There’s a private company based in Washington that employs around 75 journalists. It has reporters in ten cities worldwide, including Houston, Dallas, L.A., San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis, Minneapolis, New York City, and Atlanta. It was founded in 1998 and has been growing steadily ever since. Annual subscriptions cost between $2,000 and $150,000, and subscribers include both Greenpeace and the Heritage Foundation. Somewhere around 70 new stories are published by this organization everyday. It has an in-house television studio, where new digital video content is filmed daily, and it recently expanded its staff.
If you know what the organization is, chances are you do some kind of work related to environmental and energy policy. If you don’t know the answer, fine: It’s Environment and Energy Publishing.
Private news networks, of course, have a long history, dating back to the connected correspondents who informed Europe’s wealthy before the mass media and papyrus swapping among the Roman elite. Today, Politico Pro and Bloomberg’s terminal business are among the most prominent examples. But it’s worth remembering the scale of journalistic resources that can be found within these private operations — and that what amounts to a giant paywall can support them.
E&E started out as a Capitol Hill clipping service and later evolved into a weekly newsletter. In 2000, its founders, Kevin Braun and Michael Witt, took the publication online. They also bought Greenwire from the National Journal, bringing a new population of subscribers with it.
“There used to be dozens and dozens of companies like ours, but most of those companies were wiped out over the last 20 years,” says Braun. “They didn’t adapt…A lot of the newsletter publishing industry was built on the idea of using relatively cheap reporters to put out information that wasn’t all that time sensitive, to be honest.”
There’s no outside money invested in E&E, so every step has meant personal risk for Braun and Witt. Today, their products include EnergyWire, ClimateWire, Greenwire, plus both E&E Daily and E&E PM, all of which is behind a paywall. There’s also a series of special reports on topics like drought, the Keystone pipeline, and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, plus OnPoint, their daily webcast. The majority of E&E customers subscribe to all of the products.
“It sort of destroys the business model if the information is available for free on a widespread basis,” says Braun. “I know people would like to see more of our content out there for general readers, but that’s not our job. Our job is to sell content to our client base.”
E&E used to have a content partnership with The New York Times, but that ended a few years ago. Today, some of their content (mostly ClimateWire) is republished by Scientific American and, occasionally, Accuweather. But with an annual subscription price in the thousands of dollars, it’s obvious that what E&E’s reporters are producing is not meant for the average consumer.
“Our client base is the usual suspects for people who are dealing with these kind of policy issues,” says Braun. “Law firms, federal agencies, state agencies, governors, Congress, the World Bank, major corporations, particularly energy companies, industrial manufacturers, environmental groups. We have a very large university audience, a very large think tank and foundation audience.”
Not that all their content is dry, policy stuff:
— Pamela King (@pamelalauren) February 25, 2014
— Amy Carlile (@amycarlile) March 13, 2014
But broadly, E&E’s readers are people who need to be kept abreast of a wide swath of developments in the energy and environmental arenas. The value E&E offers them is the comprehensive nature of its coverage, for which they can charge a premium. Less than five percent of E&E’s revenue comes from ad sales. “We’re a resource people rely in order to be able to do their jobs effectively,” says Braun. “We don’t do conferences. We don’t do events. We try and keep it as simple and basic as we can.”
E&E did step away from this basic model eight years ago, when they launched their daily webcast.
“We wanted to have an opportunity to take some deeper one-on-one dives with important authors and thinkers and lawmakers and whatever, and capture that in what we thought was a new and exciting thing, which was the ability to do online streaming content,” says Braun. “We spent a lot of money and built an HD broadcast quality studio here in our offices, and everyday we shoot a show that’s a one-on-one deep dive. We don’t charge for it — it’s free. We do it because we think it’s good for the order.”
To produce content at the volume its clients need, E&E has to maintain a robust staff. I asked Braun how, in an age when reporters are encouraged to grow personal brands, he manages to hire journalists whose work will most likely never see a mass audience.
“Some of them are tired of being in newspaper newsrooms that are under constant financial pressure and downsizing and they find it depressing,” he says. “A lot of people were laid off, like the Washington bureau chief for The Denver Post. I’m more than happy to pick up those types of people. Some of his reporters have already had long careers in newspapers, but want to spend a few years digging into work they care about. “I’ve got guys in their mid seventies who are having the time of their lives,” says Braun.
For example, E&E has three reporters based in Texas covering the oil and gas industries, two of whom used to work for Bloomberg. Braun says they came to E&E for the chance to investigate stories like the consequences of fracking on local communities. “They wanted the opportunity to look at issues from a policy standpoint but also a human side,” says Braun. “They were in a region where we thought there was a lot happening that we couldn’t cover effectively from Washington.”
When it comes to deciding what E&E should and shouldn’t cover, analytics play a big role. It was with an eye to traffic that they launched ClimateWire in 2008; seeing attention to stories on fracking and the like rise, they launched EnergyWire in 2012. But E&E has also used feedback from its proprietary analytics system to decide when its time to scale back on coverage.
“We’ve learned some things that have really shaped our thinking. One of them is, international stories are really not all that successful for us. They don’t really do well for most of our audience,” he says. “Despite our best efforts, and a lot of time and money, we’ve concluded we’ve got to be somewhat judicious and cautious in how much international coverage we put out there, because a lot of our audience just isn’t interested.”
Braun says E&E has considered third-party metrics software over the years, but always end up sticking with their custom platform. The kind of close monitoring they do, Braun says, helps them keep tabs on clients and gauge how and if they’re using the product.
“We were able to link all kinds of different sources of information: We can look at what’s going on with our individual accounts, what’s going on with the story performance on a given day, what’s going on with revenue and sales and all of that, through one integrated system,” he says. “It’s easier for us to know what’s happening in our business in real time across the board.”
Where’s that leading E&E next? They’ve spent the last three months building out their staff in preparation for an expansion of their energy coverage. “We just doubled down on that a little bit. It was originally designed to cover unconventional energy development — fracking, deep water, stuff like that. We decided we were only looking at half the important changes going on in the energy game, so we hired five or six additional reporters to look at the sizable changes that are occurring in the electric utility industry,” says Braun. The next step, he says, is to make sure their audience is aware that they’re delivering that content.E&E has few direct competitors, according to Braun. Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, and Politico Pro all sell expensive subscriber products to people and organizations with stakes in public policy. E&E’s topic focus aligns it with something like Jessica Lessin’s The Information, which she recently said is growing despite its annual subscription fee of $399.
“It’s not like we’re reaching five million people — that’s not our intent,” says Braun. “There are only so many people that really care about energy and environmental policy.”