New and Old Political Media Are Battling for Dominance in the Century’s Wildest Election

The Hill, Politico and the new power elite

There may be no group more hungry for information—and more desperate for news and gossip—than those who populate the halls of power in Washington, D.C. From congressional staffers to K Street lobbyists, the nation's capital—like Wall Street—feeds on immediate access to the most up-to-the-minute content.

If the Bloomberg terminal provides Wall Street with access to billions of bits of market data every day, it's the small ecosystem of news organizations based out of D.C. that do the same for the universe of policy and politics. Publications and websites push out a steady stream of legislative minutiae and insider dirt to a core of political professionals, then sell access to this elite group to brands also eager to whisper in the ears of the powerful. And given the circus that is this year's presidential election, that access may be more in demand than ever.

"We have our audience in our name," says Peter Cherukuri, Politico's evp, advertising and business development. "The origin of Politico is rooted in disrupting a fairly mature group of publications covering Capitol Hill and the Washington influencer market."

Those "mature" publications, including The Washington Post and The Hill, and younger, digital-first rivals like Politico are in the midst of not just the wildest and most outrageous presidential election cycle in decades ("We are witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime election cycle," says Cherukuri) but also a fight for dominance and their survival, as sweeping change roils their newsrooms.

D.C.'s political news players have been fundamentally reshaped by the changes in how we consume media. Where once a legislator might look to the morning's copy of the Post for a briefing on who's up and who's down, today it comes in a tweet, a story shared on Facebook or an alert pushed to their iPhone.

The new reality is best reflected in the rise of Donald Trump, whose campaign has largely ignored the traditional tools of campaigning and worked miracles with earned media—and Twitter, of course. "This campaign is defined by those who have been able to control the online conversation," notes Brian Donahue, founder and CEO of the political branding firm Craft. "A large part of what we do is not just selling our clients on the importance of advertising in a diverse mix of sites and platforms but also educating them on how influencers are consuming information."

The greatest shift in how D.C. politics is covered came a decade ago with the arrival of Politico. "We created one of the most respected and feared brands in journalism," says Jim VandeHei, co-founder and executive editor of Politico, who announced in January he plans to leave the site at the end of this year. "I came in just as the Barack Obama phenomenon exploded in 2006 and plan to depart just after his successor is picked and his presidency concludes," VandeHei, the onetime White House correspondent for the Post, wrote in a memo announcing his exit and that of three top executives, most significantly Mike Allen, who pens the ultimate briefing for D.C. insiders, the Playbook.

A simply designed newsletter that's been described as "what the White House wakes up to," Playbook is both old school—with its birthday shoutouts and baby announcements—and very modern. Like Politico's subscriber-based Politico Pro, Playbook is a money machine. "They are not cheap," notes Craft's Donahue. "But they tout a high-level D.C. audience that reads them religiously."

That select audience is key. "Knowledge is power" here, says Donahue. "The news outlets distributing information that others don't have will always be the go-to's."

For Jimmy Finkelstein, owner of Politico rival The Hill, one of the most promising metrics for his business isn't just traffic, but social traffic.

"We are one of the top 20 publishers on Facebook," he points out. "People are getting their news a hundred different ways—direct, social media, linking. You have to be in all of those places to reach the political thinkers in government."

As Newsonomics author Ken Doctor writes, "Instantaneity has replaced weekliness." That's true for both the newsroom and the sales department, he says, explaining, "Daily-oriented ad spending triumphs over weekly, just as reading now does."

"It used to be the gaggle that followed the campaigns and reports on the nightly news were leading the conversation," adds Donahue. "Now, it's those [journalists] reporting in real time on Twitter and other platforms. Minute by minute, they are dominating how people perceive the candidates and the information they are getting from the trail."

The change is underscored via the surging traffic to digital sites—and the steep decline for some but not all of Washington's traditional publications.

The Washington Post—under the leadership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper in August 2013 for $250 million—has upgraded its technology with an eye toward growing digital traffic, as it has focused on the kind of reporting that gets clicks and shares. The Post hit an all-time high in Web traffic this past December, with 76 million monthly digital users digesting 701 million pageviews—making its following not just greater than that of its fellow legacy players but also BuzzFeed.

