The Hill Tries to Shed Wonky Image With Hip Web-Based Makeover

(Bloomberg) -- The Hill, a news publication long known for its staid coverage of U.S. congressional policy making, is looking for the next Jon Stewart.

Sometime in early 2018, the publication will stream a new comedy show on the web. As of yet, the daily program doesn’t have a name, or even a host. But executives at The Hill are scouring the ranks of the internet and cable TV, looking for winsome smart alecks who can do for Trump-era Washington something akin to what Stewart once did on Comedy Central in the Bush and Obama years -- that is, translate the often-distressing political news cycle into something viewers can laugh about, perhaps to keep from crying.

The comedy show is part of a broader slate of original programming that The Hill has in the works. By roughly February, company executives hope to have also rolled out a morning talkfest (similar in format to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”), a couple of nightly opinion shows and a round-the-clock barrage of short, topical videos. The expansion is being led by John Solomon, a political journalist and news executive who joined The Hill in July from Circa, a millennial-targeting news site owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. 

“There’s a reason why shows like ‘The West Wing’ and ‘House of Cards’ are so popular,” says Solomon. “People are always interested in what really goes on in Washington, not what you see on the façade.”

The Hill Tries to Shed Wonky Image With Hip Web-Based Makeover

With Trump-inspired drama soaking up the nation’s attention, publishers of political news could be forgiven for indulging in sudden delusions of cultural grandeur. And at first blush, The Hill’s quest for zeitgeist-rattling relevance can sound improbably ambitious for what has long been a niche print publication virtually unknown outside of Washington. But James Finkelstein, the owner of The Hill, says the publication’s aspirations in TV -- comedic or otherwise -- are part of a well-considered, well-funded reinvention of a media brand, not some faddish dalliance. 

“We’re expanding enormously,” says Finkelstein. “This isn’t about the Trump bounce. This is about politics becoming popular culture.”

Small Cadre

Finkelstein’s late father, Jerry, a New York businessman, originally started the paper in 1994. In the years that followed, The Hill joined a small cadre of D.C. publications with a precise, circumscribed editorial mandate. Whenever congress was in session, The Hill and its competitors delivered small batches of printed news to federal lawmakers and bureaucrats, covering the incremental developments of fairly esoteric governmental affairs.

Corporate lobbyists and trade associations filled the publications (including Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly and National Journal) with a steady stream of targeted advertising, aiming to sway legislators on whatever particular issue was on the table that session, be it health care or farm subsidies.

For a long time, it was a consistent, largely unremarkable business model. But in recent years a series of unruly events -- the advent of the web, the arrival of Politico and the rise of Donald Trump -- swept through the market, leaving everyone scrambling. (Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP operates BGOV, a web-based information service focused on the federal government.)

The Hill is aiming to transform from an inside-the-Beltway news outlet into a national web brand, distributing broadly accessible political content to the masses. Bob Cusack, editor-in-chief, says that over the past couple of years, in order to appeal to readers who don’t necessarily live or work in Washington, the news organization has tweaked its editorial voice to make it less prone to off-putting bouts of C-SPANese. 

Along the way, The Hill has cut back on obtuse governmental jargon, stopped putting the names of obscure lawmakers in headlines and expanded the coverage to include not only the progression of subcommittee marks but also the latest outburst of presidential jawboning. It helps, says Cusack, that the editorial budget has expanded. 

“Years ago we didn’t have a single correspondent covering the White House,” he says. “Now we have a handful.”

Digital Push

In 2015, The Hill hired a web-traffic savant named Neetzan Zimmerman to serve as the organization’s head of digital strategy and audience development. During an earlier stint at Gawker, Zimmerman had displayed an unusual knack for identifying and crafting infectious stories and videos that vast numbers of people would share on Facebook. Zimmerman arrived at The Hill curious if the same methods that worked for subjects such as celebrity dimwittedness or cute corgi tricks could be used as effectively on more weighty matters like tax reform. 

“Can you take something like a hard policy story that is wonky and make it go viral without dumbing it down or reaching for the lowest common denominator?” says Zimmerman. “At the time, people were certainly dismissive of the idea.”

The returns have been impressive. Over the past two years, according to ComScore, The Hill’s audience on the web has nearly quadrupled, growing to 22.4 million unique monthly U.S. visitors in July from 5.8 million in June 2015. That pulled The Hill slightly ahead of Politico (19.2 million) and nearly doubled the reach of Breitbart (12.3 million). CNN Politics led the category, with 29.5 million visitors.

