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From AJR,   March & april 2011  issue

The 40-Year-Old Startup   

Long known and respected for its pricey, in-depth analysis of government policy, National Journal retools for the Internet era. Posted: Fri, Feb. 25, 2011


By Jessica Deahl
Jessica Deahl (jessica.l.deahl@gmail.com) is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.      

For more than 40 years, National Journal has been a leading player in the Washington information game, acquiring a reputation for being comprehensive, objective and serious. But as the Internet revolutionized journalism and edgier, livelier new competitors entered the market, the weekly National Journal magazine -- which fetches $2,100 for an annual subscription -- looked increasingly stodgy and academic by comparison.

Four years ago, circulation started to recede and, with it, the influence of the products under the National Journal umbrella -- the magazine, daily newsletter and the political tipsheet Hotline -- began to wane.

"People kind of treated them, especially the magazine, more as a reference tool than as a living, breathing, organic kind of publication," says National Journal Editorial Director Ron Brownstein. "People would bring it home and say, 'When I need to read 4,000 words about CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards, I know right where I'm going. And when that day comes, I am taking it off the nightstand.' "

In late 2007 circulation stood at 12,360 -- and over the next three years the magazine lost almost 10 percent of its readers. Concerns began to mount over subscriptions, advertising and revenue in general.

"From my point of view, from the editorial side, they were all components of the same problem, which was the sense that National Journal had been, in effect, losing mindshare," Brownstein says.

While readership of National Journal sagged, upstart Politico was staking out a position at the other end of the spectrum. It debuted in January 2007 with a free print product and a bold online presence. It delivered essential policy play-by-plays, peppered with inside-the-Beltway gossip and political celebrity news. It quickly became an essential read for Capitol Hill staffers and Washington power players.

It became clear to David Bradley, head of Atlantic Media Company, National Journal's parent, that it was time for a major overhaul. The result was a redesign and a rebranding, a much more aggressive Web presence and a tectonic staffing shift. The magazine offered buyouts to the entire staff and recruited a platoon of star Washington journalists to join the roster. Today, of the newsroom's roughly 100 staff members -- about 10 more than before the transformation -- nearly half arrived during the last year.

"We turned over the senior staff, in particular, almost completely and brought in, I think, the highest powered talent on balance this place has ever had," says Brownstein, who for many years was a high-profile national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Michael Hirsh, previously senior editor and national economics correspondent at Newsweek, was brought on to be National Journal's chief correspondent. Major Garrett was persuaded to leave his position as Fox News' chief White House reporter -- and abandon a brand new front row seat in the White House press briefing room -- to cover Congress. And, in a move that perhaps signaled more than anything else Bradley's desire to make National Journal quicker and more agile, Ron Fournier was hired last summer from the Associated Press -- where he had spent 20 years, most recently as Washington bureau chief -- to become National Journal's new editor-in-chief.

The new team's newsroom can be found on a high floor of the Watergate complex, overlooking the Potomac River and a mile from the National Mall, the center of the federal government. Though the offices are modern, much of the building below feels as if it's a time capsule from the Nixon era. Memories of Woodward, Bernstein and one of the greatest stories in journalism history linger in the unrenovated complex. It's no doubt an appropriate location for a political news outfit.

The revamped National Journal magazine debuted October 23. In the months since, the magazine's withering circulation numbers have turned around. Circulation had jumped to 15,000 by late January, according to National Journal Group Communications Director Taylor West.

The average article length today is far shorter than what could be found in the magazine's earlier incarnations. Gone are the days when National Journal reporters could go off into what Brownstein calls "monk-like" seclusion for weeks at a time to work on one monster piece. The magazine still runs long-form articles, but fewer of them, and reporters are expected to write them in tandem with contributions to other parts of the magazine, like the new "Need To Know" section, made up of a dozen one- to two-page analyses on core policy subjects like energy, defense and the budget.

