Wholly subscriber-financed journalism
The Republic is an online newsmagazine running on a business formula for journalism that has been widely discussed for years – financing via subscriptions only – but rarely practiced with success. The success comes from in fact doing much more than just journalism for subscribers, in a manner that reflects the external demand interfaces of a company offering Deep-Connect value.
Three “health warnings” in advance. First, this blog post is ridiculously long, running to almost 3,000 words. Second, I am a customer of the company being blogged on, as will become clear in the post. The blog post has been written based on my own experience and the communication of the company with all of its customers. The company and its employees have not been involved in any manner in the writing of this post. Third, in light of the first two warnings it is advisable to repeat that in the posts the focus is on the value offered and not on weaknesses or shortcomings.
The Republic (“Die Republik”) addresses a readership primarily in German-speaking Switzerland and is based in Zurich. Six days a week they distribute per mail two to three articles to their “publishers”, as they designate their subscribers. The reference to publishers is a first indication of what The Republic does which is unusual and represents Deep-Connect value: the customers are treated as financiers and thus can have a say in running the business. More on that later. The articles represent high-quality journalism: the bulk of the articles are in-depth reports, thoroughly researched, covering mostly society and politics, and also business and culture. From the beginning there was the clear decision for “no sports”, which from the point of view of this subscriber – er, publisher – for reasons of personal interest is somewhat disappointing, and considering that sport is increasingly reflecting business, society and politics – and probably somehow culture – the decision is also somewhat difficult to understand, but that’s how it is.
Anyway, the decision was probably taken in keeping with the wider purpose of The Republic: not simply high-quality journalism free from advertising, but more prominently an important contribution to democracy. The Republic sees itself as making a significant input to its reading and financing public, to inform them so that they can participate in political decision-making in a more informed manner. The purpose to inform in this way leads to a focus on topics in Switzerland, but also includes much reporting beyond the Swiss borders to include Europe and the world, because Switzerland is traditionally a very open society. And in Switzerland, with its system of direct democracy, coupled with the reality of a nation consisting of a relatively small population, individuals do feel that their decisions have an impact on politics and thus there is certainly an interest to be informed accordingly. Furthermore, from the perspective of The Republic, and probably from the “publishers” as well, one step further from supporting democracy is to promote freedom; the two go hand-in-hand. This is the core of the new paradigm as in Deep-Connect value: the readers finance an organisation which they and the journalists working there both regard as in fact an institution in the political system of the country, where part of the institutional power of the organisation is that its readers participate in the political processes in part by drawing on what they read.
Another characteristic of Deep-Connect value is that essential connections are made in the offers to the customers. The Republic offers four kinds of essential connections. One essential connection made by the newsmagazine was described above: journalism connecting to democracy and freedom which connects to political activity.
A second essential connection is the expanded role of the customers, i.e. the subscribers, i.e. the publishers. Firstly, they – or I should say we – are invited to comment on individual articles. This is a widespread practice for online journalism; it’s just that, in my experience, on other news websites there are a limited number of comments. On The Republic there are often dozens, or even over one hundred comments and replies to comments. The feedback culture is alive and well at The Republic. It is more than a feedback culture: the commenters are made into co-journalists, where their comments become part of the journalistic output which is read by the publishers. The feedback culture goes even further in a second connection. As publishers, we are constantly invited to give feedback to the business plans of the organization. The strategy, marketing methods, major types of costs, and so forth are laid open for comment from the publishers. Although we are all laywomen and laymen in the business of journalism, we are invited to make contributions as co-businesspeople.
Thirdly, we laywomen and laymen are asked to exercise our non-expert thinking in the practice of journalism itself, if we care to. An article published in The Republic was formally criticised in a Swiss journalistic oversight organ for misrepresenting certain facts. The Republic not only informed the publishers about this criticism, but laid open the internal procedures for fact-checking which lie behind every article. We were served up the Excel document which soberly listed in one column every statement in the article, matched in a second column by the source of the “evidence”. This Excel document is checked by a second journalist, and not by the one who wrote the article. So those of us who have spent our lives reading journalism not only now know how this kind of editing review is done, but have the opportunity to make a comment. We are co-editors in establishing the editorial processes. Drawing this all together, the publishers are thus fourthly invited to take part in the entire business of the organisation, as co-journalists, as co-businesspeople and as co-editors. We have the chance to be co-entrepreneurs with a finger in everything.