On social media, stories from The Hill have grown ubiquitous. In July, according to rankings from NewsWhip, The Hill was the 19th most-popular publisher on Facebook. Breitbart (13th) was the only other pure political news outlet to show up in the top 25. On Twitter, it’s not unusual now to see Hollywood celebrities, from Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Patricia Arquette, enthusiastically sharing links to The Hill.

Cashing In

Now, the publication is trying to cash in. The Hill announced in July it was hiring Richard Beckman, a former rock promoter and high-flying Conde Nast executive, to become the publication’s first president. Beckman initially rose to acclaim during the magazine industry’s gilded age of the ’80s and ’90s, earning a reputation as an aggressive salesman who wheeled in Bentleys full of luxury print advertising dollars for richly overstuffed titles such as Conde Nast Traveler, GQ and Vogue. More recently, Beckman worked with a group of investors, including Finkelstein, to revamp a handful of trade publications, including The Hollywood Reporter, and served as the chief revenue officer of Vice.

These days, visitors to The Hill’s home page are met with a hefty dose of display ads, including full-page commercial messages that momentarily eclipse everything else on the site. Moving forward, Beckman says he will try to sell The Hill’s growing audience of younger, more geographically diverse readers to a bigger, broader group of consumer advertisers. 

“Traditionally, media assets like The Hill thrived on advocacy messaging, whether it was from lobbyists or trade associations or corporations,” says Beckman. “That’s still our meat and potatoes. But now the food chain is expanding.”

Turning Sour

In recent years, as the print ad market has continued to sour and a seemingly ever-larger share of digital advertising has flowed to Google and Facebook, many national news organizations have started collecting a larger proportion of their revenue from subscribers. Likewise, many of The Hill’s competitors on Capitol Hill have moved their content behind digital paywalls or launched subscription web products designed to deliver targeted information on narrowly defined areas of government policy (such as energy or cybersecurity) to small numbers of paying customers. 

Alan Mutter, a media industry analyst and consultant, says there’s a good reason why many niche publishers are trying to become less reliant on advertising. 

“A publishing model that depends on digital advertising requires colossal scale,” says Mutter. “That’s because the yield on digital advertising on every individual impression is still quite low.”

The Hill’s business strategy is moving in the opposite direction. Finkelstein says that at this point, incoming revenue is “virtually all advertising.” In 2016, The Hill announced it was launching a premium service, which would charge readers for access to deep coverage of specific topics. The first of its verticals was dedicated to health-care news. The experiment was short-lived. Finkelstein says the premium service wasn’t profitable and was discontinued. 

“It wasn’t worth it to me,” says Finkelstein. “What we wanted to go into was video.”

The Hill still publishes a print newspaper, but Finkelstein says it will probably be phased out in a couple of years. In the meantime, the publication’s expanding business team will ramp up its sales of digital-native advertising. Such content, which will be paid for by brands, will live cheek-by-jowl alongside The Hill’s news stories and upcoming TV-style web shows, making it harder for ad-dodging readers and viewers to filter it out. Finkelstein declined to share specific figures but says that The Hill is profitable and that its revenue has doubled over the past year.

Nonpartisan Approach

One thing The Hill won’t change, says Finkelstein, is its nonpartisan approach. Every liberal column or streaming opinion show will be balanced by a conservative one. Sitting in his office in midtown Manhattan on a weekday in August, Finkelstein points out that during the past 24 hours The Hill had published pieces by Tomi Lahren, a trendy, right-wing provocateur, and by Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. 

On the windowsill of his office, Finkelstein displays a collection of photographs, starring various politicians posing with his family members. When a reporter asks about a shot of a grinning Donald Trump, Finkelstein points to one featuring a smiling Hillary Clinton. His commitment to political balance extends to the trophy photos. 

“Yeah, I happen to know the president,” says Finkelstein. “But it’s irrelevant. The model of The Hill is down the middle.”

As Finkelstein spoke, a quick glance at The Hill’s website revealed that all five of the company’s top-trending articles that morning had Trump in the headline. Two were inspired by Trump tweets. When asked about Trump’s role in driving up web traffic, Finkelstein shrugs. Congress was in recess. Trump was on a Twitter tear. 

“You have to go hunting where the ducks are, right?” Finkelstein says.