Reporters are also expected to contribute regularly to the new Web site. The relaunch ushered in a quantum leap in the amount of free content on NationalJournal.com. Before the overhaul, three or four pieces would be posted each day on the free site. Today there are nearly 100 new items a day, many written exclusively for the Web. Brownstein estimates that roughly a quarter of National Journal's overall output is available for free online to anyone who wants to look at it.

Garrett says the makeover is widely seen as the direct result of outside competition. "Everyone at National Journal understands that part of this reinvention is to respond to Politico," he says. "Politico has achieved phenomenal things, great things. And much of what we aspire to is to be that source of immediate political, congressional, presidential, lobbying news across the country. So we're trying to swim in that pool -- and we're making our way."

That is not to say National Journal is trying to become Politico. For one thing, it can cost more than $13,000 for an annual subscription to National Journal's three main products, although many customers can negotiate a discount. Until very recently, all of Politico's content was free. National Journal is not going out of the deep-dig business, hardly the stock in trade of Politico's free print daily and Web site.

But, owner Bradley says, Politico's success was the wake-up call he needed to see the demand among Capitol Hill readers for speed and brevity. As Editor-in-Chief Fournier puts it, National Journal's new mission is providing news coverage at "multiple altitudes" -- from the quick hit to the drill-down analyses at the end of the week.

To illustrate National Journal's new approach, Garrett points to coverage of the January 8 shooting rampage in Tucson, in which six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others were injured. The National Journal staff generated 26 articles on the subject in the week following the attack, not counting breaking news reports. All were made available for free on NationalJournal.com.

The day of the shooting, a Saturday, National Journal produced a comprehensive piece on the unfolding drama by reporter Jim O'Sullivan, with reaction from Rep. Michele Bachmann, Sen. John McCain, House Speaker John Boehner and others. That was quickly followed by a piece by Matthew Cooper on the history of violent political attacks and a report on the vulnerability of members of Congress by Yochi Dreazen and Marc Ambinder.

The coverage continued, culminating in a long-form cover story by Hirsh in the weekly print magazine delivered on Friday, exploring why political violence erupts in times of political division. This too was made available for free online.

"If you look at the Tucson shooting and ask yourself about the biology of the National Journal and ask yourself: Would the old National Journal have turned out anything for its Web site on that weekend? The answer I believe is no," Garrett says. "I've talked to people who were there at the old National Journal, and they have said, 'No, we wouldn't have seen ourselves playing that role.' "

In a comparison that underscores Garrett's point, when the April 20 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered one of the largest oil spills in history, National Journal didn't publish anything on the subject for about a month, according to Brownstein.

The Tucson shooting, Garrett says, "was the first enormous test of this concept of a 24/7 newsroom, in a place where that concept never existed." And it was a test that those at the top of the National Journal masthead feel they passed with flying colors. Brownstein speaks with pride about his staff "springing to action" to cover breaking news as well as providing deeper analysis.

"The large teaching from Politico, I believe, is the advantage that comes from breaking news," Bradley says. But, he adds, "I don't think breaking news alone would be enough for the National Journal."

With the greatly expanded mandate, editors are now paying extra attention to the rhythm of their current and prospective readers, thinking about the kinds of stories they want -- and when they want them. After all, what a congressional staffer needs when he arrives at work in the morning is different from what he'll want while he's scanning headlines over lunch, and different still from what he'll gravitate to on a Saturday afternoon, when he has a chance to kick back.

The editors make it clear that the deeper, longer-form coverage isn't going away. Fournier and Brownstein say they are just being smarter about where they dedicate their resources and thinking more critically about which subjects need deeper analysis and which can be handled with a quick hit.

And, they add, their online readers do have an appetite for meatier pieces. The most-viewed item on NationalJournal.com in late January was a 4,000-word piece on white flight from the Democratic Party, which originated in the print magazine and was made available for free online.

"The conceit that long-form journalism doesn't have a future on the Web is BS," Fournier says, "We're proving it's wrong."

But whether it's long-form, short-form or multimedia, National Journal is lightening up a bit.

