Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe
Kate Day: I’m Kate Day, I’m Politico’s Executive Editor in the UK. And I’ve been at Politico since 2015 when Politico teamed up with Axel Springer to launch a version of Politico in Europe. And initially, I spent a lot of time travelling between London and Brussels on the Eurostar.
And then gradually, we’ve launched Politico in the UK, back in 2017, with the London Playbook and with a Brexit subscription product, which I run both of those. And now we’re on the point of expanding into the UK.
So I’m spending less time on the Eurostar and more time in London.
Chris: How are you finding that, less time looking out at the nice scenery I suppose, but actually more time to get work done?
Yeah, the travel has its own challenges and it’s actually been a fantastically interesting period to be travelling because of Brexit. So I was seeing the negotiations at both ends of the Eurostar regularly, which I think has been very helpful and very interesting. But of course, it’s nice to spend more time at home as well.
Absolutely. You mentioned that in terms of the travel as well, but just in terms of when you joined and everything that’s happened since then, it must have been a boom time for Politico just in terms of everything that we’re covering and what they could launch.
It was. Well, interestingly, when I first decided to join, I remember telling a few colleagues and friends in the media that I was interested in this startup that was going to cover European politics. And a few people sort of raised half an eyebrow and said, ‘Really? Is that that we want to spend your time doing, is European politics that interesting?’ And I said, ‘I think it might be about to get really interesting’.
And I had no idea just how true that was going to prove to be, the week I landed in Brussels, two things happened. One, David Cameron came across to kick off his renegotiation with Donald Tusk on Britain’s relationship with Europe. So that was the very same week I joined the company.
And then the second thing was the Paris attacks were the end of that week. So I came back after my first week in Brussels, came back to London for the weekend and the Paris attacks struck. So news got incredibly busy and covering European politics and policy has been fascinating!
I mean, 0 to 60 in terms of how people must think about what you cover, because as you mentioned, from something that people thought might not be a particularly active beat to suddenly it’s at the centre of everything that’s happening politically in the UK.
Yes, absolutely. And that’s been one of the key advantages, I think, for Politico. We felt as we started covering politics, initially based in Brussels, the ambition was always to do something pan European, so not just to cover Brussels.
But then with the Brexit referendum, and with the result, of course, we saw traffic and interest in the UK explode, and suddenly it felt as though what we were covering in Brussels was central to people’s lives in the UK in a way that it really hadn’t felt before.
Yeah, absolutely. And so was that really the main cause behind turning your eyes to a more UK-centric expansion? Or was that something that had always been on the cards?
I think it had always been on the cards in some way, though, when I joined, there wasn’t a very clear vision as to how that would pan out. But then the Brexit referendum and that process and campaign and obviously the result itself accelerated our thinking.
Suddenly, we had an audience and a huge audience that was really interested, we felt as though by being a nonpartisan news provider with a huge amount of policy expertise in Brussels, particularly, we were offering something very distinct compared to the UK national media market. And it felt like we would be silly not to use that advantage in order to accelerate our growth plans.
So yeah, it definitely sped things up. I would say,
Actually, just before we get into…because you said some things that I really want to touch on, in fact, what form is the expansion taking? What’s this new team in London going to look like? Or rather, what’s the new publishing strategy going to look like?
So really, the plan is to build on our strengths. We’ve had two key products that have led a lot of the coverage in the UK so far.
One is our Brexit coverage. So our Westminster coverage is really focused around Brexit and of course, that pairs up very closely with reporters in Brussels and indeed in other national capitals, Berlin and Paris, and so on. So our Brexit coverage has been very strong.
And our other key strength in the UK is London Playbook, our morning newsletter. So building on those two components of what we do, we want to both expand the policy coverage, some of which is behind a paywall, and also build out our free coverage of Westminster. So we’ll be looking at new policy areas to complement what we already cover with Brexit.
And then also look to launch some new free products, which cover Westminster more broadly, but from a national point of view, if you like. So digging very much into Westminster coverage for an audience in Westminster, as opposed to covering UK politics for a global audience.
See, I mean, it sounds like a tremendous amount of work, but at the same time, launching new products like that is always, we find one of the most fun parts of doing anything like this, particularly when it is around a topic that’s so vital to people’s lives.
It’s great fun, I’m not going to lie, that pleasure of coming up with ideas and really relatively quickly, is one of the joys of being at a startup. Something you sketch out on the back of an envelope, often quite literally with a few other very smart people turns into a real product fast and that’s very exciting.
It can also be terrifying. I remember launching London Playbook was very exciting until about six weeks before we went live, and suddenly it’s concrete, and all sorts of people were telling me there were too many newsletters in British politics, it was never going to work. I was embarking on something crazy, and I had just hired Jack Blanchard from The Mirror, tempted him away from a very good job, and I thought, my goodness, what have I done?! This could go very, very wrong very quickly.
And thankfully, it didn’t at all. But it has its moments of being terrifying. But it’s also hugely exhilarating.
