Corner Office: How CQ Roll Call Uses Its Legacy to Its Advantage
With the fire hose of information that is the web, it’s easy to confuse volume for value and forget what gives information its worth. Valuable information is accurate, rare, unique, exclusive, and distinct. Valuable information is also information that people are willing to pay for, information that attracts a smart, influential audience, and information that gives a publication a unique identity.
CQ Roll Call, a decades-old Washington news and intelligence service, is steeped in a rich history of gathering and distributing unique content and information. Powered by its main brands CQ and Roll Call, the beltway media company has stood the test of time. This year, CQ (formerly Congressional Quarterly) celebrates its 70th Anniversary, while its sister publication, Roll Call, turns 60.
Both CQ and Roll Call serve as go to sources of information for political insiders. Roll Call has been the “campus newspaper” of Capitol Hill since 1955, covering Congress like a community and tracking what’s important to the 535 members and the 30,000 employees who work inside the Capitol. And since 1945, CQ has pursued founder Nelson Poynter’s original mission to provide unbiased information on Congress’ dealings, reporting on key nominations, legislative wrangling, and spending bills.
CQ Roll Call has had to endure a highly competitive and fast-paced industry. In order to stand strong among the deluge of free political news on the web, CQ Roll Call aims to play to the strengths of its long legacy while adapting for the current media landscape, whether launching multimedia platforms or rethinking how it markets itself on social media. As David Ellis, senior vice president and chief content officer of CQ Roll Call puts it, “It has a pedigree, but it has to be purpose-built for the modern world.”
Like many legacy publishers, CQ Roll Call has weathered turbulent times. “In the late 2000s, there were several big threats to CQ,” says Ellis. “One was the very heavily-financed Bloomberg Government, which hired a huge amount of talent from CQ. There was the introduction of Politico as a daily competitor out of absolutely nowhere. There was the Great Recession, which threatened people’s expenditures on such things like informational news services. Then there was Congress itself, which was becoming increasingly dysfunctional and not doing much other than having partisan bickering.”
Congress might not be fully functional, but CQ Roll Call is now back in growth mode and taking the opportunity to lift its core mission of supplying accurate and unbiased information with new tools. It’s an evolution in step with the company’s past, having harnessed emerging platforms throughout its history, from beeper alerts in the 70s to launching its first website in the 90s.
In particular, Ellis is finding ways to further exploit content assets and better market those assets. The company sits on a lot of proprietary historical information, such as historical data on the extent to which Congress has supported the president on administrative policy. “We have records on presidential support going back to Truman,” says Ellis. The key is to unlock some of those assets and market the depth of CQ Roll Call as a rich resource, says Ellis.
Because Roll Call and CQ employ different publishing models, their objectives for the future also vary. Roll Call is an unpaid “open-to-the-world” website that has experienced significant traffic growth, increasing annual unique visitors by 26% from 2013 to 2014. With the recent launch of a new multimedia page, video is also playing a bigger part in audience growth: Overall views from all video platforms have seen at 67% increase from April 1st through the end of September this year while the Roll Call YouTube channel has over 3.5 million views.
On the other hand, CQ.com is a paid subscription model, offering in-depth research analysis on legislation. CQ subscription also comes with flagship publication CQ Weekly, which was recently re-launched to be more web-ready, taking bolder visual and editorial stances, and adding subscriber value with podcasts and webinars. Other new user features include CQ Vote Watch, a real-time monitor of attendance in Congress and voting records against party lines and the President’s positions.
As chief content officer, Ellis is driving many of these developments. In his role, he oversees coverage for Roll Call and CQ; manages more than 140 reporters, editors, and researchers; and seeks greater ways to leverage the company’s authoritative information and monetize its assets.
Ellis, who has had a long history in editorial roles, including at Time, People, Bloomberg, and SmartMoney, started with CQ Roll Call to lead the company’s newsroom in early 2014 and took over his current position later that year. The second at CQ Roll Call to hold the title of chief content officer, Ellis says the title signifies how the publishing industry has changed. Whereas “executive editor” or “editor-in-chief” still reflect the hierarchies of the old newspaper or magazine structure, “content officer” reflects the notion that publishers are no longer their publications.
“The content is increasingly, if not platform neutral, multi-platform delivered. And part of that is you have to understand business models, client demands, people’s work patterns, and therefore, you are combining in a broader sense what in the old model, used to be editor-in-chief and publisher. In the old world, the publisher would play golf with advertisers. In these days, the chief content officer would go to Alphabet City and meet with Twitter and talk about news partnerships.”
