Beyond the Beltway and Back Again: David Ellis Talks CQ Roll Call
David Ellis recounted the 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game on June 11 at Nationals Park in Washington, where a certain commander-in-chief made a surprise appearance to cheer on the Democrats and Republicans vying for the coveted Roll Call trophy. Showing no signs of partisanship, President Obama hung out in the Democrats’ dugout, and also took a moment to shake hands with Republicans.
“Our very quick-thinking vice president of content, David Meyers . . . handed [the trophy] to Obama. I ultimately gave it away . . . but voila, we have a picture of the President of the United States holding our trophy,” Ellis noted. “For the company and for Roll Call as a brand, having Obama hold up our trophy was a very good thing indeed.”
— Roll Call (@rollcall) June 12, 2015
Aside from hosting the annual event, CQ Roll Call also celebrates two anniversaries this month: the 60th Anniversary of Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, founded June 16, 1955 by Congressional press secretary Sid Yudain, and the 70th Anniversary of subscription news service CQ (Congressional Quarterly), founded in 1945 by journalism legend Nelson Poynter.
Ellis came on board with the news organization in March 2014 as vice president of news, advancing to the top editorial role of chief content officer by November. A 25-year veteran of the journalism trade, Ellis began his career interning for The Economist, before moving on to TIME, People and Bloomberg News, becoming steeped in the kind of political journalism he holds so dear.
Ellis discussed the brand challenges facing him in spreading the gospel of CQ and Roll Call, also describing some of the news organization’s latest innovative initiatives, influx of new talent, series of scoops, and his thoughts on the state of political journalism.
Building the Brand: From a Chorus Line to the Most Powerful Women in Congress
Developing just one brand is a tall order, but Ellis is tasked with overseeing four brands, comprised of nearly 150 journalists. Aside from Roll Call and the CQ news service, which produces CQ Weekly, Ellis also oversees CQ Data, a vault of data on Congress’ support of presidents going back to the Truman Administration, as well as CQ Legal, a weekly rundown of regulatory news produced in partnership with Thomson Reuters.
While discussing those brand challenges, Ellis is focused on bringing CQ Roll Call into the future:
“CQ is of course, inside the Beltway, a storied and respected brand, but within the Beltway. It’s a different brand challenge for CQ,” he said. “What I’m going to do in the next phase of my job is to get a shop window for CQ’s behind-the-paywall journalism. You don’t have brands in the same place, but they are in the same company.”
While Ellis wants to evolve the brand, he doesn’t believe that Poynter’s original mission for CQ needs any alterations. He quotes Poynter’s classic editorial philosophy and the thrust behind the founding of CQ in 1945.
“The federal government will never set up an adequate agency to check on itself, and a foundation is too timid for that. So it had to be a private enterprise beholden to its clients.” — Nelson Poynter
Ellis explained further, espousing the value and obligation of carrying on the mission of delivering unbiased information about Congress.
“The philosophy is there, but of course, the delivery system, the platforms change,” he said. “This goes back to branding. For CQ, one of the reasons we need to be out front with the idea that we have valuable information behind a paywall, is for external purposes, there’s a ‘halo effect.’ If people who subscribe to the service see our reporters out there as experts, attending events as panelists or hosts, showing up on panels . . . not just pining about what’s going on in Congress, but actually identifying what’s really going on in Congress. That adds value to the brand and also makes people very confident about what we’re doing.”
Poynter did not found Roll Call, though it was merged with CQ under ownership of The Economist Group in 2009. It’s the most far-reaching and accessible of the brands, and sets itself apart from other players in the space through what Ellis emphasizes in the newsroom as “around-the-corner journalism,” basically going beyond mere coverage of a congressional hearing to what’s happening in the hallway. “[Roll Call] is even beyond the Beltway, it’s got unparalleled district coverage. While everybody else is chasing presidential campaigning, which is a legitimate thing, it’s the people who are trying to get elected . . . we’re talking about the impact on districts,” he explained. “We’re accurate, we’re thorough, and we’re read by the most important people in Congress. You need to know what they know.
One of Ellis’ first initiatives was to entrench CQ Roll Call deeper in the realm of social media. “We have reporters who live their lives now on Facebook and in social media,” he said. “And one of the things I’ve done in the year I’ve been here is change the equation on the timidity of sharing information for free. I got here in March 2014 as vice president of news, and we had a Twitter feed called CQ Now that was established, but essentially unexploited.”
Ellis noted CQ’s past “timidity” over sharing information and updates on Twitter, but has since established a social media presence as a crucial element of branding. When Ellis started, he noticed many CQ Roll Call reporters tweeting Capitol Hill news and updates, but not under the CQ brand. Ellis offers an example:
“Say I’m the defense reporter for CQ and I just spotted Ash Carter, defense secretary, in a head down conversation with John McCain, or something like that. That’s not exclusive information, but that shows that our reporter is on the ground, knows who’s important, and is not just following what’s happening in the hearings, but in the hallway. We weren’t branding that under CQ, so now, we have the CQ Now Twitter feed, coalescing all the free stuff that was already out there into something that helps the brand. We’re no longer timid about telling people we’re out there, we’re in the hallways, we’re doing our jobs.”
That lack of timidity has translated to measurable growth, particularly at Roll Call, CQ’s flagship brand. Ellis shared some stats that show Roll Call’s digital impact. “Roll Call was visited by 21 million visitors and 17 million were unique in 2014; a 20 percent increase from the year before,” he said.
He also discussed an exciting new multimedia initiative.
“This year, we’re rolling out a new multimedia platform for Roll Call, which allows editors and reporters to automatically drop video into their news stories,” he explained. “The page itself is expected to generate enough advertising and picture rights revenue to pay back development costs by the end of the calendar year.”
Beyond these increased video capabilities, a move that empowers reporters without necessitating separate staffers to handle video, Ellis noted another unique capability of CQRC: its photo archive.
“We have 60 years of archived photos that we are digitizing and putting on our multimedia platform for anybody to buy,” he said. “Every dollar made from that is a dollar you didn’t anticipate, so it’s a free dollar. There’s no cost to it, and it’s something unique to us. No one else is going to have a photo of the ‘Congressional Secretaries’ Club getting ready for their annual concert, which was a photo on the front page of the first issue of Roll Call.”
While Roll Call in 1955 showed the ‘trim and talented’ chorus line of the Congressional Secretaries’ Club, a new CQ Weekly eBook series shows how far women have come on Capitol Hill since Roll Call’s founding, with the first issue: ‘Powerful Women: The 25 Most Influential Women in Congress,’ which came out May 19. The eBook series is also a chance for CQ to showcase its extensive data on members of Congress:
“We identified the 25 most effective women legislators and we published a book on how they’re reshaping the debate. For example, sexual harassment in the military wasn’t even discussed five years ago. Now you have Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, vying to be the leader on this particular issue,” he said. “So not only do you see issues never being talked about on the legislative agenda being talked about, but you have people vying to lead the way with their different bills and remedies.”
Ellis sees the incredible value of CQ’s cache of congressional data, identifying this as a unique asset and also a field for further growth and brand distinction. “We need to maximize the value of that information,” he suggested. “If you can discern patterns that other people can’t see, you’re giving people a competitive advantage. How do we make CQ indispensable? You need to appeal to people and you need to make people think that if they don’t get it, their competitors will. That’s not just a paywall thing.”
Be sure to come back next week for part two of our talk with David Ellis, where he discusses CQ’s exciting crop of new talent, the amazing scoops coming from the CQ newsroom, and his thoughts on the state of political journalism.
All photos courtesy of CQ Roll Call
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