How Punchbowl is cornering the middle-ground of US political media 

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Investors, Punchbowl doesn’t want your money. At least not for now. That’s partly because the US’ newest political outlet is concentrating on organic growth and partly because of the “incredible” reception it has received from subscribers – the free ones and other Washington DC news obsessives who are more than happy to pay $300 per year. There is one major investor, though, and that’s Aryeh Bourkoff who put in $1m via his Kindred Media company. 

Co-founder Rachel Schindler, formerly of Facebook and Politico, where she worked closely with fellow founders John Bresnahan, Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, told FN that “individuals with powerful brands” had been in contact with the team just days after their 1 January launch and the US Capitol riots on 6 January to see if they could back the newsletter-focused venture. “We are not seeking any more investment now,” she said. 

As for the current number of subscribers to Punchbowl, that was never disclosed. But Schindler stressed that the team were “very happy” in what they were seeing as people have seemingly flocked to their custom Wordpress-powered website (off-the-shelf providers were “too limiting”). 

There were, however, understandable nerves around the launch, not least because the Punchbowl business model does not lend itself to the big newsroom offering of the New York Times or Washington Post and, on the flip side, it isn’t one of the small, one-man-band news media plays that have thrived on Substack. 

Named after the Secret Service code for the US Capitol, Punchbowl sits in a sort of middle-ground in the American political news ecosystem.

“Could you take talent in a specific vertical with a specific audience and build a brand around it that is bigger than just a name but smaller than a newsroom?” Schindler described the challenge.

She also disclosed that the co-founders sounded out the likes of Jessica Lessin of The Information and the team behind The Morning Brew for advice ahead of launch. The idea for the B2C outlet (they’re not looking to drive B2B subscriptions through a popular newsletter) had been “stirring for a while” and intensified over the past four to six months as the Politico Playbook duo of Jake and Anna eventually made their decision to move away from the Capitol News Company-owned outlet.

In many ways they’re following in the footsteps of Mike Allen, another former Politico Playbook author who co-founded Axios alongside Jim VandeHei. VandeHei has praised the start-up, telling the New York Times that Punchbowl should “stay small and minimalist” to succeed. 

It sounds a bit cuddly, but Axios and Politico will still provide serious, solid competition to Punchbowl. How will the publication standout then? “Voice and community matters above all else,” Schindler said, pointing to the company’s ‘Power. People. Politics.’ slogan. “Anna and Jake’s ‘The Top’ section is getting the most excitement right now and the fact they are offering an objective take [on DC politics], but through their own lens [is very attractive].”

The VP of Growth of Product also said she is going to build on the “accessible and engaging” reporting in Punchbowl AM, Midday and PM by focusing a “good amount of time” on the outlet’s members section. Expect some roundtable events later in the year, by way of example.

“In terms of priorities, we are going after chiefs of staff on the Hill, everyone in [Joe Biden’s] Administration and leaders of Fortune 500 companies as well as anybody else touching politics,” Schindler added. 

As for what’s next, the co-founders had promised each other not to put any goals down for the rest of the year until at least two weeks (from Friday 15 January) after launch date and a daily morning podcast produced with Cadence 13 will be launching in February.

The Midday and PM newsletters will also go behind paywalls come Monday 1 February, merchandising is off the table for now despite a strong demand for the Punchbowl hats (the logo took around two months to design), while subscriptions and advertising will be the main revenue drivers going forward. 

Separately, Instagram growth is a particular social media target for Schindler, who reads seven newsletters per day, since she believes there is a “void” to be taken advantage of when it comes to news consumption on the Facebook-owned platform. It also sounds like the Punchbowl team is heeding VandeHei’s advice with no plans to expand the outlet’s focus past the US capital.

💼 Jobs and business

  • BBC sources have told FN that staff working at their “key locations” will be asked to wear devices to help alert them when they are less than two metres apart from someone else in a bid to maintain social distancing. A spokesperson said: “The vast majority of BBC staff continue to work as they have over recent months, either working remotely or in an office location if they are in service critical roles. For those in a BBC building, we’ve been following Covid-secure workplace guidelines throughout the pandemic. We continue to adhere to the two metres rule and we are rolling out social distancing proximity devices to support our staff in maintaining safe social distancing at all times.”

  • The UK’s biggest regional newspaper publisher Reach, with a market cap’ of almost £640m, said in a trading update that it expected underlying operating profit for 2020 to be ahead of market expectations (between £130 and 135m). The positive news was partly thanks to its digital operations, which saw an uplift in revenue of more than 24% in its Q4. The group will continue to expand MyLondon and launch new sites covering Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

  • The Sun’s Keith Poole will become editor-in-chief of the New York Post.

  • Travel + Leisure has been sold to Wyndham Destinations for $100m.

  • Channel 4 boss Alex Mahon profiled in The Sunday Times.

  • News media chiefs look ahead to the rest of 2021

🛡️ Regulation and moderation 

  • The fallout from the Capitol Hill riots continues. Former Trump right-hand-man Steven Bannon has now seen his podcast removed by YouTube, while Parler, the so-called ‘free speech app’, has been suspended from Google. Amazon has also suspended the platform from its AWS service, while Apple has removed it from its App Store. This all begs the question: how far does moral responsibility trickle/cascade down the tech stack? Just war theory or Ben Thompson may provide the answer (see recommendations below). In the meantime, ProPublica is keeping a record of Trump’s deleted tweets and Twitter will be defer to the White House and National Archives and Records Administration on preservation requirements, according to the platform.

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Image: Future News, Punchbowl, “TV Error" by Sibe Kokke is licensed under CC BY 2.0