How CNN Beat Politico and The Hill Combined

CNN took a big gamble on politics that is paying off online

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CNN Politics had a record 26 million multiplatform unique visitors in January, outperforming rivals Politico and The Hill, according to comScore.

“CNN took a big risk in August of 2014 when we reorganized CNN Politics only three months before the midterm elections,” CNN Vice President of CNNMoney and CNN Politics Ed O’Keefe told TheWrap.

It appears the risk paid off.

“We made a simple bet: outside of breaking news, the presidential election would be the biggest story of the next two years,” O’Keefe said. “We invested in breaking news and investigative reporters, enterprise writers and editors, video shooters and storytellers.”

CNN Politics added 44 new staffers in total, including 14 from Politico alone. Three of the 44 are former Washington Post employees and CNN Politics also hired from C-Span, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Fox News, Yahoo! and ABC News.

O’Keefe recalls saying, “if you are a top talent in D.C., expect to get a call from CNN Politics.” He eventually doubled his staff, poaching many employees of its rivals. Politico news managing editor-turned-CNN Politics executive editor Rachel Smolkin was among the high-profile talents to make the jump.

Smolkin’s former employer hasn’t changed its strategy despite losing 14 staffers.

“Politico is the dominant publication covering politics and policy for an elite audience in Washington, targeted states, and around the world. Our mission is to produce impact journalism for a key audience of influencers, not to chase a mass audience or scale,” a Politico source told TheWrap.

CNN is sticking to its plan, too.

“Our bet – our strategy – has paid off,” O’Keefe said. “CNN Politics has been No. 1 for eleven straight months and we have already seen three of the Top 5 days in the 20-year history of in 2016.”

The political section of the Huffington Post finished second to CNN with 25 million uniques, followed by Fox News Politics (13 million) and MSNBC (12 million). Politico and The Hill had 11 million each to tie for fifth place, according to comScore. (In television ratings, Fox still beats CNN handily.)

This election cycle had captivated the world and Politico is growing despite all the lost talent. The site experienced a traffic surge and had more uniques in the first ten days of February than in the entire month of February 2012, highlighted by the launch of the “digital stadium” experience.

CNN Politics also dominated video starts, with 55 million in the month of Jan. alone. Its closest competitor, The Young Turks Network, received less than half, with 22 million video starts. Fox News Politics finished third with 17 million.

User engagement on CNN Politics is staggering: 441 million minutes spent on the site. Fox News Politics finished second with 235 million minutes, followed by MSNBC TV with 227 million minutes. Politico finished fifth with 83 million and The Hill failed to crack the Top 6.

So what happens after November’s election?

“We will break more records and continue to be No. 1 – but this is not just a team built for an election; politics is in the DNA of CNN, and this incredible group which continues to innovate, break news, and experiment is the foundation of a renewed commitment to own the conversation around and coverage of politics in 2016 and beyond,” O’Keefe said.