In the third essential connection made by The Republic, the interaction between journalists who are well informed and have opinions and the readership in a similar position goes beyond the boundaries of the website. The Republic regularly organises events reflecting the topics in the newsmagazine – sadly enough, nothing about sports, as already noted, but rather culture, politics and society. Regarding culture, the book club, or book salon, as it has been newly christened, is an intensive discussion amongst three journalists of three books, moderated by a fourth journalist and open to questions from the audience. Journalists jump over their own shadow in that they are willing to speak and not just write, and the audience gathers in a public room to listen and question instead of just reading on their couch. The quality of the discussion in the book salon stands in an inverse relation to the quantity of attendees, at least the three that I attended with great interest; but it seems that no one is particularly bothered by that: one reason why this may be the case is presented just below. Another event – in politics – was an interview with the leader of the Green Party in Germany, which drew a much larger crowd. And the societal issue of prostitution, which in Switzerland is legal but nevertheless operates somewhat undercover and can involve illegal activities such as human trafficking, drew an overflow crowd of hundreds for the discussion between a journalist and three practitioners. We were agog. Where else can one take part in such a discussion?
The fourth essential connection at The Republic is, loosely described, the IT features. That is, the reader is connected to an enormous reservoir of information and news in a very manageable manner. Firstly, every article is choc-a-bloc with links; this is an online newsmagazine that lives in the internet world with a vengeance. Secondly, many of the articles are organised on the website into sets of articles on the same topic, referred to as dossiers, e.g. on prostitution – as an aside, the event was not just a one-off but built on the fundament of a set of articles which I assume will be continued. That is, the website is structured to offer articles which are connected to one another. Readers can inform themselves in-depth on a topic via a set of in-depth articles. Thirdly, items appear regularly with high-powered IT features. For example, during the recent national elections, readers had access to a database providing the voting record in parliament of the candidates, a profile of their views on key issues, and so forth. The navigation smoothly enabled one to filter the candidates in a given canton and then flick through their profiles, swiping candidates to the left to be ignored and those to the right for later referral. Yes, you got it – just like in Tinder, as remarked by The Republic itself.
Fourthly, all the events are recorded and then made available as a podcast. This is, perhaps, the reason why the enthusiasm for the book salon remains high even if attendance is sparse. The readership is connected to the event even without attending. Podcasts are also made for interviews with journalists, e.g. the two journalists who travelled to five Near Eastern countries to write articles about the grassroots movements underneath autocratic regimes talked about the challenges and rewards of doing this kind of journalism. Fascinating. Fifthly, articles can be downloaded or shared per mail or social media, to create a connection to other people. Such functionality is offered more or less as a standard on many news websites, but in the case of The Republic, this IT functionality operates smoothly every time. Which is not always the case on other news websites. Indeed, a sixth aspect of the IT features on The Republic is that all of them – the links, the podcasts, the Tinder for politicians, etc. – function fast, smooth, reliably, easy. What I cannot say about other news websites I visit.
Overall, the fourth essential connection at The Republic relates to the IT: the reader is connected to the essentials of the multi-faceted offers from The Republic in a direct and immediate manner.
Deep-Connect value is further characterised by an organisation that manages relations with stakeholders to create solutions which sell themselves. There are three ways in which The Republic does this.
First, the newsmagazine has always urged its publishers – i.e. the ones who consume the “solutions” in the form of the news articles – to spread the word about the newsmagazine in order to gain more publishers. The implicit argument to the publishers was, if you want to keep consuming the solutions, help us to business survival, and hopefully business success, with more publishers. That is, the organisation hoped that the quality of the solutions – the articles, events, podcasts, etc. to support democracy and all that – was of a nature which would motivate the customers to themselves sell the solution. This appeal was made explicit in December 2019 when The Republic announced two targets for the number of publishers and the volume of financing from investors; if these targets were not met by the end of March 2020, The Republic would fold. A clear and compelling message. Publishers were appealed to for their help, where they could participate in various marketing initiatives to help sell subscriptions. I took part in two. The first initiative was to become an “accomplice” and participate in brainstorming sessions to come up with good ideas for how to increase the number of subscriptions.
The second was to engage in a practice which created, as far as I know, a new verb: “to flyer”. I stood outside a train station to pass out flyers to passers-by, along with two journalists from The Republic. The “flyering” was done on the basis of an official authorisation which strictly specified where we could stand – this is Switzerland, after all, where order is important. Indeed, within fifteen minutes two policemen came by to check our authorisation; and were friendly enough – this is another feature of Switzerland – to take away a flyer which the journalist, my fellow flyerer, full of initiative, offered. I am writing before the end of March 2020, and the good news is, The Republic has already more than reached the target for the number of publishers needed. As is often the case in marketing, one does not know the extent to which any individual marketing initiative contributed to raising the number of publishers, but it seems that the initiatives as a whole accomplished their aim.
