Successful subscription-based publishing startups: a chat with Zetland’s Lea Korsgaard

Lea Korsgaard is the Editor in Chief of Zetland, a Danish online publication which launched in the Spring of 2016 and is, frankly, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that the subscription model can not only prove sustainable, but also successful. It’s all about taking a step back and looking at the readers’ needs first.

Tell me a bit about Zetland – it’s just a year old, is that right?

Well, yes and no. Zetland was established in 2012 as an eSingle publishing house. The four founders (I’m one of them) had fled the legacy media business because we wanted to make sure that the kind of journalism that’s important for people and society – the long form, in-depth kind – had a way to be preserved in a digital format.

Initially we published one story a month in an eSingle format, by which I mean a small eBook, shorter than a real book, but longer than a Sunday edition feature. As well as this we also launched something called Zetland Live, where we put journalism on a stage in a theatre in a 90-minute-long show, where we showcase somewhere between 10 and 15 stories told live.

“The right product for us is one that publishes very little, but publishes the right thing in order for you as a citizen to understand the big issues” – Lea Korsgaard, Zetland

To begin with, we did this because we thought it was fun and interesting, but soon we realized that it was actually the most informative way of meeting our audience and our members. When we met them at these shows we learned that their need in a modern digital media environment was not to get one long story a month, but for a media that cut through the noise; a media that helped them not only to get new information, but to get inside that information to enable them to understand the vast amount of information that’s about today.

You mean you realized that the product wasn’t quite right?

Absolutely. We were along the right lines: the right product for us is one that publishes very little, but publishes the right thing in order for you as a citizen to understand the big issues. We developed a business case around that notion and in March last year we began publishing as a daily newspaper, so it was in fact a relaunch, really.

You’re talking about curation and getting the quantity right as key to the subscription model. How have you come to the right number of things to publish per day?

I think, today, less really is more. It’s not information we need: there’s a ton of information out there. That might have been the end goal before, but now you don’t need journalists to do that. You can just log onto Facebook or look at Twitter.

The goal now should be to give insights and show context and connect all the dots that are out there. By doing this it also means that you aren’t contributing to the information overload, and in fact you’re effectively doing the opposite, so it’s a pretty radical change, right?

“The goal now should be to give insights and show context and connect all the dots that are out there” – Lea Korsgaard, Zetland

So now we’re publishing approximately three or four stories a day and trying to make sure that that those are the stories our readers need to put current events into the larger context. Sometimes it’s also a case of presenting something different: ‘everyone’s talking about this, but maybe we should be talking about that’.

Obviously you’re relatively new, but what’s your sense of how that model is working for you?

We just ended our first feedback session and it was significant that the overwhelming feedback we got is that our readers value us because we give them substance and context, neither of which they feel they get elsewhere. A common response has been that readers feel they only need to read one story here to get the whole nuanced picture of what’s going on. It’s pretty clear that they aren’t finding traditional media useful, and these are people who are interested and engaged with current affairs.

How are you choosing which stories to run?

Well, first of all, working in a newsroom has always been about finding the right stories to put on the front page; it’s always been how to serve the users’ needs best or the stories which are important to tell right now, so in that sense nothing’s different.

Our radical approach is to see the world from our users’ perspective: what do they need to fill the gap between what they have insight into and what they want insight into, for example. We do this by not focusing on events, but focusing on larger changes. The news business often misses the bigger picture because they focus on what’s happening at that moment. If you’re always looking at those events happening at a specific point, the danger is that you miss the broader shifts. After Trump’s victory, everyone asked themselves how they managed to fail to see that result coming, but simply put, they didn’t see it coming because they were too focused on what happened yesterday and not on the slow changes which really drive history.

The election in France and the one in Holland are great examples too: for us, those stories have been about the demise of the huge, old parties which once ruled the western world. Stand back and you can see them implode, but you don’t see that implosion if you’re focusing on specifics – on character issues, for instance, or on the political day-to-day grind.

