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Politico plots to win over UK readers and power players with inside track on Brexit

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Charting a course for London: Politico Europe's executive editor Matthew Kaminski

It is hardly what Brexit voters intended but the previously hobbling European Union now steps out into the media glare with a self-important strut while Brussels has been transformed from a journalistic backwater to a bona fide news hub.

Witness how the transatlantic publisher Politico will use its base in the Belgian capital as a launch pad for an expansion into the UK media next month. No one covers the European Union quite like Politico, which a little over two years ago made a major bet on the relevance of the Brussels-based institution and is now reaping the rewards.

On the current news agenda there is a Brexit angle to almost every story, and the ramifications of the UK’s split from the EU are of interest to serious thinkers across the world, especially in Washington DC, where Politico began as a politics website a decade ago. Its European operation, established as a joint venture with the German publishing giant Axel Springer, has a team of 68 specialist journalists, with 50 in its Brussels newsroom alone.

New Playbook and paywall

Next month Politico will make a new push into the UK with the launch of London Playbook, an insider’s guide to UK politics that will also incorporate the insights of its well-connected Brussels and Washington offices, giving a perspective no other media outlet can offer, particularly on matters pertaining to Brexit. London Playbook will be distributed by email each morning from 4 September.

In a related strategy, Politico is to put behind a paywall its daily Politico Brexit Files newsletter, which offers arguably the most comprehensive daily guide to the negotiations available in the news media. From the end of September, the Brexit Files will be part of the Politico Brexit Pro service available only to those who pay for one of Politico’s seven other "Pro" offerings; on technology, trade, transport, health care, financial services, energy & environment, and agriculture & food.

“We are very bullish about the opportunity in London and very keen to expand our offerings over there to build up a bigger British audience,” says Matthew Kaminski, executive editor of Politico Europe, speaking from Brussels.

Kaminski’s confidence that London Playbook will become essential reading in Westminster is partly based on the way Politico’s gossipy and well-informed Brussels Playbook has become ingrained with the EU’s professional community, among whom the newsletter is known as "The Ryan" after the Australian journalist Ryan Heath who compiles it. It has 70,000 readers and EU staff even email back to Heath asking him to call them to discuss policy or to include a family birthday in his missive.

The London Playbook will be written by Jack Blanchard, the former political editor of the Daily Mirror, with contributions from other members of Politico’s UK team, including chief political writer Tom McTague, the former political editor of the Independent on Sunday.

Asked how this newsletter can be different from the analysis provided by Fleet Street (after all, the Parliamentary Press Gallery opened in 1803, and Westminster political coverage long predates that), Kaminski says London Playbook can win by providing a level of detail that connects to those at the apex of policy making. “We are not a general interest publication, unlike the Times or the Guardian. So it would be more nitty gritty and it has to be useful for the most important people in Westminster, and if people at Number 10 are reading it first thing in the morning then a lot of other people will also want to read it so that they can know what those people are thinking about.”

When he talks about Politico’s editorial products, Kaminski speaks of providing “granular detail” and offering “utility” to a professional readership. “We cover European politics and policy with intense focus,” he says.

Brussels gamble pays off

Politico’s initial decision to establish its European base in the Belgian capital was something of a gamble. “We could have gone to Berlin, Paris or London and looked to create something which is more national-focused,” recalls Kaminski.

But for an organisation that had honed its chops in the corridors of DC, it made sense to head to somewhere with a similar mix of policy wonks and political intrigue. Brussels, he says, has “even more lobbyists than Washington”. What’s more, with the news industry in financial trouble and the EU being seen as having fading significance, there was something of a media vacuum. “It was fairly wide open. There was really no one doing it the way that we thought we could do it.”

Although some Eurocrats felt threatened by Politico’s reporting (European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attacked as “peep-show journalism” its coverage of his health problems), most EU officials were flattered by the international attention. Politico was on its way to the status it now holds as the most read and most influential publication on the EU, ahead of the Financial Times, the Economist and the BBC (according to a 2017 survey of MEPs, EU staff and opinion formers conducted by ComRes and PR firm Burson Marsteller).

