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Feb. 5, 2020, 3:58 p.m.

Protocol — think Politico, but for tech — launches into a crowded space

“Technology is no longer just a sector of the economy or an industry — it’s a global power center akin to any nation’s capital. And it’s time for a publication to cover it like one.”

The tech industry is littered with startups once framed in a pitch meeting as “[successful existing company], but for [some other line of business].”

Uber, but for petsitters. Airbnb, but for barns. Sofi, but for gamblers. Lime, but for unicycles. Squarespace, but for birthday cards. Casper, but for pillows.

That Silicon Valley DNA is alive and well in Protocol, the anticipated news site that launched today, and which frames itself as: Politico, but for tech.

Protocol, which was announced back in November, is backed by Politico publisher Robert Allbritton and will lean on Politico staples like a sponsored daily newsletter, events, and insider-focused journalism to separate itself in the crowded field of tech reporting, according to executive editor Tim Grieve.

“We’ll focus on the people, power, and politics of tech, with no agenda and just one goal: to arm decision-makers in tech, business and public policy with the unbiased, fact-based news and analysis they need to navigate a world in rapid change,” he writes in the site’s welcome post.

Grieve — whose previous jobs include stints as managing editor of Politico and editor-in-chief of its high-priced moneymaker Politico Pro — told me he started talking with Allbritton in fall 2018 about applying the Politico model to the world of technology.

“His theory, which I agree with, is that technology is no longer just a sector of the economy or an industry — it’s a global power center akin to any nation’s capital,” Grieve said. “And it’s time for a publication to cover it like one.”

Protocol launches as a free sponsor-supported publication but Grieve says the expectation is to move toward paid products and other types of monetization over the next year. Politico’s Pro product — a “customizable policy intelligence platform” for which lobbyists, corporations, and other insiders of means pay many thousands per year for granular inside dirt on D.C. happenings — has been a critical revenue driver alongside Politico’s free main offering.

“I think that any successful publication today is going to have a variety of revenue streams,” he said. “I know, maybe more than a lot of people, just how difficult it can be to rely on advertising alone in a digital space.” (Grieve was most recently vice president of news at the McClatchy newspaper chain, which has had its struggles.)

When Protocol was first announced in November, it wasn’t clear exactly how it would fit in with the crowded space of tech coverage. “I think there are a ton of guys out there who cover tech from a V.C. or gadgets or even a governmental point of view, but I don’t think there’s anyone who covers it for its own sake,” Albritton said at the time. The site’s first-day content mix touched a number of bases:

Interesting stories all, but none of which would be hard to imagine running elsewhere. The editorial DNA seems to have a certain newspaperiness about it; these are closer to New York Times or Wall Street Journal stories than to Wired or The Verge stories.

There’s also a bit of The Information in there — particularly in the mix of longer-form pieces that don’t try to “win the morning” and shorter “Bulletins” that mostly aggregate the day’s news with an Axiosesque bullet-point-heavy style.

None of that should be too surprising, given that Protocol’s new editorial team includes journalists poached from Wired, the Times, the Journal, The Information, and more. Roughly half of Protocol’s reporters will be based in San Francisco, with additional staff sharing Politico office space in New York and the D.C. area. (A newsletter editor and producer will be based in London, taking advantage of the convenient time difference.)

Protocol does stand out a bit more on the product end, even before it shifts into paid products. Its morning email newsletter, Source Code, also comes in an audio version optimized for smart speakers. It launches with a Slack integration to deliver that newsletter straight into your company’s digital home base. A Protocol “Braintrust” adapts some ideas for expert engagement tried earlier at Politico.

Grieve says Protocol will cater to decision-makers in technology, business, and public policy, leaving consumer-facing stories (such as AirPod how-tos) to others. He added that Protocol will distinguish itself by forgoing what he diagnosed as “a mixing of opinion and journalism in the tech space.”

“One of the things I think is coolest about Politico is that, after 13 years in this incredibly balkanized world of political coverage, Politico has not been put in any kind of right-left box,” Grieve said. “No one dismisses it as conservative or liberal because it’s won a reputation for being aggressively fair. That’s what we want to do — write tough stories when it’s appropriate but not reduce issues to simple black and white boxes of good and evil.”

Of course, Politico hasn’t actually been able to avoid the right-left box completely. Last month’s Pew report on media polarization found Politico is, like nearly every mainstream news outlet, trusted far more by Democrats than Republicans. (Among Democrats, 21 percent said they trust Politico versus only 3 percent who didn’t; among Republicans, only 6 percent said they trust it versus 14 percent who said they didn’t. In both parties, most people said they weren’t familiar with the site.)

And Politico’s journalism has faced plenty of criticism that had little to do with partisanship. Its breakneck pace; its bloodlust for scoops; its dedication to the most insular sort of savvy insiderness — all of these have been subject to deep critique, sometimes from the very people who helped shape it. (“I Helped Create Insider Political Journalism. Now It’s Time For It To Go Away.”)

But those barbs were mostly aimed at an earlier version of the site; over time, Politico has evolved in a generally calmer, more thoughtful direction. (And/or the rest of journalism has become more Politico-like so the difference is harder to notice.) Protocol seems to come more from this late-period style, less stapled to the news cycle. Now its task will be to differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace — which will likely come more via product than via editorial — and see if lightning can strike twice.

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2020, 3:58 p.m.
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