Why’s the traditional media getting it so wrong, then. Why is the subscription model seen as being so limited?

The news business has finally realized that the business model that sustains their journalism needs to change, but what I think they don’t yet understand is that it’s not only about a different business model: it’s about making different content.

The future of editorial analytics (in under 15 slides)

These days it’s not a question of how to sustain the kind of journalism that we’ve always done, the key question is what journalism makes a difference in our lives so that they will pay for it. News publications, as such, just don’t make a difference because you can get it from so many sources. Today you make a difference by providing explanation, deep thinking about what’s going on. I think one of the reasons that it’s easy for us is that we don’t have the baggage of course – we don’t have this huge organization that has spent 100 years doing the same content, and it would be nice, sure, but on the other hand it’s nice not to have to struggle with that kind of scale.

There’s a difference of writing style too: ours is very conversational, so it’s not uncommon for us to start an article with something like, “OK, then. So this is what’s happening, you guys”. This is pretty much the exact opposite of the more traditional approach that you’re taught in journalism school, which stems from the belief that journalists gain authority by standing up and talking down from a pedestal to their audience.

Now? Well, I don’t think people buy that anymore: you gain trust and authority from stepping down from that pedestal and being part of a dialogue with your community and revealing that whatever you’re writing has been written by a human with a passion for telling that story.

Do your readers respond to that approach in how they interact with the articles, for example?

One thing that I think it’s important to mention is that when I say our journalists get their authority from being in dialogue with our readers, that’s quite literally the case: we do quite literally ask them for help. They’re people who know stuff, who have an opinion. So we ask them. Our comments section are very often as interesting to read as the article itself. They like that we take them seriously.

Are those comments engaged with?

Oh, absolutely. What I’m most proud of is that at Zetland there’s no need for moderation, and in fact we’ve never deleted any comments because they offer great, thoughtful insights from people who can contribute something valuable. Sometimes I get a bit depressed when I’m out on social media and I see the debate tone out there and how people are talking to each other. What I’ve learned from our experiences at Zetland is that if you demand something of people, then you get a fantastic response and the comments section doesn’t have to implode in anger.

How else are you measuring engagement with your readers?

Well, in that way, but also how often they visit and what they read – from data. I’m not afraid to act on that data and those learnings.

Is that data something that your journalists and staff can partake in?

We really value transparency between the media and the members, but also between management and the rest of the organization. For instance, on Slack we have a channel for management so everybody else in the organization can go into the channel and see what’s on the agenda. By the same token, all the data is available to them and we encourage people to learn from data: what works, how we should tweak a story to get the most readers to it.

Is there any reason your version of the subscription model wouldn’t work elsewhere?

We are super inspired by De Correspondent in Holland. I don’t hesitate to say that we should pay tribute to them – they’re incredibly successful and they’ve just expanded to the States, so they’re the example to follow. There are a bunch of other grassroots startups that maybe need a focus on how to monetize, so there’s definitely people trying out similar models.

“What I’m most proud of is that at Zetland there’s no need for moderation, and in fact we’ve never deleted any comments because they offer great, thoughtful insights from people who can contribute something valuable” – Lea Korsgaard, Zetland

Our case shows that there’s a need for this kind of journalism, and moreover there’s a willingness to pay. Our job here is to come out to the market and tell them that we’re here. We’re still on a journey: we currently have 7,000 members and our target is 11,500 by the end of the year, so our job is to make sure that every Dane has heard about Zetland so we can broaden the audience. We’re gaining between 10 and 50 new members a day, so I’m positive the audience is there. I honestly don’t get why there aren’t more equivalents, especially given the events of Brexit and Trump. I’m pretty sure it’s the perfect time to start.

For more on the future of journalism, subscription and how editorial analytics can make a real difference, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or subscribe to our weekly newsletter – coming soon!

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