When Brexit happened, a year into Politico Europe’s existence, it was a journalistic gift. Above news desks around the world, a clock showing the time in Brussels might reasonably be added to those dedicated to New York, Shanghai and Jerusalem. “We have been very lucky in terms of timing that suddenly Europe is a big story again,” says Kaminski, who formerly covered Brussels for the Wall Street Journal. “There has been a feeling for some time that it’s a 20th century story and now it’s over and everything is Middle East, Asia or America but no, Europe is back!”

Organisations such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have upped their focus on Brussels, but no one can match Politico’s reporting strength and Kaminski likes to say that he has more resources in the city than the UK media combined.

He talks of a strange “trading places” situation whereby the previous power bases of the United States and the UK governments now appear like “basket cases”, and consequently the European Union suddenly looks like a beacon of stability. “It’s remarkable, something I never thought I would see or say; you have gone from an EU which…was on suicide watch; you had the migration crisis, the economic troubles, Greece and so on. Now to an institution which I wouldn't say is necessarily hubristic but it is certainly feeling very good about itself. There has been this mood change, incredibly dramatic.”

Maybe if the UK public had extensively enjoyed access to something like Politico Europe and Ryan Heath’s Brussels Playbook for years before the referendum then it might view the EU differently, if not necessarily more benignly.

Heath, who mixes humorous gossip with serious insight, told this week how Belgian prime minister Charles Michel had been turfed off stage by a DJ at the Tomorrowland music festival after he and fellow politicians tried to make themselves look cool by taking selfies and tweeting they were “having way too much fun…” The incident was very different from Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury but ignored by the UK press which decrees that the Belgian leader is of no interest to its readers.

"We are not on a side"

For all the saturation coverage of Europe by the UK media, confusion reigns. Many papers are anxious to vindicate their support for Brexit by denigrating news that suggests the outcome might not be a success. Others take a partisan Remain position, including the New European, which was one of the British media’s most notable responses to the vote.

Politico will not cheer for either team. “We are not on a side in any way; we are neither for nor against the European project, we have no stake and we certainly have no opinion on the European project,” says Kaminiski, who describes as a “cacophony” the UK media’s first year’s coverage of Brexit.

“One of the reasons we are excited about coming into the UK [and] can be distinctive is that we really have no political or national angle. We are neither on the left nor the right, not because we are any more ethical or moral but because we don’t want to alienate. The way we do journalism is divorced from political agenda.”

Politico, which also distributes a 20,000-circulation newspaper in key locations around Europe, also needs to make money. Its revenues are currently spilt evenly between advertising, events and subscriptions, but Kaminski sees the future model being more dependent on the latter. “We are less bullish on advertiser-supported journalism than we are on subscriber-supported journalism. It doesn't mean we are giving up on advertising but there is a structural shift going on and we can’t argue with reality – it’s just a fact of life that 80 cents out of every dollar in new digital advertising goes to Facebook and Google – we see those numbers too.”

Though he sees opportunities for native advertising when done in a “creative and innovative way”, and for sponsorships and brand partnerships on special projects, he argues that subscription is a “no brainer” for long term stability. “We think that building our publication around subscription is a much smarter way to go. If you have a product and someone pays for it, they value it.”

Pro Brexit and the Brexit Files (which are overseen by Brexit editor James Randerson, who Politico recruited from the Guardian) will be a key part of this strategy. The cost of Pro subscriptions vary considerably, largely determined by the type of organisation signing up and reportedly ranging in price between $10,000 and $300,000.

It’s a lot more than a sub for a traditional newspaper but if consumers think they are tuning in to the same sort of conversations as those taking place in the offices of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier or the UK’s Brexit secretary David Davis then they might think that it’s a price worth paying.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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