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May 1, 2017

What Are They Thinking? National Journal Seizes The Day -- and Lets Go of the Weekly


That’s the keyword Atlantic Media uses to explain last week’s decision to pull the plug on the middle-aged (46) National Journal, long an emblem of the knowing D.C. political trade.

“At its core, it’s a loyalty strategy,” says Tim Hartman, C.E.O. of the National Journal Group.

Hartman makes a point of saying that the decision is a “long-term investment strategy” rather than a trimming of print-related costs, as some of the coverage of it emphasized.


First published at Capital New York

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“This is really important. We put audience at the core of our decision-making. What I’ve seen written about this decision so far focused on the media economics and the business decision of it, but it’s also driven by the audience focus….What guides our growth strategy is picking a coherent audience target and then serving them with a portfolio of media products, info services and membership that help them do their jobs for the foreseeable future.

“That’s why you see us always trying to fund investment in mobile, digital, membership, and you see us cut back in areas where audience is gong away or their interest in that platform is declining.”

Clearly, Hartman aims to imbue membership with deep utility and meaning for N.J.’s one thousand paying members, most of whom are businesses that share their “enterprise licenses” among larger workgroups. All totaled, figure that’s about 30,000 individuals falling under the membership umbrella.

Though offering content and information services is key to the strategy, the driving point, he says, is singular and sits above those: membership, which is another way of saying serving audience by changing a publisher’s relationship with it.

“Look at how the world around your audience is changing. Everyone’s world is changing in a dynamic way….What are the things they are going to need to do differently in their era to survive better than anyone else so you are a persistent piece of their media diet,” Hartman said. “For instance, I’m sure that in the lobbying space 15 years ago, people were using research tools like Lexis Nexis and Factiva more. Then they used Google. Now they use ‘Big Data.’ They also have a need to ask a question and get it answered.”

So Hartman’s new strategy is “a mix of data, synthesis and close service to our customers.”

Audience knowledge also allows better ad targeting.

A number of publishers have tiptoed into membership programs, dedicated an F.T.E. or several to the task. At National Journal, sixty-three people now fill out “membership”. What do they do?

Salespeople and marketers lure in the customers. Member service representatives work with members, touching them at least once a month; every member has an ”advisor.” Researchers –drawn from public policy work, not journalism – answer member questions and help them with their business goals.

This isn’t a product business, like so much of journalism. It’s a service business, and can be priced accordingly. Do it right, and over the long-term, clients stay with the service provider.

Membership accounts for 55-59 percent of National Journal’s overall revenues. In that sense, like the New York Times and Financial Times, it’s a crossover business – more dependent on readers than on advertisers.

What does more “tools and services” means?

Expect National Journal to build on such programs as its Presentation Center and Toolbox.

Need a near-instant Powerpoint for one of those (cue Aaron Sorkin music) power meetings? If you are a member, Presentation Center lets you grab “white-label slides and excerpts that you can use for quick reference, third party validation or to make quick work of sharing inside-the-beltway intelligence.”

Each Thursday, Tool Box delivers briefings on major topics – which can be used by members in their own work.

As it prepares both for the election and the cessation of weekly National Journal, the company says it is ramping up such services and adding a “data and graphics center,” also intended to help members produce attractive and authoritative material they can call their own.

Consider the finances in motion. National Journal cuts all its weekly print costs, and some F.T.E.s. It increases its membership services – and doesn’t plan to reduce prices to members. The pitch: You may have lost a weekly magazine, but you’re gaining so much more. In fact, you save staff money, as you outsource some research and report production to us.

This is a big idea and hard to pull off, especially in a crowded and fast-changing marketplace. National Journal, an older Atlantic Media brand that’s gotten less attention than its iconoclastic Quartz business site and its restyled Atlantic (Magazine) namesake, faces the two big problems of the digital age.

First, competition pours in from every corner. In its DC trade category, POLITICO (disclosure, POLITICO owns Capital New York) has changed the face of competition since its founding in 2007 and recent expansions. Further C.Q./RollCall (which merged in 2009) and The Hill all compete for a similar audience of DC influentials (Newsonomics: “Serving Influentials from Singapore to Raleigh to DC”), who live and die by the information they can get.

