This week we spoke to Snigdha Sur, Founder & CEO of The Juggernaut; a content and community platform for global South Asians. She talked about founding a media business with a business background rather than a journalism one, and how her knowledge of media VC and funding has influenced how she runs the publication. She also shares what she’s learned from a paywall, and bringing people in through free content like the newsletter and their new podcast, The Juggernaut Interviews: Founders.

In the news roundup we discuss all the news that occurred while we were off on our hiatus. We ask whether Musk’s mooted takeover of Twitter will have an impact (no in short-term, yes in long-term); examine the launch of TalkTV and its subsequent fail to register any viewers; and the rushing revival of the advertising market. In the NIBs we explore whether local news sites do local news any more, the end of Facebook’s podcast support, and Le Monde stretching itself into the US.

The full transcript will be live here shortly, but for now, here are some highlights:

Identifying a niche for global South Asians

I thought, why aren’t more companies or newspapers or publications covering these stories? I realised, well, the math doesn’t add up. If you are a mainstream publication, like The Guardian, or the New York Times, you have so many competing interests, and you have to be the paper of record for the mainstream and the masses. That means some of the biggest stories get to become the ones that you really cover. And stories that seem niche or not mainstream enough, don’t really get covered as high frequency or as in depth.

When I saw that gap, I started testing it with a free newsletter, which you might have hinted at earlier, where I was aggregating other people’s stories about us in our community, and writing a little bit of my own analysis and sending it out to my friends for free every week.

It was very sporadic, actually; initially, I wanted it to be every week, but it wasn’t very, very consistent. And open rates were really, really high. People just hadn’t really seen a verticalization in that way before. And that gave me enough confidence to think well, how can I quit my job and start doing this more and make sure that it is a business?

Founding the publication with a business mindset

I think where my business experience has been super helpful is that I was very, very thoughtful about initial conditions. Because when you think about it, it’s really the business model you start with shapes the operations and processes of your company.

If you start free, your game plan is to get as many eyeballs as possible, so that you can get as many advertisers as possible and get as much ad revenue as possible. And then your operations are really about well, what’s my biggest mainstream article hits? How do I get these advertisers to sign on? How do I get more and more traffic to my site, you can see automatically how your staffing your team in a completely different way.

If you start initial conditions as a subscription company, you’re much more focused on, am I reaching the right audience? Am I reaching the audience that can pay for this? Am I unlocking valuable topics that people feel like they wouldn’t read anywhere else? How do I optimise my site for frictionless payment?

Suddenly, you have very, very different processes and operations. You don’t have to hire a sales team yet, but you might need to hire a marketing team that knows how to use paid ads, or you might need to hire really good engineers who understand how to optimise websites for load time and conversion. So you already see how that changes your editorial standards and your editorial processes as well as your business operations.

Starting with a hard paywall

The reason we went with a hard paywall – which many successful companies have done from Peloton, to Netflix, to Financial Times – is because we knew exactly who our audience was. We know that we have a specific audience. We know what kind of stories they like, we want to do a hard paywall, because we don’t want them to start metering their usage.

Our audience, once they like us, they really want to read all our stuff. So we thought, well, how do we make it a hard paywall, so they come in, they pay and then they want to read a tonne of it as soon as they’re in? And I think that kind of behaviour is harder to do with the meter because when you do the meter, you keep on wanting to refresh your browser, refresh your cookies, start a new window. It’s just a lot of steps.

It also means that your incentives are to add more meat and potatoes. Whereas we think every single one of our articles we’re like, wait, we don’t want to give this one away for free!

Adding extra subscription options

We have a gift subscription. People give a lot of gifts during Diwali. They give it when you have that friend who has everything and they’re like, what else can I give them? So usually a nice gift to give them, something like a gift to The Juggernaut. And people do use it.

The other option that I’ve been surprised about is a lifetime plan. So we have a lifetime plan, which we stole as an option from Calm, which is also an incredible subscription media company. And we thought, okay, no one’s going to really take up the lifetime option, like who’s going to do that?

We’ve had several people take up the lifetime option. Some of them have even told us, ‘We would pay you even more.’ And so we changed our lifetime option to be choose what you pay with a minimum. And many of these lifetime subscribers, some of them ended up becoming investors. So you never know, you truly never know. There are people who are out there who just want to give you more.

Main stories from our break:

  • Twitter has been quietly building its ad capabilities through partnerships with broadcasters and the introduction of new video formats. After the news Elon Musk has advanced $44bn to buy the platform outright, however, the social media platform has rapidly announced a new suite of features to calm jittery advertisers.
  • When News UK decided that it was going to be a channel after all, executives hired Piers Morgan for a rumoured eight-figure deal. TalkTV was finally launched with a blaze of expensive publicity and advertising that largely centred around Morgan’s face. Love him or hate him, the adverts promised, you won’t be able to ignore him. But less than a fortnight after his show debuted, it looks like we really, really can.
  • The number of UK homes that have at least one paid-for subscription streaming service fell by 215,000 in the first quarter – ending a decade of almost uninterrupted growth in the popularity of streaming services – as households cut budgets to cope as inflation runs at a three-decade high.
  • Just three weeks after launching, CCN+ – which the company sank tens of millions of dollars into – was shut down on April 30th. It collapsed just two days after Netflix reported a quarterly decline in subscriptions for the first time in a decade, a potential warning sign for major media companies joining the increasingly crowded field of streaming services.
  • After years of positive press, it looks like the shine is finally coming off publishing’s digital subscriptions revolution. From concerns around peak subscriptions to falling subscriber numbers at Netflix and the lightning failure of CNN+, the worry is that consumers have had enough. But rather than hitting the buffers, digital subscriptions are evolving through an array of publisher paywall options.
  • Troy Young in his newsletter People vs Algorithms: “Piece by piece, every bit of the media carcass gets tossed into the internet meat grinder. Media types blend with communication like fat, protein and gristle. Entertainment flavors the news. Commerce and commerce twist together and ooze out in pink spirals. Real people become make-believe. Make-believe becomes real.”

News in brief:

  • Local news sites don’t do local news any more. We knew this, but seeing the numbers was pretty stark. Traffic data to about 50 local news sites shows about a third of their audience is local. The best of the bunch was Wigan Today which still gets 63% of its readers locally. The bottom five are all under 20% and all Reach. This says more about commercial models and how people find content; there is local news on all these sites but search and also trending stories written for SEO. So actually this maybe isn’t so bad so long as publishers keep investing in local talent. Oh no wait… Reach is shifting 150 local reporters to national coverage amid revenue dip.
  • Facebook’s podcast support didn’t last long. Last April, it announced a suite of new audio products like Live Audio Rooms, voice messages, and support for playing podcasts from Pages. This week however, they announced they were planning to remove podcasts from the platform altogether. It will also discontinue both its short-form audio product Soundbites and remove its central audio hub. It’s not the only feature they’re ditching; nearby friends, weather alerts and a few location tools are going as well. 
  • Le Monde is attempting to broaden its subscription base by targeting English-speaking audiences. The US represents its fourth-largest market already, with the first three consisting on primarily French-speaking countries and provinces. One week after launching its English-language product, Le Monde had generated 1,000 new digital subscribers. By the end of the year, it hopes to raise that number to 30,000. Competition for subscribers in English is about to become more heated as publishers like Le Monde seek to carve off some segments of the audience for their own. This is potentially the beginning of what Wolfgang Blau argued is necessary – for European newspapers to tell the story of Europe on their own terms, rather than relying on native English-speaking newspapers to do so.

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