainder of this calendar year. What happens after that remains an unknown, but I did want to provide as much certainty as I could today so that you and your families have as much information as we do and can plan accordingly.
OUR OFFICES WILL REMAIN OPEN
Our core journalistic and business functions have been able to adjust well to working remotely, but our offices have remained open for those who need to come in to do their jobs. Thus far, a handful of you have come in each week to perform essential tasks and duties. This will continue to be the case—if you need to come into the office, you can, but if you can perform your work remotely, you should.
I recognize that many of us miss the camaraderie and creativity that comes from a group in-person dynamic. There is also the uncomfortable truth that the fundamental elements of living in a pandemic are not likely to change until we achieve herd immunity, or find a vaccine or effective therapeutic treatment for COVID-19. We are smart people. Hope for change is not a winning strategy. The attacks of September 11 changed the way we traveled forever. COVID-19 has changed the way we will work forever. And we are beginning our planning on how to deal with this new normal in the workplace.
In the months ahead, there may be instances where senior leaders and editors need to convene for newsgathering or other editorial purposes. And our leadership team is exploring ways to allow this to happen safely. These instances will be extremely limited in circumstance (for all of the reasons outlined above), would involve only a small number of senior employees, and not impact the rest of you in any way.
No matter what, we will never ask any of our colleagues to put their health at risk, which is why we are taking this approach.
Given the uncertainty and ups and downs of the past four months, I can find no words adequate enough to convey my sincere appreciation for the many ways in which you are working together to produce incredible journalism, serve our readers and clients, and achieve our collective goals. I look forward to the day when we can all come together once again.
Until then, take care of yourselves and each other.