Well, in fact you’ve touched upon the next question, I’m going to ask a couple of times so far in your answers. Trust in news outlets at the moment does seem to be at a premium. I spoke to Newsworks and then Nick Newman from the Reuters Institute for the Study of journalism the other day, and they had a little bit of contrasting opinions on what trust in the media actually looks like now. But how is Politico then rising above that noise? How is it rising above that partisanship and convincing audiences to really trust its editorial?
Yeah, it’s a very good point, and it’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Because particularly for all our media, when you’re coming in as a startup, this feels particularly key. And if you’re not trusted, then you haven’t got anything, right? And we’re coming in with no reputation, initially, I was ringing people up and explaining every time I made a phone call, what Politico was, what we covered, what we were interested in, that I was a journalist.
There’s an awful lot of kind of basic understanding of a news brand that if you’re starting without it, you have to work from the bottom up and really build that trust. So we spend a lot of time thinking about it.
I think one of the keys, from my point of view, and particularly leading Politico in the UK is that we’re nonpartisan. So unlike so much of the media here, we sit squarely in the middle, and actually, again, the policy coverage means that’s vital for us, because most of our subscribers are using our journalism to make decisions about their job. And therefore, if there was any suggestion that we had a bias or a worldview that somehow influenced the coverage, it would immediately be less valuable to them, and therefore our model wouldn’t work.
So it’s absolutely key that we give every side a fair hearing, raise difficult and sceptical questions of everyone, but treat everyone fairly and really hit stories straight as opposed to coming in with an agenda. And that is something we’ve worked very, very hard to establish.
It goes all the way down to things like how you describe your sources for a story. We try as much as possible to give readers as much detail as we can. We do, of course, speak to some people who would prefer not to be identified, and they often have very valuable information that we think it is worth reporting and worth sharing with readers, but we try and describe who those people are in as much detail as possible so that readers can make an assessment about how to treat that information.
So right down to individual descriptions of sources, it’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about and working on as we’re producing stories and editing.
So it’s really at the heart of the editorial process is making sure that you’re as transparent as possible and that you’re providing the audience with enough information to make up their own minds, you’re not necessarily even trying to put across a particular point of view?
Absolutely. And because we know we have very smart, professional readers, we expect them to know probably more than we do, certainly as much as we do and about their specialist areas, they’ll know more than we do. So we very much treat them straight and explain to them, this is something we know for sure, this is something maybe we don’t know, and we try and be very clear about that in our reporting.
Also down to, for example providing original documents. So a lot of our subscription service, one of the most valuable things we hear from readers a lot is they love getting original source material. So sometimes we will write about a new policy by explaining what we think the policy means and talking to people about what it means. But sometimes we would just provide our readers with that source material directly themselves. And they find that very valuable. I think that also helps build trust.
Yeah, certainly. And who is it then that you see as being your target audience, you mentioned it’s the fact that they’re decision makers, but who then are you speaking to on a daily basis?
So our target readers, I guess, we think about as a sort of community, and they’re mostly people who work in politics, have some kind of professional stake in politics. That might be because they work in government, they’re civil servants or political advisors. It might be that they work for businesses, but are usually advising on politics and policy in some capacity. That’s our core audience.
We, of course, attract a wider readership, particularly for London Playbook, for example, the morning newsletter. There are certainly readers of London Playbook who are well educated, intelligent people who are interested in politics and love to get a more insider-y view of Westminster, who don’t necessarily work in Westminster.
But they’re very much the outer ring, I guess, of our audience. Our core audience who we are most focused on are people who work in politics in some capacity.
Politico does seem to exist at this kind of sweet spot of both expertise and accessibility in terms of its coverage. So is that tone and is that publishing strategy something that you think about just as much as you think about who your audience is? Making sure that everything is readily accessible to anyone who might stumble across the page for the first time?
Yes, absolutely. And it goes right back to the heart of the idea for Politico, back in its inception in the US in 2007.
One of our founding editors John Harris likes to tell a story that when he was an editor for The Washington Post, he got increasingly frustrated because he always felt that having a drink with his reporters was much more interesting than reading their copy. There was something in the way that they talked about politics, the way they talked about the human beings who were making decisions that was so much more compelling.
And they sort of stripped that out when they wrote it up for The Washington Post because they felt there was a certain style that was acceptable, and a lot of the more human interest drivers that were actually shaping the way politics was playing, or the way politics policy decisions were being made, that all got stripped out somehow in the traditional editorial process.
And he wanted to inject that back in and he felt if you focused on the people, and if you told stories in a way that was very accessible and fun and lively, you could do a much better job, or certainly a much more compelling addictive style of journalism.
That really goes to the heart of how we still think about Politico stories.
I mean, there’s so much to unpack there. Talk about things being lively, though, the news around say Brexit, and obviously, if we’re looking at the current crisis, the news around it moves so quickly. How do you maintain that authenticity and that expertise when things are changing on a daily basis?
Yeah, I’m not going to lie, it’s challenging. There’s an awful lot going on. And there’s an awful lot to unpack. I think the key for us is taking time to really allow journalists to develop expertise in policy areas.
