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Politico Pro is a lesson in the benefits of a laser-focused paywall

Aug 10, 2015

The days of free-for-all media content are largely past us now, as growing numbers of media outlets implement paywalls and subscription models. But most of these models aren't generating much in the way of revenue, for a variety of reasons, except for a few well-known media entities such as the New York Times. There are some notable exceptions, however, and Politico is one of them.

The political news venture has been through some difficult times recently, as the Columbia Journalism Review points out in a recent piece, including the sudden departure of a managing editor and an executive editor, as well as the loss of a number of senior writers. The company is also trying to expand into Europe, but it's not clear how well that effort is going.

That said, however, the outlet's four-year-old subscription product, Politico Pro, seems to be doing extremely well, at least according to the numbers that the company's chief revenue officer Roy Schwartz gave to the CJR. The service -- which provides both breaking news alerts and in-depth reporting on topics such as technology, health care and energy for an annual fee that starts at $8,000 -- has more than 1,800 subscribers. That's about 20% more than it had last year.

Can Politico Pro really be seen as a success with fewer than 2,000 subscribers? After all, the New York Times just passed the one million digital subscriber mark (although that doesn't mean as much as it might appear at first, as I tried to point out in a recent post), and even political blogger Andrew Sullivan was able to rack up more than 30,000 subscribers for his Daily Dish site when it was still operating.

The short answer is yes, it can be seen as a success, because of the kinds of subscription fees the service is generating. The New York Times charges between $180 and $450 a year for its paywall, but Politico Pro subscribers pay anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000 (energy-related subscription service E&E Publishing takes a similar approach).

In case you don't feel like doing the math, that can work out to a substantial sum. Using just the lowest end of the range that Politico provided -- 1,800 accounts paying $10,000 each -- comes to $18 million dollars in revenue. Many small newspapers and magazines would give anything to generate that from a paywall. And if we assume that the average subscriber is paying somewhere between $10,000 and $300,000 then revenue could be anywhere from $50 million to $150 million.

Those aren't the only numbers worth noting. The other one that stands out is the renewal rate, which according to Politico is around 93%. That's an almost unheard of level of loyalty for a media product. Most paywalls have huge "churn" rates, as the industry describes it, with vast numbers of people canceling their subscriptions every month. A 90%+ renewal rate is massive.

So why does Politico's model work so well? Because it is a highly targeted offering that is aimed at a relatively tiny market -- primarily government workers and lobbyists and analysts who focus on those issues -- but it serves that market extremely well. And as a result, those readers are willing to pay a hefty sum for that information, because it adds enough value to make it worthwhile.

When it comes to paywalls or subscription models, there's a spectrum that extends from the typical newspaper-style approach -- that is, a broad range of content aimed at a wide variety of readers -- all the way to the Bloomberg model, in which a small group of interested parties (in Bloomberg's case, financial traders and analysts) pays a relatively huge sum for access to the information they need.

Politico seems to have managed to carve out a market that is closer to the Bloomberg end than the newspaper end, an approach that is also used to some extent by places like The Economist and the Financial Times, and even newer media outlets like The Information.

Building a service with that kind of laser-targeted focus is a lot harder than launching a one-size-fits-all paywall around your commodity product, but ultimately it can be much more rewarding -- and the depth of the relationship that you build with your subscribers by doing so can lead to even more monetization possibilities, such as live events (which Politico also does).

Even the most mass-market publication probably has niches that could probably be useful for targeted newsletter-style publications or subscription models, whether it's financial products or sports content or analytical insight in a variety of areas. Why have so few tried to build their own Politicos?

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