Politico Bets Big on Subscriptions

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Robert Allbritton’s grand scheme for local news, TBD, didn’t last. Oh, the site is still there, but it’s a ghost of the bold concept that challenged WashingtonPost.com at launch, hoping to mimic Allbritton Communications’ success with 24/7 politics site Politico.

The older sibling is still going strong, though — and Allbritton is betting big again that a major election-year expansion will pay off by increasing the value — and the number — of subscribers to expensive Politico Pro.

Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei told the New York Times the site is adding 40 employees in coming months: 20 journalists (reporters and editors) and 20 on the business side. He wants the new staff in place by September.

Based on its staff page, Politico has more than 250 employees; just under 50 already work for Politico Pro.

Politico Pro launched in 2011, joining free Politico.com and the print edition available free in DC and NYC (the NYT says NYC access has expanded but it still sounds like a drop in the bucket) and by subscription. DC is known for being a high-end subscription mecca where people are willing to pay big dollars for specialized knowledge. Or, better put, enough execs and lobbyists are willing to pay to learn more about what’s going in the center of bureaucratic power and what it means for them to make it a serous business for many publications. Getting people to pay small fees on a meaningful scale for local news is considerably harder in some respects than signing up enough four-figure subscribers for those endeavors.

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That doesn’t mean every expensive trade publication makes money or even survives but, if you can nail the formula, it’s lucrative. Politico needs Pro to work for a variety of reasons, including to make up for the slack between major political advertising periods like presidential and mid-term elections or times when issue advertising spikes.

The current focus is on energy, health care, technology and transportation. The expansion will go toward increased coverage of the economy and military, Vanderhei told the NYT. A five-license subscription can run $8,500. The original pricing plan in early 2011 started at $2,500 a year for one coverage area plus $1,000 for each additional one.

The subscriptions include early access to the site’s free newsletters in addition to dozens of stories a day, alerts, special briefings and more.

Is it working? Allbritton and Politico are cagey about revenue numbers. Allbritton once told me it was profitable over any given six months but not always every quarter. That may have changed. Given his ultimately lower-scale approach to local news, the consistent expansion of Politico suggests it’s making money and that further investment is worth it. One gauge will be how many people are still on the payroll this time next year.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.