Second, membership may have its privileges, as Amex long ago told us, but it does require commitment – of both money and time. The money isn’t minor, with subscriptions…I mean memberships… ranging from four figures well into the fives, depending on the size of the subscribing workplaces. Those workplaces range from major lobbyists to smaller firms of policy-oriented lawyers.

Then, there’s the big news trend that has reshaped high-quality journalism. Readers – especially paying readers – want context with their news. “Analysis” used to be a “second day” piece. Most to the point, a print weekly – like 46-year-old National Journal could step back and sum up events, providing context and analysis, in a “think piece.” All those words in quotes now belong in journalism museums, well only one.

With all that context, the news of the print weekly National Journal being retired at year’s end is no surprise. This year, it will print 32 issues, down from 42 recently, so its trajectory was clear. Though Atlantic Media owner David Bradley fell a bit heavy on the sword, multiply acknowledging “failure” in his statement to staff and press, the N.J. strategic move seems to fit our digital times. In some ways, it’s surprising the print N.J. has lasted this long.

The weekly now can claim a circulation of 16,100, down just 200 from 2010. That tells us something about the staying power – and intense loyalty of paying, older print readers. Further, the number reminds us how big a business – National Journal employs 200 overall, including 80 journalists – can be built on serving the news and analysis needs of a small group of influential, hungry-for-content readers. There’s a big lesson in that for everyone from old pubs plotting transition to trade start-ups like Skift, which I profiled last week (“What are they thinking: Rafat Ali’s go-long, go-deep vertical strategy”).

Weekliness in news manages to survive in fewer patches, from The Economist to Time to a still-reorganizing Newsweek. For the most part, though, dailiness and instantaneity, has replaced weekliness. It is the National Journal website that has seen major investment in recent years, with good audience growth. That website offers free-to-the-public articles, but much of the content is premium, available only to members.

Timeliness, then, is more of a driver than even the print-to-digital transformation. Clearly, though, revenue trends have had an impact on the decision. Atlantic Media says that magazine revenue is down year-over-year by 10 percent, but that National Journal daily revenue is up 15 percent, resulting in a 7 percent print increase over 2014. That up number can be deceptive though because odd-numbered, non-election years always produce more advocacy advertising; in election years, politicians make even less pretense of legislating, so advocacy spending is reduced. The point, though, is clear: daily-oriented ad spending triumphs over weekly, just as reading now does.

Consider that National Journal will continue to publish its daily 8 ½ X 11 paper – any day when Congress is in session. Each of those days, the 24-year-old Daily reaches 15,345 readers, 90 percent of them on Capitol Hill. In the smartphone age, it’s a still-useful print accompaniment, chock full of calendars and shorter-form items. In fact, says the company, the daily will receive some new resources, though expect most of the newer emphasis to be digital.

In total, ten to 15 N.J. weekly journalists will lose their positions by the beginning of 2016: some will find new places at Atlantic Media.

How well might the company actually do with the idea of fully embracing membership? Publishers would like to see it set a new example.

As publishers have tried to fill the sinkhole of declining print ad revenues, they’ve turned increasingly to “reader revenue.” That’s meant lots of talk of “paywalls,” essentially turning what had been “information wants to be free” news of early Internet years into paid. In addition, if you buy a print newspaper, odds are you are paying 25 percent or more for it than you were four years ago. Many magazines have also bumped up their pricing.

Then, there’s “membership.” We hear the word tossed about frequently. Wouldn’t it be great to solidify the relationship by turning a reader into a subscriber and then into a member? It sounds so much more intimate. Further, membership would signal L.T.R., and not a quickie transactional relationship.

“Membership” may be widely murmured, but few have yet found models that make a real leap from “subscription.” The New York Times Premier looks to be less than a stellar success. Like many membership programs – though you won’t see the Times embrace the word “membership”, at odds with its arms-length relationship with the world – it promises “insider access.” That program and another once-ambitious one innovated by the Chicago Tribune, Trib Nation, package together lots of nice-to-haves. In the local, civic marketplace, Voice of San Diego (its membership model well explained here) and MinnPost, have done well with membership, now putting it at the center of the their operations. None of these programs, though, have seemingly changed the relationship between publisher and reader. That’s clearly more easily possible, relating to a smaller, tighter-knit group of like-minded influentials than for a wider, more mass audience. Still, the whole notion of service provision here hangs in the air; how can publishers help out – what’s the job to be done – in their readers’ lives and get paid to do it?

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