What’s behind Capitol Forum and its growth plans
Teddy Downey is executive editor and chief executive officer of The Capitol Forum, a Washington-based news service digging deep into the connection between business and government regulation.
Downey is responsible for overseeing editorial coverage and growth initiatives. Previously, Downey was a senior vice president at MF Global’s Washington Research Group, where he provided education policy and antitrust policy research for institutional investors.
Prior to his experience at MF Global, Downey helped launch Potomac Research, a boutique policy research firm, and got his start in the policy analysis world as an associate in Friedman Billings Ramsey’s Washington policy research group.
He holds a B.A. from Columbia University.
Downey spoke with Talking Biz News by email about Capitol Forum. What follows is an edited transcript.
How was Capitol Forum started?
Five years ago, two of my closest friends from high school and I took a look at the journalism landscape in DC and we saw that the deeper reporting was transitioning to shallower reporting as information moved over the internet. We also saw that mergers and consolidation and the laws that apply to mergers and consolidation were not really reported on and studied as closely as they ought to be, given their influence over the economy and the citizenry.
Trevor, Jake, and I had always had discussions of working together, but the timing was right, and we put together a compelling business plan, and we decided to try to hire antitrust lawyers to produce high-quality journalism on mergers, and that’s how we got off the ground. I should add that we thought business journalism in particular was ready for a company that was really going to focus on getting to the truth and answering the tough questions when we viewed the government or a large corporation as not being entirely transparent. So, there was a need for that as well.
How did Capitol Forum pick the business news areas that it is covering?
We chose antitrust and consumer protection as the legal areas that we wanted to focus on. Partly, we chose those two areas because I had investigated mergers and consumer protection issues at my previous research jobs. But, we also saw that consumer protection law was evolving with the creation of the consumer financial protection bureau, and, at the time, there were the first signs of an intellectual movement to challenge the Chicago school’s dominant frame of analysis for antitrust as wrong-headed and in need of change. So, we thought that there would be uncertainty as a result, and if we produced high-quality journalism on those two topics, we could attract a broad subscriber base.
How does your cover differ from other media organizations?
Well, our antitrust coverage matches up pretty closely with what you see from other business publications that cover antitrust in that we cover large, controversial mergers and their antitrust reviews at the DOJ and FTC. That said, given the antitrust experience our staff has, we feel we are better suited to perform in-depth analysis and more fully investigate novel theories of anticompetitive harm. Lastly, we have such a narrow focus on each merger that we think we are able to get more interviews with customers, competitors, and thought leaders who are likely to weigh in on the deal’s antitrust issues.
We have two other coverage areas that are unique. One coverage area involves regulation and antitrust enforcement of the big four tech platforms — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. That’s certainly a unique coverage area, and we think that’s going to be a hot topic and growth area for us going forward, especially following the recent EU decision on Google.
Our other topic area involves consumer protection issues or, more broadly, investigations into corporations that are alleged to mislead their customers, whether the customers are citizens, small businesses, or the government. In particular, we have been surprised at how many big companies make significant profits off of their government contracts, so we see this area of coverage continuing to grow as well, and it’s just not a topic that attracts much press, unless we are talking about the really huge dollar defense contracts.
How big is your staff now and how have you grown your staff?
We are up to 28 full-time staff, and that includes one salesperson and the rest is focused on editorial efforts. We look for lawyers who want to be business journalists and business journalists who aren’t afraid to dig into the weeds and talk to high-profile government officials, lawyers and academics. In terms of finding talent, we use recruiters and we tap into our network to find folks who can continue to help us grow and provide high-quality journalism.
Who are your key readers? How do you attract them?
Our key readers include government officials, institutional investors, lawyers, PR firms, and academics. A lot of our subscribers come to us by word of mouth. When we get a scoop or launch a new investigation, word spreads pretty quickly, and we tend to become an authoritative source once we get into a new topic area. As we grow, our readership increases as we grow our coverage areas.
Businesses want to understand the legal and policy risks to their business strategies, and affected businesses and their stakeholders tend to reach out when we launch coverage on a new merger or policy issue.
How does Capitol Forum generate revenue?
Our revenue is almost 100 percent subscription-based. We do have one sponsorship for our annual antitrust video series with top antitrust policymakers and thought leaders, and we may look to do more of those in the future.
You’re looking to expand your editorial staff. What’s the growth plan for the company?
We try to grow as quickly as we can! We hire as quickly as our subscriber growth allows us, so we are looking at growing our staff by 40-50 percent per year. Right now, we are focused on enhancing our current coverage areas. For our merger product, that means covering more issues rather than just the antitrust review.
For our consumer protection product, we’re looking at improving our expertise and coverage of accounting issues. Further, we are really interested in improving the technology behind our distribution platform, and so we’ll be looking to hire programmers and folks with experience in developing data/journalism platforms.
Why do you believe there’s such a demand for coverage around government regulation and policy?
You know, there is a conventional wisdom that markets are a free and self-governing and that government rules don’t really matter when it comes to business success. The reality is that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every market has laws that govern competition. Laws always are changing either in the state and federal legislature and in the courts. Even law enforcement depends significantly on the people enforcing those laws. The rules of every market are defined and enforced by policymakers and law enforcers. And the best business people understand this.
For example, Lina Khan wrote an essay called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” and in the essay, Lina explains that Amazon’s success can be traced to how well the company’s practices and business plan fall in line with the ideology and enforcement patterns of antitrust law. Before Amazon, Walmart navigated those laws better than anyone. At this point, high-profile corporate lawyers have tremendous influence over the economy, and at a high level, that is not well understood, and at a more granular level, it takes a lot of resources to cover these complicated legal issues, so there isn’t a lot of good journalism when it comes to these issues.
Once people realize that understanding competition law and understanding how changes to that law lead to a deeper understanding of the likely winners and losers in business, they really understand the value of our product. Now, getting people to see past the conventional wisdom and appreciate the utility of studying the law and policy is probably the harder part for us. In some ways, the Trump administration has really jump started the focus on how the government can affect business, but the value for business people and investors of understanding competition law has always been high. In some ways, this can be measured by how many resources are spent on lobbying not just for influencing the government but also for getting access to information.
How many articles a day do you publish, and how are they distributed?
We publish roughly two articles per day at this point, and they are distributed by email.
Where do you see Capitol Forum in five years?
In five years, I’d like the Capitol Forum to be by far the largest investigative business journalism outlet in DC, with an events and data platform that puts us more directly in competition with the largest business and policy journalism providers in DC and NY.