Following the state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao in January, NationalJournal.com ran a multimedia feature with photos of the black tie- and designer gown-clad guests, paired with explanations of who they are and why they were invited. The feature -- and others like it -- is not quite akin to The Huffington Post's "Sexiest Senators: Who's The Hottest on The Hill" slideshow, but it is something of a hybrid between the brain candy Hill staffers like to read and the educational content National Journal has long provided. And it points to the space that the latest manifestation of National Journal hopes to occupy -- deeper than the D.C. news-of-the-day and gossip sites, but more accessible than the old National Journal.

When carving out its niche, Fournier says the magazine must focus primarily on how to best serve its base. "The first thing we want to do is make sure that we solidify the current audience -- the folks who have been subscribing to us for years out of habit, but have been letting us sit outside their congressional office. Or have been taking us home and they're piling up on the nightstand," he says. "We've got to make sure that we're not just a nice read, but we're a must read."

Brownstein says he would like to see National Journal be to politics what The Economist is to the financial world. "If you're sitting in the first-class Lufthansa lounge in Zurich, and you read the thing from cover to cover, when you get off your plane, whether you're going to Boston or Berlin or Beijing or Buenos Aires, you will be equipped to be reasonably intelligent at a dinner with smart people, and we want to do that in the Washington context," he says.

But while Brownstein wants National Journal to be an essential read, he doesn't delude himself into thinking it will ever be the only read. "We understand that this is a very crowded media world and no publication has a monogamous relationship with their readers," he says. In the case of The Economist, for example, "They very much assume you've been reading the FT [Financial Times], the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but you get to the end of the week and you still want to know how it looks through their filter -- that's what we're working toward."

D.C. political insiders are also consuming the Washington Post, The Hill, CQ Roll Call and Politico, among others. But Brownstein's pitch to these readers is that if they add National Journal to their list and sit down with the weekly magazine for a few hours on Saturday, "whether you're going to [Rep.] Eric Cantor's Sunday brunch or just into work Monday as a chief-of-staff in the Senate, you are armed to be part of the national conversation."

When asked what audiences he hopes to reach, Garrett doesn't hold back. "Everyone on Capitol Hill," he responds. "I want every chief-of-staff to read what I write... I want every significant official in every government agency, every bureaucracy to pay attention...and to consider NationalJournal.com, the Web site, to be the go-to source for things that are directly related to what they do either in government, in law or in lobbying."

This group makes up what Brownstein calls "the most sophisticated information consumers probably in the world." Setting the agenda for these readers -- those in Washington's "decision-making class" -- means setting the agenda for the country, and in some ways, the world. But these high-caliber, high-powered readers have long been National Journal's target audience. With the relaunch, the editors also have their collective eye on a new demographic. "That might be a 17- or 18-year-old self-described nerdy kid who might be on C-SPAN a little bit and might think that they might do something that could help change the country some day," Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Digital Editor David Beard says.

The spike in free content means National Journal now has a shot of building a reputation outside the Beltway, among geeky teenagers and political junkies alike, wherever they may be. Garrett says he would like National Journal to become engrained deeply enough in the national consciousness that "people say to themselves, 'Hey, I have six Web sites I'm going to check before I go to work, because I'm a political junkie living in Seattle or Bismarck or St. Louis or Atlanta. Well I'll go X, Y, Z -- and National Journal... That's one of the things I hope I can help the publication achieve over time."

While these outside-the-Beltway news consumers are unlikely to sign up for a $2,100 annual subscription, they will still benefit the company from a financial standpoint by augmenting the audience for online advertising. And, more important to the editors, the more widely the name "National Journal" circulates, the stronger a player it becomes.

The content pushed out for free on the Web site tends to be breaking news, and much of it is Web-exclusive material. But if a magazine article comes across the editors' desks that they feel has the potential to influence the national conversation in a big way, they'll put that online for free as well.

There is also an effort to get National Journal writers on to cable television news programs more often to gin up awareness of the magazine around the country. A new camera installed in the newsroom to facilitate TV appearances has already been used to help get the magazine's writers on shows like MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews."'

