News publishers see subscription dollars in local politics

Who says politics doesn’t pay?

Those looking for ways to drum up consumer revenue might look at several news publishers’ efforts to build subscription products around politics. Since it first launched local state coverage in 2014, Politico Pro has expanded its head count there from 20 staffers to almost 50; this past August, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched Politically Georgia, a subscription newsletter and paywalled content offering focused on state elections, local economic news, health care and immigration, plus content licensed from PolitiFact and a legislation tracking tool that follows bills through Georgia’s state congress.

These join more long-standing efforts, including The Texas Tribune’s The Blast newsletter, which launched in 2016, and NC Insider, a newsletter run by the McClatchy-owned News & Observer.

By aiming squarely at lobbyists and local business leaders, these products deliver a loyal audience that’s willing to spend big bucks for a product of sufficient quality.

“Newspapers are uniquely positioned to go deep on politics,” said Robbie Kellman Baxter, the founder of Peninsula Strategies, a firm that advises publishers on consumer revenue strategies. “They need to understand that what’s driving purchase is really different.”

Politically Georgia stands out from this pack for charging a consumer-friendly price, while most other products’ prices are much higher. The Blast, for example, costs either $40 per month or $349 per year. Subscriptions to NC Insider start at $1,169 per year, with additional subscriptions running $399 per person. It also has a legislation tracking tool that starts at $1,800 per year and costs an additional $300 per person per year. Politico Pro subscriptions can cost five or even six figures when they are sold at an enterprise level.

Unlike a subscription product focused on consumer-focused topics like sports that can be targeted at people using Facebook, site personalization or a newspaper’s existing subscriber base, most paid politics offerings are marketed in different ways.

NC Insider, for example, still gets most of its subscribers by reaching out directly to local lobbyists, businesses, law firms and politicians. “We may have one out of 100 consumers interested in this level of detail,” said Annie Alexander, vp of strategic sales and partnerships at The News & Observer. “We treat this more like a trade product.”

For that reason, along with smaller reader totals, advertising is typically not a major ingredient in these products. Politico Pro, for example, is ad-free, and though NC Insider is “noodling around” with the idea of adding native advertising to its newsletters, it has not committed to adding any.

It may not make economic sense to cover every state capitol this way. When Politico decides to pursue subscription-level coverage of a state, it looks at factors such as the size of the state’s economy and the nature of its governance. For example, a state like North Dakota, which has biennial sessions, will be a less promising candidate because it lacks the round-the-clock activity that might compel someone to subscribe. Politico has not added new state-level Pro coverage since 2015.

But the focus on a specialized audience can also engender loyalty. NC Insider noted that a majority of its accounts are institutional, rather than individual, giving it greater stability year in and year out: Politico boasts that the renewal rate for its Pro product, which accounts for 50 percent of the company’s revenue overall, is 90 percent, but for the state coverage it’s even higher, at 91 percent.

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