Ellis acknowledges content officer is still in many ways still a job of “personnel management and people motivation.” Though CQ and Roll Call have merged into one entity on paper, shifts in culture and ways of doing business are ongoing. Here, Ellis shares his thoughts on CQ Roll Call’s recent successes and challenges, and plans for the future.
As CQ and Roll Call have merged, have you had to change how the organizations work?
Yes. It’s a particularly interesting challenge at CQ Roll Call because you have two very distinct brands in two very distinct places.
Roll Call is a well-know brand. People read it around the world. Basically, Roll Call, because it’s not behind a paywall, has a community of people with political sensibility. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are in Washington. In fact, because Roll Call covers pursuit of power, people running for Congress, we don’t get deeply into the political horse race on presidential-level politics -- everybody’s in that space. We’re the place that will tell you where the next Speaker of the House is coming from or which Tea Party challenger is possibly going to knock off the incumbent. If you’re a political junky, or you’re in the game, or you’re a field organizer in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina, you’re reading Roll Call. I like where Roll Call is at. Our brand’s growing because we’re appealing to those folks.
CQ is a completely different animal. When I got here, a year and a half ago, we had a Twitter feed that we weren’t actually maintaining. People would say, “Well, we’re behind the paywall -- we don’t want to give away our information.” I asked a very simple question. “How many reporters do we have?” Around that time we had about 55, 60. How many of them had their own Twitter feed? All of them, practically. How many of them are tweeting about what they’re doing on their job covering Congress? All of them.
Over the course of the day, we probably have 50 to 75 tweets by our own reporters on their own Twitter account about what they’re up to at work. We created a Twitter feed called “CQ Now” and got the reporters to hashtag into CQ Now. Here we were, because we had this “cultural cringe,” if you will, about giving content away free, releasing interesting information to a very small audience of people following the individual reporter and not building our brand.
That’s part of gathering “atomized” information that’s floating out there and putting it somewhere that helps remind people that you’re the place to be for congressional coverage and legislative analysis.
So how has getting that atomized content out there helped your brand?
What’s interesting is on Twitter, one night we had a reporter who was around when a budget meeting broke up, and a rival reporter at the AP tweeted, “This is why we need CQ. They had a body at the accident when so many other news organizations have cut back on this kind of coverage.” When somebody mentions CQ and that’s copied on our Twitter feed, that’s sending a message not only that we’re there doing something exclusively, accurately, and in depth, but that our rivals recognize that. A year ago, we didn’t have a Twitter feed, essentially. That’s a cultural change.
How else are you exposing your content to new audiences?
We’ve upgraded CQ Weekly and our paywall products with more interactive graphics. Those interactive graphics can be tweeted out and remind people that we have all this amazing information. We have unparalleled biographical information about our members going back years.
We did a very interesting chart on the life expectancy for average American men and women and how many Senators would be over that age when they were next running for a 6-year term. These graphics are not about tweaking a Senator who may be going back to the electorate one time too many. It’s about telling people we have this information and understanding the context in which this information is useful to them.
We’ve also really increased the coverage of the policy issues in the states. The reason is twofold. One is, as Congress became very dysfunctional, idea generation and experimentation moved up to the state level, where it was, in many cases, more possible to be bipartisan and get things done.
Why is that pertinent to the current CQ audience? For one reason, as a lawmaker or a chief of staff here at Capitol Hill you want to know who the idea generators are, who the talented people are, what ideas are coming at you. Now CQ is expanding its coverage of policy and legislation in the state as an early warning system to our existing client base on the issues percolating out there that are going to become national issues.
What do you expect to be the biggest source of growth in the next six months to a year?
Because our brands are in two different spaces, there are two different answers. Roll Call’s growth will be digitally through delivery of multimedia information. For CQ, we’ll continue to give users an early warning system of what the big issues are coming and also what I call “around-the-corner journalism,” which is telling people what to anticipate. Because Washington is a place where the half a day you have information somebody else hasn’t seen gives you a competitive advantage. We’re giving you that kind of stuff on a regular basis.
We’re not partisan. We’re factual. We’re accurate. We’re known as such and admired for it. If we’re telling you something’s happening, you use that information and you act upon it for your own purpose. Everyone will react to the information differently, but if you have it, you have a competitive advantage. That’s the growth area for CQ.