The question now is: Can National Journal successfully serve a specialist and generalist audience, simultaneously? This is a difficult task -- but it's been done before. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik cites Bloomberg as an example of a news outfit that has succeeded in doing both in the financial journalism arena. (See "The Bloomberg Juggernaut," page 20.)

"The reason [Bloomberg] can afford so many hundreds and hundreds of reporters and writers," Folkenflik says, " is that they have this proprietary service," which covers business developments through a system purchased by companies willing to pay thousands of dollars a year for an array of analytical tools to look at financial data. Of the mountains of news Bloomberg generates, a good portion can be consumed for free on TV, the Web or mobile devices.

The two sides of Bloomberg feed each other. The subscription side provides revenue and allows the company to maintain a robust army of reporters. Meanwhile, the exposure it gets in mainstream news-consuming world is essentially advertising for the Bloomberg brand, which in turn fuels more subscriptions.

As for whether National Journal can make it in the same way, Slate media critic Jack Shafer says, "We never know how much demand will be created by the supply of something new and novel." He alludes to the challenge Politico faced when it launched in 2007: "I think lots of people would have said, 'seems too wonky, seems too up-to-the-minute, there aren't that many hard-core consumers of political coverage.' " But as Politico learned, there is a hunger in Washington, and around the nation, for detailed, nitty gritty coverage of political and policy developments.

And, Folkenflik adds, "On the whole, it's a bad idea to bet against David Bradley. He's an exceptionally smart guy, very serious and an embracer of exceptionally talented folks." Folkenflik says Bradley's work nurturing The Atlantic magazine to profitability after he bought it in 1999 is an indication that the man has vision and a good read on market demand.

"It doesn't seem to me as though he's one of these guys who says, 'I'm seeking to knock out somebody else,' " Folkenflik says. "It seems to me that he says, 'There's room for me, and for us, here.' "

With all of the changes National Journal has undergone in the last several months, Bradley says, "the newsroom feels unencumbered, energetic and optimistic." And, he points out, "these are not the signature qualities of newsrooms today."

Beard, who recently came to National Journal from the Boston Globe, where he was the editor of Boston.com, echoed this sentiment. "Many times, in more established sites there was this feeling of nimbocumulus clouds. No matter what you did, it was always going to be a cloudy day. There was this deep morosity, [with people feeling], 'It's not the way papers were. Not the way magazines were.' " Then, with a smile, Beard gestures toward the clear, cloudless sky outside his office window. "Here I've got a little blue."

Despite the magazine's four-decade history, Garrett refers to it as "a startup," and a place where risks are welcomed. "That was enormously appealing to me," he says. "I've never been happier or more fulfilled in my professional career than I am now."

The newsroom cohesion and energy will serve the team well as it faces future challenges. Politico, the young upstart that in large part spurred National Journal's facelift, is now positioning itself as a competitor in the subscriber market, over which National Journal has reigned for so long.

In February, Politico launched Politico Pro, which covers policy developments in energy, technology and health care reform. The digital service costs $2,495 annually for a single subscriber to a single policy area, and $1,000 for each additional policy area or subscriber on the same license.

Within the span of a year, National Journal will have moved into Politico's free arena, and Politico will have moved into National Journal's paid arena. Garrett says both outfits should consider the other's move flattering: "National Journal's reinvention is the best compliment anyone has ever paid to Politico..[and] in their own way, by moving into the vertical world of subscriber-based information, Politico is paying National Journal a compliment. And we'll see if both can coexist. My sense is both can."

Asked if he thinks there is room for both, Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris says, "I'm not really worried about the size of the market or the size of the pie... I really believe that our success is going to be determined internally: Are we producing the goods? Is our journalism succeeding? And if it is, we're going to be producing content that people will not just pay for, but gladly pay for -- they'll consider it a bargain."

In the coming year and beyond, it will become apparent whether there is enough demand to sustain the two high-end subscription services. But Garrett is optimistic. "I think the ultimate winners will be subscribers and free content consumers. And it's an exciting time, at least within Washington, because you are seeing not a contraction, but an aggressive expansion of coverage that moves beyond traditional boundaries."