Journalist Q&A: Lou Ann Sabatier, CEO, MediaDC

Lou Ann Sabatier, CEO, MediaDC, talks to Virgil Dickson about why its Washington Examiner transitioned from a daily newspaper to a weekly political-only magazine and website.

In June, the title changed from a daily newspaper to a weekly magazine and website. Why was this change made?
The company was 7 years old and we commissioned a brand study, which was very deep and comprised of online research, focus groups, and interviews to figure out why people were reading us.

What were the findings?

While our local coverage was well read, the biggest traffic driver was our political content. To put that into context, our political coverage was only 20% of our content, but it was getting 80% of the traffic.

It was really evoking the strongest loyalty and engagement, even with the print product. So we decided, let's go there. Let's play to our strengths and the decision was made to transition away from a daily newspaper with local coverage. I want to emphasize that what did not happen was someone saying, "I don't want to be a newspaper anymore."

What does the new magazine look like?
The magazine focuses on national political news and commentary. The magazine has a print run of 45,000 that will be released 40 times a year. We also plan to release ebooks, podcasts, videos, and launch our own speakers bureau next year.

Our website has also been blown up and revamped. The changes to our site are much more than skin deep.

As you try to get the news out about the relaunch, what messages are you emphasizing?
Our messaging is built around the tagline, "Intellectual Capital for the Nation's Capital," which is really about promoting our writers and columnists as they are the source of our unique perspective and the reason we have repositioned and relaunched ourselves.

We're focusing on six people in particular. Each represent a different type of writing. These include congressional correspondents David Drucker and Susan Ferrechio, as well as commentary from our writers Michael Barone, Byron York, Paul Bedard, and Timothy Carney. Overall, our bench is really deep with about 40 reporters and columnists.

How much smaller is the staff from when you were a daily publication?
About 60% to 65% smaller.

How did you decide who stayed and who went?

It was really a natural selection. We had local sports, entertainment, crime, and metro sections. So could someone who covered local sports transform themselves to someone who covers politics, or would they even want to? It came down to who fit with where the publication was going.

Did you have to make some new hires?

Yes. On the reporting side there have been 12. These include White House correspondent Brian Hughes and political correspondent Rebecca Berg.

Describe the political tone of the publication. When it was a daily it seemed to lean toward the right.

The commentary content is centered right, but the news coverage is balanced.

It's important to note that our commentary and reporting teams are in different areas. One does not have an influence over the other.

What would you say to people who used to read the newspaper during their daily commutes?
I would say thank you and that we appreciate that you understood what the paper was trying to do, which was to inform. But sometimes in business things change, and while there may be a void now in the marketplace, someone will step in and fill it.

We had to look at where our strengths were and go a different way. If you have a political interest, I hope you will still seek us out and make us a part of what you are reading.

How do you see your readership changing?
If you don't really like reading about politics you have self-selected out.

What do you look for in a good pitch?

We're looking to focus on a variety of stories related to national policy and politics. Ask yourself why would this be relevant to our readers. Our audience is hungry for political information that isn't just sound bited out there.

We're not looking to be the first on the street with the news, though we would love that, but it's not our role. When something hits we're going to be framing it with data, or reporting on an angle no one else did.

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