So we have this huge resource in our policy teams, most of whom are based in Brussels, and now we’re starting to expand some of those policy teams more substantially in the UK. They really know a subject area, so if for example, with our health team, they’ve been covering the way drugs and vaccines come onto the market. They’re covering that all the time. When you then have a story like the corona crisis, suddenly you have a pool of expertise to really draw on.
If you can find a way of making that policy knowledge accessible and digestible, and compelling and interesting, for a more general interest reader, then I think you’re onto something very special.
In terms of the UK audience then, are there any considerations that are unique to the UK either in terms of how the audiences think about content, whether that’s sort of more cynically, or in terms of how you go about reaching them? Are there any UK-specific considerations for this new launch?
There are plenty that inform our thinking. I would say one key one that we’ve drawn on for London Playbook and I think will carry on driving some of the thinking here, and it’s a sort of point that feels quite obvious in the UK, but when you think about it is actually very different to other countries in the world. And that’s the pace of the new cycle here, and the way that it plays out.
So we still have a news cycle that is driven not exclusively, but in large part by print media, and by drops of news very late at night. And so because of that cycle, that really shapes the day, and that shapes the points in the day when your competitors are going to be launching news, when other people in your audience, particularly in a specialist audience are engaging with the news.
That cycle looks quite different in America where for example, news really is breaking on a rolling basis. So much of it is driven by breaking news on TV and that happens 24 hours a day, around the clock, the pace of that new cycle is a bit different.
Or somewhere the other end of the spectrum, like Brussels, where there isn’t a national media landscape with competing daily papers. There are mostly correspondents working for their home country and based in Brussels covering their home country as a foreign correspondent.
So the pace of the news cycle is different in these different places. And I think that has shaped the products we already have, and that will carry on shaping products we have in future.
And you mentioned before this split between the new paid for products that you’re thinking about, ans your existing paid for products, and some of the free to access ones. How then are you deciding what’s valuable enough, or rather, what’s attractive enough to sit behind a paywall or sort of another payment method to convince people to go down that funnel?
Yeah, it’s an interesting question, and again, one we think about a lot. To start with, we have certain components of the subscription service that are there, regardless, so we’re not making a decision day by day. They have their own components such as morning newsletters for the policy areas, and some access to data and to tools that is exclusive for subscribers.
So there are some components that are there all the time, and they then get breaking news alerts, which are short bursts of any breaking news through the day or night that we think subscribers need to know that gets sent to them directly. And then also longer features and interviews and sort of more substantial stories.
On the free site, we do a little bit less of the granular policy coverage. We mostly save that for our paying subscribers. And we have slightly broader, more political stories, I guess. So there is a rhythm to the way the subscription products work, and we obviously have to ensure that we’re really giving our readers good value and they are benefiting from the expertise of our policy teams.
But as I was mentioning with corona, sometimes we also pull across some of the policy expertise and include it in the free coverage, and it very much enriches the free coverage. So it’s an ongoing debate, but we have certain mechanisms to ensure that there’s always value for subscribers in the products.
Are you looking to any other publications for a model that way? Do you think anybody’s doing that funnel particularly well? Even around politics?
It’s an interesting question. I feel like our competition overlaps mostly in certain corners of what we’re doing. So we’ve got lots of competitors on all sides, as it were, and no one doing exactly the Politico model.
For example, you get trade publications who focus very much on policy for different sectors, but they generally don’t cover the politics. And you obviously get the national newspapers here that are full of political stories and covering politics all the time, and we definitely see as competition when we’re going after scoops and trying to chase down stories. But they typically have less of the policy expertise.
So where we really see our sweet spot is that mix of the two. And I don’t see other people doing exactly that. So yeah, competition on all sides, but not really anyone quite in the space that we’re in in the way that we’re in it.
That’s really interesting. Do you think it would have been that case, if you hadn’t come into it with that startup mentality? Because it seems like so many other places that cover politics are doing it from this kind of legacy standpoint where they have their ways of doing things, but it seems like you’ve got the freedom to experiment with that kind of stuff?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think you’re hugely liberated when you come from a startup. I was at The Telegraph for nine years before I joined Politico, and from a national newspaper’s perspective, there are certain things your readers expect you to do.
So one of the things that a newspaper has to do is narrate what happened yesterday broadly, give their readers a package of stories that tell them in general terms designed for a very general audience what matters in the world on any given morning.
Politico and other startups are liberated from doing that. We can link to other people, as we regularly do in London Playbook, we will take you through the whole breadth of the news media coverage in the morning and tell you what we think matters and why, and offer insight and analysis and our own reporting, in order to help you navigate that. But we don’t have to give you the comprehensive picture of everything that’s happened in the world since yesterday.
And so it means we can focus our journalism in other places, and focus on delivering different things that national media don’t do. If we were to come in and try and compete with national media, we wouldn’t really have a business because why would you come to a new startup if it’s not really coming up with something that you can’t get elsewhere?
So yeah it definitely forces you to think very hard about, where’s your added value? What are you doing that’s different?
If we were to just mimic other people or put out products that were too similar to what else was out there, I don’t think we’d be successful.