How Protocol applies the Politico model to tech

Bennett Richardson breaks down how Protocol differentiates in a crowded tech media market

How Protocol applies the Politico model to tech

Thanks to everyone who has sent notes and left reviews for the podcast on Apple Podcasts. Thanks to Jrdoog, who called the podcast “essential for anyone working in the media industry.” Note for future guests: Jrdoog wants me to keep badgering you for numbers. Be forewarned. This week’s episode with Protocol president Bennett Richardson is brought to you by Audigent.

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Many publishers want to run the Politico playbook. What Politico managed to do is take politics and cover it like ESPN covers sports, attracting big enough audiences for a robust ad business, while focusing on narrower slices of must-have information on legislative minutiae to power a high-priced subscriptions business. It only makes sense that Politico itself would look to do the same, as it has with the two-year-old Protocol, which is applying the Politico playbook to the sprawling world of tech.

Tech has long since matured as a vertical topic, rooted in Silicon Valley, to a horizontal story of power and influence that spans industries, governments and societies. It also happens to have both deep pocketed investors and advertisers..

“The very core of Protocol was an extension of that same thesis, which is, can we use this similar influencer-focused, unbiased model that made Politico successful and made Politico Europe successful?” said Bennett Richardson, a Politico veteran and the recently named president of Protocol. “Could we take that out of politics entirely and bring it to a different power center in a different industry? Unsurprisingly, given everything that media and every other industry are going through, tech was the obvious first place to bring that thesis to.”

Protocol is currently 55 employees, with eight newsletters that collectively have 250,000 subscriptions. The site gets about 1.5 million visitors a month, Bennett said, adding only that Protocol’s revenue was up 150%.

Bennett and I discussed the Politico playbook, balancing consumer and specialized publishing, and why some ad categories like public affairs are booming. Below are some highlights of the conversation.

The power of influence

For all the downsides of the news business, there will always be a place for publications that can break through and serve the needs of elite powerbrokers. These audiences are simply too valuable. There’s a reason Axel Springer bought Politico for $1 billion, Axios has grown so quickly and upstarts like Punchbowl are making a splash. That’s also why the still-unnamed global news venture from Justin Smith and Ben Smith will target elites, promising “unbiased journalism,” and why upstart Grid secured $10 million in funding for its “fuller picture” approach to news. (Grid chief revenue officer and Politico veteran Brad Bosserman will be a guest on The Rebooting Show next week. Punchbowl co-founder Jake Sherman is slated to be a guest later in the month.)

“Being really actionable to insiders has always been square one for Politico. Step 2 is being accessible to a larger audience. We want to make this not a really wonky trade publication, but something that's easy to read. It’s well-written with those insiders in mind, but a larger audience of consumers of news junkies could just as easily consume it and find it interesting. For Politico, not having an agenda, not having a partisan slant, saying we are coming at this to call balls and strikes [was important]. We're not coming at this to promote a particular political agenda. [That] was important for insiders in politics and policy, because they tend to know a lot of publications have a political slant and [they] need to unpack that to find the actionable intel in the news.”

Tech is eating the world

I used to joke that covering tech is like covering carbon: it’s part of everything. Tech used to be a Silicon Valley story, but it’s now a driving force in pretty much every human endeavor. As a technological civilization, tech has an outsized role in our world, to put it mildly. For Protocol, the question becomes how to differentiate enough to make a dent in this sprawling topic with many well-entrenched incumbents. One way is to not focus solely on “the tech industry.”

“Tech is taking over everything. Technology is No. 1 on  both the worry lists and opportunity lists for every board and C-suite in any industry. Tech is no longer just about the tech industry itself, but it's about how different technologies are disrupting every other industry. Tech has become this global power center. How do you cover that? [Focus on] both the tech industry itself, as well as how technology is disrupting other industries, and use that to add a lot of value at a professional level for executives, policymakers – folks in tech and outside of tech. That balance is really important. We are not covering this to be a publication just for the tech industry. We really want to say, how can we cover the cloud? How can we cover fintech? How can we cover Chinese tech? How can we cover the future of work?  But do that for a balanced audience, [in a way] that's both accessible and actionable to that tech executive, as well as that energy, automotive or financial executive that also needs to know just as much about tech to do their jobs.”

Aiming for the middle

Publishing has long the consumer and trade sides. Typically the consumer side was jazzier but at the cost of some superficiality and the wonkiness of trade publications with impenetrable jargon, horrible design and proclivity for honorarium lists. Protocol wants to split the difference in order to have a specialized audience at the core but appeal to the far broader group of people affected by the march of tech.