How are you pushing more into video content?
We just introduced a multimedia page called “RollCall.com/video.” We made a capital investment in this new video delivery system for several reasons. One, it’s an interesting site for Roll Call readers to go and see engaging video, some of which we edit and cut ourselves. Two, it’s a place to store newsy video that we can use on the RollCall.com site. The third thing is writers, reporters, and editors can drop pertinent video into their stories as they write and publish them earlier in the process. If they’re doing a McConnell-Reid leadership battle story, and they know that McConnell and Reid had an argument on the House floor yesterday, they can drop that video into their story upon writing and publication.
That means you do not have to have a separate video team doing that for them. That frees up my multimedia team to do more production of video. In other words, they’re cutting more video, they’re editing more video. We’re introducing more analytic video on topic pages. Of course, when you have video in stories, that increases time on page, viewer engagement, and returning visitors.
What were your goals with the redesign of CQ Weekly?
We had several overarching goals for the magazine redesign: To have templated standing sections that allow more staffers, not designers, but editors to work on the pages within a cohesive environment. This speeds the production process. It allows editors greater ownership of the sections they oversee.
We create much more provocative cover images to garner attention with bolder images and better graphics. And the cover kind of serves as an editorial judgment and marketing for all else our brand does. It kind of signals our authority and ambition, right at the top.
I’ll give you an example. Our very first redesigned issue, which was on May 18th this year, was about the new war over space, the U.S. GPS system. The Pentagon is concerned that China is creating ways of disrupting that system, so we’re having a sort of stealth Cold War in space that may be the next battlefield.
[The cover image is a] rendition of the locations of all the satellites that orbit the Earth at the moment. The cover line was, “The War Over Space: Today’s U.S. military can’t function without satellites. Its enemies know that too.” That’s a bold, collar-grabbing cover line and a really great image. That’s what we’re trying to do on the cover every week.
Do you think “content bundles” like CQ Weekly will continue to be viable?
We want to understand what the readers need from a weekly magazine, particularly when they already have a robust subscription service. CQ reviews policy at a granular level. We use the magazine to put incremental events in Congress in perspective and know that’s a way of allowing our readers to step back and understand patterns.
The content will drive. It’s not the format. It’s the content. If you look at what we have, it’s the quality of the content and giving it to people in an attractive format.
With a rich history behind you, what are you doing to revitalize and monetize your archived content?
We’re just now digitalizing and metadata tagging all the photos we have in our very messy, disorganized work. This is very interesting because it shows both the value of a brand’s history as well as the opportunities that you can unearth by unlocking the value. We have an entire room of photos. They’re all photos that were selected and published in Roll Call, but then they were tossed in a folder. Some of them don’t have picture captions. Some of them don’t have dates -- in fact, many of them don’t have dates.
We have a group of people going through those photos and then going to the archives in a bit of detective work and finding the original publication that has the photo, which of course has the name of the people in it, the circumstances, what they’re doing, and the date. And once we have that, it’s not just, “Hey, it’s interesting that we discovered who’s here.” We then digitalize and tag the photo. Then, if you’re looking for Silvio Conte playing in the Congressional Baseball Game smoking a cigar while at bat, we can sell you that photo. An asset that was stuck in the corner and was one flood or fire away from oblivion can now turn into an incremental revenue source for us.
That sounds labor intensive. How do you justify that from an ROI standpoint?
My first answer is, “best practice.” You don’t have an asset if you allow the asset to deteriorate or disappear. You can always make an excuse that I can’t find a dollar today, so I’ll just put it off until tomorrow.
To me, it’s a priority. It is work-intensive, but it’s not impossible. We’re not actually digitalizing a 250-year archive. We’re digitalizing probably a couple thousand photos. It’s a priority because I think it’s a preservation of history and it’s a preservation of an asset. That’s my message to a lot of people in my position. If you have an [archive] and you’re not digitalizing it, one day you’re going to move your office and some very valuable stuff is going to wind up in the garbage. That, in and of itself, to me, justifies the task.
Now that we have this archive completed, I estimate that we’re probably talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars to digitalize, but I suspect the ROI over 5 years, if we market this information right and we price-point it, and it’s easy to access and download, that we’ll make that money back. Also, every dollar you make is an incremental dollar you didn’t anticipate or budget for. Somebody pays me $5 for a photo from the Congressional Baseball Game. That’s $5 extra that we didn’t have to work very hard for after we did the digitalization.
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Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.