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“The media is in crisis”: Jonah Peretti lays out his vision for a more diversified BuzzFeed
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July 20, 2017, 9:31 a.m.

This Danish startup evolved into a “newsletter company” because that was what its readers wanted

“The website and the apps are based on the rhythm and structure of the newsletter now.”

— Every weekday at noon, subscribers to the Danish news site Føljeton receive an emoji-filled email notification or push alert.

That’s when the site publishes its daily briefing, which has evolved into its core editorial product over its nearly two years of existence. It’s published as an email newsletter, in Føljeton’s app, and on its website.

The briefing features a mix of original reporting that focuses on a single topic each week (“føljeton” means “serialize” in Danish) — cultural writing, an editorial, and curated links to other outlets around the Internet.

“I think of us as service providers, basically,” CEO Søren Høgh Ipland told me when I visited Copenhagen this spring.

“We’re building a routine, a product you get every day, a feeling, something that you buy,” he said. “Of course, we’re trying to involve our readers, but it’s like buying a cup of coffee every day.”

A subscription to Føljeton costs 49 Danish kroner (USD $7.55) per month.

Føljeton launched in late 2015. Its cofounders — journalists who’d worked at traditional Danish news organizations — wanted to try and create an innovative mobile-first news outlet.

When it debuted, the newsletter was an afterthought, which was mostly just used to distribute the site’s primary output — mobile-first card based stories.

Each card told took up one or two screens and contained up to 200 words, and they were created with the idea that they could be read independently or as part of the larger overall story.

Føljeton published five serialized stories per day, and each series continued as long as needed.

By May 2016, six months after launching, Føljeton decided to change course. The serialized series were expensive to produce, and it took time for writers to learn how to adapt their style to the format. The format also confused readers, said editor-in-chief Oliver Stilling, one of the site’s cofounders.

“[We were] hearing over and over again from people that they really liked Føljeton, but they were just talking about the newsletter. We were spending so much time trying to make all these serials work out, it was really a lot of work, and we could see that people didn’t really read that much in the middle of the week. We thought, okay, let’s follow through with our gut feeling and make the newsletter our main thing.”

Føljeton moved its reported features to the weekend to create a weekend magazine of sorts while expanding the curated weekday newsletter that was designed to serve as a guide to the news. It also announced at the time that it would produce one large-scale reported series each month.

In January, it shifted to its current format, which spreads original reporting on a single topic throughout the week — with an expanded weekend edition published on Saturday — and puts further emphasis on the newsletter-based briefing format. Recent series, for instance, focused on an asylum center in Copenhagen and on French president Emmanuel Macron in the lead-up to the French election this spring.

Føljeton is now considering further altering its editorial format by moving from weekly topics to an approach modeled after Quartz’s obsessions. Instead of covering just one topic per week, it could have a series of issues that it tracks and covering regularly.

“We sort of pivoted into becoming a newsletter company,” Ipland said. “We launched apps a couple months ago. The website and the apps are based on the rhythm and structure of the newsletter now.”

Ipland took over as CEO last fall after CEO and cofounder Nikolai Thyssen stepped down. (Thyssen explained the reason for his departure in a Facebook post. “It happened quite undramatically — we have not completely agreed on the strategy, and when you start from scratch and work all the time, you need to agree on how and how,” he wrote in Danish, according to Google translate. “Otherwise, it can hardly be done.”)

Føljeton now has 5,500 paying subscribers, and Ipland said the site has grown by 15 percent or so since May when it undertook a redesign of its landing page and pitch to potential subscribers.

It’s also struck deals with an unemployment benefits company and the Danish architects’ union to provide bulk discount subscriptions to their members. Ipland said the site is also in talks with other organizations to reach similar deals.

The site is still not profitable. It needs about 8,500 subscribers to break even.

Føljeton received a three-year, 4.4 million kroner (USD $680,000) grant from the Danish government, and it’s additionally raised a similar amount of funding from private sources.

Ipland said the site still views subscriptions as the ultimate key to its success. The team plans to keep simplifying its main product, while potentially introducing other verticals such as a local Copenhagen site or a literature-focused site that could also attract sponsors or other types of funders.

“The approach of investing heavily in the first two or three years is just not something that we really believe in,” he said. “Of course, we are investing, and we’re losing money, but we’ve been trying to scale it down and keep the spending more in line with the actual growth that we’re seeing…We’re building an old-fashioned subscription business, basically.”

In addition to its core briefing product, Føljeton would ultimately like to take on bigger projects that bring attention to issues that the site’s team cares about.

Over coffee this spring, Stilling excitedly described a number of initiatives the site has thought about pursuing, such as holding a gay pride parade in a small Danish fishing village, building an asylum housing center based on designs a right-wing politician created while she was an architecture graduate student, and auctioning off items used by celebrities that are mentioned in stories.

“As a reader, you would sit there and wait for what was going to happen and maybe this famous author that you are interviewing is stumbling and you can buy the stone,” he said. “Nobody cares about the stone, but suddenly the stone has some value because a famous author, Salman Rushdie, for example, stumbles over it. As a reader you think, did they talk to Salman Rushdie, how did they persuade him to fall on the stone? Did he do it on purpose? A lot of questions are raised.”

But before it can effectively take on projects like those, Føljeton says it needs to continue to build up its core subscription business and bring in more revenue.

And while these larger undertakings may seem like a departure from Føljeton’s bread and butter coverage, Ipland sees them as being complementary.

“The daily briefing is not boring. It should never be. The guy who just pitched that idea to you should be apparent from the daily briefing. You should be able to tell that this is the guy writing it and that it’s his strange view on the world.”

POSTED     July 20, 2017, 9:31 a.m.
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