“There is that distinction between technology's influence itself versus the tech industry. We don't need to just write for people in tech. We can write for executives in business and folks working in policy who need to understand really expert level things about what's happening in tech to do their jobs. That's a distinction we've made that is an important one and is a big one. In addition to that, it is about finding that right balance of neither just covering the big headlines, stocks, products, CEOs – the things you see dominate mass media about tech – but also not get so into the weeds on speeds and feeds and deals that you only matter to the folks working in the industry.”

Ad models can work

For all the talk of subscriptions, advertising still powers most of the publishing business. Protocol is currently all free, although it plans to add subscription products down the line, much as Politico has kept its main coverage freely available and put specialized, professional content behind a pricey payall. Protocol currently splits its revenue into thirds, with one third from sponsored content, one third from newsletter sponsorships and another third made up of advertising, events and other activities. The publication has also benefited from the regulatory pressure on Big Tech.

“There's only so much lobbying they can do. So there's a lot of other places that can tell their story like that. I don't think that trend is going away anytime soon. That regulatory environment is only going to continue to heat up. You're going to see crypto hit some of these same regulatory headwinds in the course of the next year. There's a need to do some similar internal and industry comms, the same way that you're doing this kind of public affairs and policy comms. Having that same message about being a good corporate citizen out in the industry and into your own employees – as well as out to policymakers – has been, has been something that we've seen.”

The pandemic opened new areas of coverage (and revenue)

If the pandemic had any “winners,” the tech industry would certainly qualify. Tech rose to the forefront as societies worldwide grappled with how to stay connected to family, colleagues and customers while staying apart physically. That opened new opportunities for a tech-focused publication like Protocol.

“The business side of tech is more central to Protocol today than we thought it would be before we  launched Protocol. There was a lot of gig worker conversations happening in early 2020, even before the pandemic that obviously dominated a lot of conversation during the pandemic, too.During the pandemic, two things happened. Everybody had to work from home. We launched a workplace vertical in June 2021. We're helping folks with this transition.

And then digital transformation. The businesses that had still relied on heavy in-person, slower processes, all of a sudden had to figure out how to be distributed and digital first, overnight. Both of those two things happening essentially at the same time was a huge opportunity for us because we were naturally covering those stories.Those naturally became dominant parts of our coverage: let's show how companies are going digital-first overnight, let's show how companies are moving to remote work, moving to these hybrid situations and still making it work and sometimes making it work better. Those transitions because of the pandemic make Protocol a more business-centric publication today than we probably thought it would have been.”

5 things to check out

Ad tech’s opacity and complexity are features, not bugs. Both give plausible deniability that’s too often needed. The state attorneys general case against Google is unearthing some remarkable claims, including this bombshell that Google shortchanged publishers through Google’s control of the auction process. Even the most cynical has to be shocked by the brazenness of this activity that sure sounds a lot like what most people would call fraud. Even odder still: Adweek, Ad Age and Digiday have all ignored the allegations.

The race is on to take the best of Substack and combine it with the best of regular old newsrooms. This BBC interview with Ben Smith includes a good bit about how the shift from institutions to individuals can be used to restore trust in fairly reported news. The social media era created what i think of as a class of activist journalists that have helped erode trust in news organizations. More to come on this.

The “news is broken” marketing schtick gets some deserved pushback from Jack Schafer. This is a line that’s often trotted out for news brand launches. In truth, differentiation in a field like news is more execution than reinvention. Also, history tells us to be skeptical of new brands that promise to differentiate mostly through format. Remember Circa?

Alex Sherman has the inside story on the negotiations that ended up with The New York Times buying The Athletic. Some of this was well known, but an interesting tidbit: The Athletic toyed with America’s Test Kitchen. The Athletic is a polarizing company – some see it as an inspiring success while others point to how far it was from being a sustainable business – but I believe we’ll see “The Athletic of X” companies. The dynamics The Athletic saw in sports aren’t universal across categories, but they do exist in other areas.

For all the focus on youth, more attention should be paid to the remarkable late-career results in women’s distance running. A 37-year-old who quit running and had two kids set the American marathon record this weekend. At the very same race, 38-year-old Sara Hall set the U.S. half marathon record.

Thanks so much for reading and listening. I’m disheartened that the Eagles were humiliated yesterday, but at least the Cowboys lost. Shoot me a note by hitting reply with anything you’d like to see addressed in the Rebooting. Have a great week.