The Hill, a newspaper founded in the 1990s, is also setting records as it moves almost entirely away from print. According to SimilarWeb, an online analytics company, The Hill had the largest year-over-year increase in digital traffic (more than 72 percent) among all U.S. publishers through November of last year. The growth was strongest in mobile (up 221 percent), with desktop also up (179 percent).

"We basically have an online business that is growing by leaps and bounds," says Finkelstein. "We intend to be the biggest and to grow the fastest."

Finkelstein says he hopes to fuel The Hill's record growth by boosting staff by more than 25 percent this year, with a focus on video production and content beyond the site's core concentration on politics and policy. The company has budgeted to grow Web traffic by 100 percent this year, but Finkelstein says it's on pace to break 200 percent—growth that will no doubt prove irresistible to advertisers. "You can't reach our audience in any other way—we are the game," Finkelstein says. "Whether you're interested in policy or politics, we're the place."

The 2016 presidential campaign has been a major driver of this surge in traffic, naturally. Trump's candidacy has pushed television ratings to record highs, and his daily bombast on the campaign trail is just the kind of content that fits neatly—and repeatedly—into the digital and social streams.

Political content traditionally enjoys a greater following in an election year—and Trump has only accelerated that. "This is true across all media platforms and is certainly of no surprise as we examine the 2015 data," says David March, chief revenue officer of Erdos & Morgan, a New York research firm that produces an annual study of how influencers consume media.

Defining influencers as "the most valuable audience for any media brand," its report from last year noted a boost for leading D.C. media outlets, including Politico, The Hill, The Washington Post and Roll Call.

That said, Roll Call, which has roots on Capitol Hill dating to the 1950s, has suffered a series of setbacks—both inside its newsroom and in terms of Web traffic. Visits to Roll Call's website fell 47 percent in January compared to the same period a year ago. And like Politico, Roll Call is in a period of transition in regard to personnel; its new editor Melinda Henneberger was poached from Bloomberg's D.C. bureau following a series of high-profile newsroom defections.

Another longtime insider publication, National Journal, established in 1969, has struggled to find its way in the new media ad landscape. For the 2016 campaign, National Journal has opted to focus exclusively on a subscriber model—shutting down its weekly magazine last December (it still puts out a daily publication) and making its site subscriber-only.

Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley, who purchased National Journal in 1997, described the end of the magazine as a defeat. "In the long run, I don't think a weekly print magazine can thrive," he says. "Still, had I not failed for a time in my role, I think National Journal might have prospered longer." Bradley admits the new model has its risks: "In foregoing a general audience, we will forego the advertising support that came with it."

The change led to the reported loss of about 25 percent of the National Journal staff, though some moved over to sibling publication The Atlantic, which announced it would focus more intently on its coverage of Washington.

And there's certainly real money to be made covering Washington. The pool of politically themed ad revenue runs in the tens of millions of dollars. That said, as The Post's own Erik Wemple put it in a recent column, the arrival of Politico and the websites that "barged in on the party" a decade ago transformed "the honey pot … into a collection of teaspoons."

It's more challenging than ever on the business side, to be sure. But for those who reach the insiders, there's an appetite for information that's not going away, especially in this election cycle. "The increasing use of blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media related to politics are also vying for the finite amount of time opinion leaders have for the consumption of political media," says Erdos & Morgan's March. "The data indicates a strong growth of utilization for politically oriented media that should continue as the election approaches."

At Politico, the first voting of the 2016 election saw the debut of a new product called "stadium moments" where the top of the site—on desktop and mobile—is devoted to the main event: a countdown clock to polls closing, access to vote counts and exit poll data, and a collection of the site's latest reporting on the campaign.

"The concept of a digital stadium is designed to harness the energy surrounding the biggest political moments of the year by providing an online platform for readers to gather and engage, feeling a part of something bigger than just an ordinary news day," says Politico's Cherukuri. "Plus, over time, we hope to fully establish that political moments have the same convening power for brands and marketers that sports moments such as the Super Bowl are perceived to present."

So far, thanks to the wildly unpredictable nature of this campaign season, the stadium has had no trouble attracting a crowd. On Super Tuesday, Politico had more than 3 million unique visitors, more than three times what it had on Super Tuesday 2012, and the site's biggest day since the 2014 elections. Politico had 22 million unique visitors in February, the second highest in its history. Says Cherukuri: "These numbers validate our belief that a large and influential audience gravitates to our coverage during the biggest political moments of the biggest election cycle in memory."

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.