The story of arguably the UK’s most successful political blogger Iain Dale could well provide a salutary tale for those of us in the mainstream media who are rushing headlong into the blogosphere.
While his blog, launched in earnest in 2006, has been enormously successful at raising his profile, nearly all the money he has made off the back of it has been in the mainstream media – through broadcasting and writing.
And now he is looking to take his media career to the next level, what is he planning to do? He’s launching an ink-on-paper printed monthly magazine called Total Politics. Dale admits: ‘People think it’s a bit strange.’But when it comes to his blog, he says ad agencies ‘just don’t get it”.
Total Politics will be sent free to Britain’s 22,000 elected politicians and be available via the newsstand and subscription.
Explaining his decision to launch a magazine Dale says: ‘We looked at doing this as an internet magazine but thought we would never be able to get the revenue to make it work.
‘You can promise advertisers that every elected politician from the Prime Minister down to locally elected councillors will receive a copy of this magazine at home or their desk. But you can’t do that with a website.”
Dale’s previous full-time experience in the mainstream media boils down to a six-month spell at Lloyd’s List as insurance correspondent in between working as a political lobbyist.
But as founder and proprietor of Politico’s Bookshop in Westminster from 1996 to 2004, he built up a career as a pundit and broadcaster on political issues.
His current incarnation as arguably the country’s pre-eminent political blogger, along with Guido Fawkes, came about in 2006.
Dale found himself in the career wilderness after a spectacular failure to get elected as a Tory MP, followed by a stint as chief of staff for David Davis when he fought David Cameron for the Tory leadership.
After taking six months out, he says: ‘I found it very difficult to get back into the media, all the producers I used to work with had moved on to other things – so the blog became my USP.
‘I only ever used it as a platform to air my views – but I started to break stories.’The first of which was based on some particularly salacious excerpts from the diaries of Tracey Temple – the diary secretary who had an affair with then deputy prime minister John Prescott.
‘I got a call from somebody on the Daily Mail who said they couldn’t run all of it because it is a family newspaper. It was stuff about Prescott’s use of Viagra and the size of his manhood.”
Dale says that after running the Prescott story online, it was picked up by The Sun which ran it on the whole of page seven with a credit to his blog. ‘The traffic went mad. Whenever you get a good story, traffic spikes and a percentage stays with you.”
Dale says he realised the power of his blog when he picked up on a story in The Mail on Sunday, about Cherie Blair giving a signed copy of the Hutton report to a charity auction, which had failed to get followed up in the Monday papers.
‘The next day, four national papers ran it on their front pages. Afterwards, three political editors said it was because they saw it on my blog and thought if they didn’t, someone else would.”
Dale says most of the media work he does now – which includes a column in The Daily Telegraph and regular punditry on TV and radio – has come about as a result of the blog.
He claims that in May, Iain Dale’s Diary attracted 72,000 unique visitors – which he says is more than the combined traffic of the official websites of the Conservative and Labour parties.
While direct income from the blog has been modest – ads provided by Google Ads and Message Space earn Dale about £7,000 a year – its value in promoting his ‘brand’has been huge.
He says: ‘I don’t think anyone in this country has been able to earn a living from what they make on a blog.”
Dale believes that advertisers are ‘wary of things they see as party political”, which may be one of the reason why his blog does not make huge amounts of money – and why he so keen to avoid the perception that Total Politics is a ‘Tory rag”.
Despite the fact Dale, who is publisher, is a Tory, as is its main investor – mega-wealthy Tory grandee Michael Ashcroft – he insists that the magazine must remain politically independent for it to succeed.
And he points out that editor Sarah Mackinlay is a Labour supporter and party affiliations are evenly spread throughout the other 4.5 editorial staff.
Issue one of Total Politics includes an interview with Prime Minister Gordon Brown which, Dale believes, Mackinlay was able to bag thanks to the magazine’s unique editorial line.
‘She said we’re not interested in talking about Northern Rock, this magazine is about the political process and where politics is going – rather than the usual aggressive questioning.”
Total Politics will be available free online, at least initially, as a virtual e-magazine. And more than 30 political insiders – ranging from Hazel Blears MP to Tony Travers from the LSE – have been signed up as unpaid bloggers.
Dale also has ambitions to make the Total Politics website the ultimate online resource for information about UK politics.
As well as the controlled circulation, Total Politics will be available on newsstands throughout the country at £3.99, and via subscriptions.
Advertising for the launch issue has already been selling well, says Dale. The commercial proposition is a mixture of display advertising, aimed at the public affairs budgets of companies or organisations with a particular political message to get across, and smaller adverts from those who provide services to politicians – such as speechwriters, conference organisers and book publishers.
The editorial mission statement is, says Dale, to be ‘unremittingly positive about politics”.
He says: ‘The thing that unites all politicians is the desire to get re-elected, so we’ve got a lot on that. We also want to make this a fun experience.
‘With a lot of political publications, people seem to buy them because they feel they ought to read them, not because they want to.”