“We used to say Politico was the ESPN of politics. I’d love for this to be the ESPN of technology.” That’s Politico owner Robert Allbritton, speaking about his forthcoming publication, Protocol, which will mark the arrival of Allbritton’s second major journalism gamble (forgetting about the short-lived Washington-area news website TBD) when it launches sometime early next year. “This has been on my mind for a long time,” he said. “We really want to look at technology as a base of power.”
It seems a heavy lift, given the number of tech sites that have flowered (and sometimes partially wilted) over the past decade or so. At the same time, Politico was greeted with skepticism when it debuted in 2007 as a small, scrappy, and relentless daily digest for the Beltway class. Twelve years later, it’s almost as much of an establishment creature as the legacy institutions it set out to disrupt, with a 750-person global headcount spread across six countries and eight U.S. states (plus Washington, D.C., of course). In an industry where, these days, the red feels more familiar than the black, Politico turned a $2 million profit last year on $113 million in worldwide revenue—not exactly the biggest margin, but a success story nonetheless, given the increasingly dreary economics of digital media. Allbritton told me Politico is projected to “more than double” its profits in 2019, with percent revenue growth in the “mid-to-high teens.”
Now he wants to replicate Politico’s playbook, as it were, with Protocol, which he will officially announce this week. The digital-only venture plans to lift off with roughly the same level of manpower and investment as its predecessor did more than a decade ago: several dozen journalists and business employees and a little more than $10 million under the hood. “I would love for this to be as big as, if not larger than, Politico is right now,” Allbritton told me.
Does the media really need yet another publication going balls to the wall on tech? Are we not already sated by Recode and Wired and the Verge and the Information and Bloomberg and Business Insider and Axios and a million blogs and the nation’s three largest newspapers, each of which has significantly expanded its technology coverage over the past couple of years? Can Protocol really deliver something unique that the rest of those players do not? Absolutely, its founders say. “I think there are a ton of guys out there who cover tech from a V.C. or gadgets or even a governmental point of view, but I don’t think there’s anyone who covers it for its own sake,” said Allbritton. “All up and down the line, they’ve all already staked out where they come from. The uniqueness of this is that we’re trying to start from scratch, at ground zero, rather than coming into this space.” Tim Grieve, Protocol’s executive editor, added, “I don’t think anybody is, in a regular way, focusing on the people, power, and politics of tech.”
The rest of the tech press corps seems likely to beg to differ, which is why I asked Grieve for an example of a hypothetical Protocol story to illustrate how the site aims to stand out from the pack. “Think of the iPhone launch a few weeks ago,” he said. “Lots and lots of people did stories about the three cameras, and the dog selfies, and all of that consumer focus. The stories I would have been interested in would have been: How did the feature set of that product come to be? What internal competitions inside of Apple led to that product? Whose team won and lost? What effect, if any, did tariffs and trade concerns have on the choices they made on what to include and what not to include? What does that say about what type of company Apple is trying to position itself as?” Grieve followed up after our interview with a few broad story lines that Protocol will be drilling down on: “The existential struggles between tech and legacy businesses. The fight for power within the tech industry. The battles between tech giants and government regulators. International conflicts over trade and technology. The profound questions surrounding tech’s impact on people and the planet.”
Additionally, said Grieve, “I don’t think anybody is really trying to explain what’s going on inside tech to the businesses that are being upended by tech,” like, say, to the “health care executive in Kansas City trying to understand how Amazon is gonna radically change health care.” Targeting the C-suite is also a core part of the business proposition, which will be a blue-chip advertising model to start with. “We’re not looking to create a trade publication,” said Tammy Wincup, who was a senior adviser at TPG’s Rise Fund before joining Protocol as president. “We’re looking to create an institution that, for Fortune 500 companies, it is their guidepost.” As with Politico, there will be events and a flagship daily newsletter that such companies can sponsor. The plan is to add a subscription component to the mix, but Allbritton said they still have to figure out exactly what it will look like. (One imagines it will be more Politico Pro than metered paywall.) Politico veteran Bennett Richardson has been named general manager, overseeing marketing and revenue.
As for editorial talent, Protocol has already hired more than a dozen journalists, including two top land grabs from Wired (a sister publication to Vanity Fair): Emily Dreyfuss (daughter of Richard) as editorial director, and Joanna Pearlstein as managing editor. Other recruits hail from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Gizmodo, and elsewhere. They will work out of offices in San Francisco, New York, Washington, and London.
Protocol will be an entirely separate company under the corporate umbrella of Allbritton’s Perpetual Capital Partners, with its own management team, budget, infrastructure, and back-end functions. Inside Politico there have been some concerns raised about the extent to which Protocol could potentially cannibalize or overlap with Politico’s technology coverage, which focuses primarily on policy and regulatory matters. Allbritton said it was a fair question, but one that would mostly prove moot. “Politico is really written more for a government-relations community,” he said. “This one”—meaning Protocol—“is being written straight to C-suite kinds of folks, so it’s a different kind of voice. There may be the occasional overlap on subject matter, but that just gives us an opportunity to collaborate.”
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