The second set of stakeholders with which The Republic maintains relations is the investors. When The Republic started up two years ago, a crowd-funding campaign gained not only the first group of publishers but also won a number of investors. The campaign conducted in recent months included also winning further investors to raise the equity capital of the business. It has been announced that this target has also been reached. Exactly how this was accomplished, i.e. how The Republic manages the relations to investors, is not known to me. Here there seems to be less transparency, although I am not certain: I do not read every last piece of information sent to me. In any case, the “solution” offered by The Republic, i.e. the novel approach to an online newsmagazine, was “sold” to investors willing to take a financial stake.
The third set of stakeholders is the other media organisations in the Swiss media landscape. The Republic has a mix of first direct relations with these organisations, i.e. the journalists and investors know each other, and second indirect: when The Republic publishes an article, the other media organisations are of course free to themselves include in their reporting the content of the article from The Republic. The news item from another organisation includes a reference to The Republic as the original source, serving to raise the profile of the newsmagazine. That is, the solution from The Republic, i.e. the in-depth article based on journalistic research, “sells itself” in that it generates interest from other media organisations, who in turn “sell” The Republic to their readerships by informing them about the article from The Republic.
This kind of self-selling has happened several times. Most prominently in two articles about the largest chain of childcare facilities in Switzerland, which revealed severe shortcomings in the quality of childcare and the working conditions for the staff. Virtually every news organisation in German-speaking Switzerland repeated the content and it led to motions in the cantonal parliaments. The authorities overseeing the childcare facilities will be more rigorous as a result of the articles. Another example is a set of articles about a cartel amongst construction companies in one canton which shared out the contracts and set the prices, this with the knowledge of some cantonal officials. This reporting also made a big splash in the media and led to a parliamentary investigation in the canton, where the final consequences have not yet been reached. The articles about the childcare facilities appeared in January 2020, and were included in a summary version in the flyer distributed in March 2020. Fortunate timing.
The next characteristic of Deep-Connect value is absorbing solutions. That is, customers become taken up with and highly engaged by the outputs of the organisation. With regard to The Republic, many aspects which make the outputs absorbing have already been mentioned above: the connection to political practice, the many links in and comments to the articles, the organisation of the articles into dossiers, the ability to gain the behind-the-scene look into the internal affairs of the newsmagazine, the smooth IT features, and the compelling content of the in-depth articles. Readers can lose themselves in the articles, following links, reading and commenting on the comments of others, and plunging further into related articles.
Three additional aspects relating to the absorption in the in-depth articles are mentioned here. First, every article begins with a time clock displaying the estimated time to read the article. The shortest I’ve seen is six minutes, the longest twenty-seven. Second, in the daily e-mail, each article is introduced in two ways: first with simply a sentence to explain the content, and second with a paragraph giving more background. Third, in case readers stop reading an article mid-way, when returning to the article the bookmark function brings them to the last point they had reached. By the way, these three innovations, and quite a few more, stem from feedback gathered from the publishers.
A final aspect of the absorbing solutions is a different kind of article, which provides an overview rather than an in-depth perspective. Every Thursday the major happenings in the Swiss federal legislature and executive are outlined in the three categories of what happened, why is this important, and what comes next. Every Friday there is a review of the week in the news, covering both national and international developments, and including links to other news websites. Indeed, in 2020 this weekly overview has been extended to include suggestions from the publishers regarding links worthy of the readership. As a reader one can become absorbed in, or in my case addicted to, this systematic reporting which gives me the assurance that no matter what, I can keep myself updated on the most important news.
The final characteristic of external demand interfaces in Deep-Connect value is convergence. Companies offering Deep-Connect value combine different branches of business or other organised activity into a unique new category of business. The discussion above shows that The Republic has blended together the approach of several different kinds of businesses and non-profit organisations:
- In-depth journalistic reporting as in quality news media
- User comments and sharing as in social media
- Linkages and navigation as found in online webshops
- Member engagement as in clubs and other voluntary organisations
- User activism and involvement as in web communities
- Events and meetings as in public interest groups.
All in all, The Republic is an example of a company which thoroughly and systematically manages its position on the market for news according to the characteristics of Deep-Connect value.