Every weekend, we look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, public policy, and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”
Filling the gap in Florida’s media landscape
The faint outlines of the concept that would eventually become The Capitolist started to take shape during lunches and meetings at downtown Tallahassee restaurants and coffee shops in late 2015, around the time Donald Trump had already started to look like the eventual GOP nominee for president.
The conversations were almost always the same, whether talking to a well-connected lobbyist, a savvy political consultant, or a frustrated elected official. No matter the person I found myself sitting across, they’d invariably express their frustrations with Florida’s largest news outlets. Their primary complaint was the negative-by-default coverage of the state’s most prominent political and business leaders.
In me, they’d found a sympathetic ear. After years of hand-to-hand combat with Florida and national media outlets trying to get them to see the brilliant logic of then-Governor Rick Scott’s approach to his job (I’d been one of his most senior communications advisors), I’d then spent three years helping business and political clients navigate the state’s increasingly treacherous media environment.
Many reporters complain that Florida’s current governor, Ron DeSantis, ignores the media. But during my first years with Scott, I watched him win the governorship of the 3rd largest state in the nation while blazing his own trail without concern for what the establishment media wanted. It was refreshing, and I signed on to help him execute the strategy. Scott was one of the first modern political candidates to refuse to sit down for a single endorsement interview with the state’s top media outlets – and win anyway. One of my favorite newspaper stories of all time is the poorly-aged Tampa Bay Times proclaiming that Scott had earned exactly zero out of fourteen possible newspaper endorsements. The arrogance in their headline and first paragraph is palpable. But at least they begrudgingly if only tangentially acknowledged the truth: it wasn’t exactly a case of Scott trying and failing to win those endorsements. On the contrary, he “refused to talk with any editorial boards about his plans for Florida.” On purpose.
His refusal to “bend the knee” to the state’s editorial boards wasn’t exactly a bold risk, but rather a calculus borne of the realization that the general public no longer held the opinions of newspaper editors in high esteem. After all, everyone had an opinion, and on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else, we could now share them. What made the editorial boards’ opinions any more valuable?
By early 2016, with Donald Trump further exposing the acute lack of trust in the media, I’d seen and heard enough. Florida’s own media landscape at that time was still dominated by the rapidly waning Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and a handful of smaller legacy outlets, while the digital media leaders were Politico, and Florida Politics. Only a single center-right media outlet operated in Tallahassee in 2016: Sunshine State News. It was clear that Florida’s market could not only support another digital news outlet with a center-right, pro-business editorial outlook, we were actually needed.
We launched a few months later with a mix of serious and satirical content, and it didn’t take long for Tallahassee’s political insiders to embrace our fresh approach. Early sponsorships flowed in from companies and organizations that spanned the political spectrum and wanted our venture to succeed. As we grew, we began to realize something: our audience might just be much bigger than the staffers, the elected officials, and the lobbyist corps encircling them in the capitol complex.
Business, public policy, and politics
Last year, The Capitolist made an intentional, strategic shift to broaden our editorial focus beyond state politics, expanding to include a handful of industries key to Florida’s economy: agriculture, energy, environment, finance, health care, telecom and tourism. There’s obviously many other industries we cover, but those seven, along with our daily stories on state politics, have formed the backbone of our editorial focus for the past year. Our unique positioning at the nexus of business policy and politics coverage in the heart of the state’s political capital provides insights that other outlets don’t.
The shift in strategy was not without risk. In the first several years of operation, we’d gained over 30,000 Facebook fans, the vast majority of which were attracted to our obvious center-right political content, our satire, and our reputation for coming at many stories with a pronounced angle. Our deliberate shift toward more straight business and public policy news – and providing all parties in a story the chance to share their own side, risked alienating some of our readers. But we’ve actually grown during that span. Today, we have nearly 38,000 Facebook fans, and our readership is actually trending higher during a non-election year, bucking a trend. We also have built an email audience that has nearly doubled since launch to over 11,000 subscribers.
Earlier this year, we launched this very column, The Wrap, which instantly drove a readership surge and has become one of the site’s most popular items.
This past week, we added yet another new feature that’s been in development for months (and is still being perfected): The Capitolist “Business Ticker,” which pulls content from BusinessWire, PR Newswire and other corporate press release publications to deliver relevant Florida business and legal news to our readers.
Looking ahead to the next five years, we’ve got even more innovations planned, some already in development, and we’re still looking to hire a fourth reporter who will round out our newsroom in Tallahassee. While the state’s media landscape continues to evolve, a small, nimble newsroom like ours at The Capitolist will be well-positioned for the next five years and beyond.