Login is restricted to DCN Publisher Members. If you are a DCN Member and don't have an account, register here.

Digital Content Next


InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

3 lessons from National Journal’s digital transformation

November 7, 2022 | By Scott Varho, SVP of Product Development – 3Pillar Global @3PillarGlobal

Uncertain market dynamics are forcing many businesses to shift course. But how many publishers can actually point to hard data to say that they’ve not only radically altered their business practices, but those changes have made a material impact in how they drive revenue?

That’s exactly what Kevin Turpin and his team have done at National Journal. They’ve engineered a complete overhaul of the company’s business model. From a traditional media advertising model, to an information services company with an ever-growing number of digital products and services, they’re helping government affairs professionals navigate policy, politics, and people. 

Over the course of that evolution, the share of National Journal’s revenue from advertising went from 50% to 3% in just five years as the company shifted its business model to membership subscriptions and custom research engagements.

Turpin joined 3Pillar Global’s Innovation Engine podcast to talk about this remarkable digital transformation and share some learnings that can help anyone looking to spark digital innovation at their own organizations.

1. Invest to differentiate, not just improve

Tighter competition makes digital transformation a necessity. But that transformation needs to have a purpose. National Journal knew that it had to “buckle down” and invest in being competitive. But the company first had to step back and decide who it was competing against.

Turpin recalled a direct quote from National Journal’s chairman David Bradley, “Always make the investment to be different in kind, not degree.” So rather than try to be faster or better than their media competitors, the National Journal team looked at the bigger picture. Google and Facebook were altering the market, making it “harder and harder to be successful in that ecosystem, especially if you’re producing something that was only different in degree,” Turpin said.

“Our decision was, let’s choose the hard road and let’s recreate. Let’s create anew what National Journal is and that really pushed us to certainly the more aggressive approach, which was totally transforming what our business was,” he said.

2. Failure to evolve opens the door to disruption

Digital transformation isn’t a one-time decision. It requires constant evolution to keep pace with other competitors. Once National Journal realized that its transformation would move it away from a traditional ad-supported media company to an information company, it began looking at the kinds of services that it could provide its member clients.

Once again, Turpin and his team did this with a great deal of intentionality. Customers’ market challenges do not stay the same year after year, and the future of the company depends on keeping up to date with what its members need to succeed.

“You can get shifted out of a budget line if you’re not sure what challenges are driving your members at a given time,” Turpin said.

To develop the products that have become National Journal’s main revenue driver, Turpin’s team always starts by listening to member needs. They want to know where the puck is going so they can help their members now and in the future.

“We always start with asking our members questions like, ‘What’s keeping you awake at night this year? What new things are you investing in that you didn’t invest in a year ago, that you didn’t invest in five years ago? What’s the number one priority that your boss is asking you to complete this year?” Turpin explained.

3. Transformation is only possible with accountability

Sustainable transformation can be challenging with limited resources. National Journal’s process is to make sure that its products are actually meeting the needs of its customers, and that requires the discipline to see each product launch all the way through, but also to admit when something’s not working.

New solutions that come under consideration must be additive, rather than stretching the market. National Journal never launches new products “just to do new.”

Another critical component is sticking with products to ensure that products scale and are set up for long-term success. Turpin advises companies to avoid leaving a launch product too early, as well as admit when they’re wrong if it’s quickly clear that a product just isn’t meeting the market’s needs.

“I found it’s a lot better if you get to that answer earlier in the process by sticking with it than letting it languish for two years and then coming back in and having to make sure it fits your decisions,” Turpin said.

Not every company will follow the same trajectory as National Journal. However, any publisher can undergo a digital transformation that sets it apart from the competition and positions the brand for growth.

Liked this article?

Subscribe to the InContext newsletter to get insights like this delivered to your inbox every week.