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June 14, 2017, 10:42 a.m.
Reporting & Production

India’s The Ken publishes one longform story each weekday. So far, subscribers are willing to pay

The digital business reporting outlet — think The Information for India — isn’t yet a year old and has paying subscribers in “the low to mid-1,000s.”

“So, one must pay for journalism?” reads one question on the FAQ page for The Ken, a subscription-based English-language business news outlet out of Bangalore, India.

“Yes” is the publication’s one-word answer.

The site has stuck to a careful, quality-over-quantity approach since its official launch in the fall of 2016, pushing out one piece of business journalism each weekday for its paying subscribers — deep dives on startups, tech, science, healthcare, and policy.

Full subscribers outside of India pay $108 annually for access to stories as well as the complete archives; The Ken also offers a quarterly option of $35 for three months’ worth of stories plus three months’ worth of archive stories. Indian subscribers can pay 2,750 rupees (USD $42.72) annually for full access, or 900 rupees per quarter (monthly recurring payment has historically been an issue in India due to a required extra layer of authentication every month). The pricing scheme is on par with many other monthly subscription services, and it was important for The Ken to be affordable for readers within India while not undercharging for readers outside the country who have greater purchasing power. A subscription also unlocks features like commenting and access to a Slack channel — though The Ken is focused mostly on growing its subscriber base, intentionally avoiding launching too many other bells and whistles.

“We had a sense of disillusionment with the way journalism has turned out, and we all personally hated what advertising had done to journalism,” said Rohin Dharmakumar, cofounder and CEO of The Ken, and a journalist with an engineering background. He and two other Ken cofounders — Seema Singh and Ashish Mishra — were colleagues at Forbes India, and quit on the same day, after disagreements arose with the new management at Forbes. After Forbes, they each went on to work on separate projects (a now-shuttered startup, finishing a book, a stint at the financial daily Mint), but regrouped last summer, along with a fourth friend, Sumanth Raghavendra, who was a serial entrepreneur to test the waters on a new online publication that rejected an ad-funded model outright. “If we were going to do this, we were going to do it differently. This wasn’t going to be a new BuzzFeed. The time for that is already over.”

Dharmakumar gave a special nod to the U.S.-based The Information and Ben Thompson’s subscriber-driven deep-dive newsletter Stratechery, which he said he subscribes to.

“I came across many more people like me, who were okay with paying dollar prices for these types of publications,” he said. “And none of us could see ad-funded journalism as a place where we’d like to spend more time.”

“I didn’t want to go back to the existing media outlets I’d worked at before. So I thought, can we give it a shot? Can we try a new media publication that’s not in the rat’s race for pageviews?” Seema Singh, another cofounder and an editor of The Ken, said. “We saw a lot of dissatisfaction in our extended network of readers. We found people didn’t know what sources to trust. It was a good time to actually test our main conviction, that people might be willing then to pay for quality journalism.”

The group floated longform, reported pieces to see whether that type of article would attract and engage Indian readers online, and whether readers would give up their email addresses in order to register and then read. It did, and they did, so “we knew this thing had some legs,” Dharmakumar said. The founding group quickly pulled together funding from angel investors and launched October 3 of last year. The site had raised $400,000 and has been able to maintain an 11-person full-time staff, including an in-house developer, while remaining cautious about spending and its editorial scope. It’s not currently profitable, but Dharmakumar said the organization is in a good place financially, with its mix of outside funding and subscription revenue.

“You can’t do this kind of experimentation at scale right from the beginning. We’re an extremely lean team, and we had to start with something we could handle on our own. And you can’t have quality if you’re publishing 25 stories a day,” Singh said. (For a few months, the writers were copyediting themselves, and readers were actively pointing out typos.) “I, for instance, subscribe to The New Yorker, and there are weeks that go by when I don’t get to reading a single story. There’s an overload of good writing everywhere, so we didn’t want to flood our readers.” (To state the obvious: The Ken’s stories are extremely long — multiple thousands of words — and time-consuming to report.)

The spare publication schedule elicits direct comparisons to The Information, which charges a (higher-priced) subscription fee for two deeply reported stories per day — though The Information has since launched other editorial offerings such as a continuously updating list of short takes from its writers on the day’s news.

Readers who don’t pay but offer their emails are treated to one free story each week. These readers begin to get The Ken’s daily emails, in which the cofounders tease nonpaying readers with a tantalizing introduction (that email is always written by someone who didn’t write the story itself).

“By far, the most feedback I get is people saying, ‘I finally subscribed; I couldn’t take you guys dangling your stories in front of me anymore,'” Dharmakumar said. “I get angry subscription emails saying, ‘Why do you guys send me emails with these nice stories that you’re not going to let me read?'” (Dharmakumar showed me one email exchange, in which a reader had unsubscribed out of annoyance, but then paid for a subscription and needed to be manually added back onto the email list.)

The Ken has around 20,000 registered users, including both paying and non-paying. Around 85 to 90 percent of readers are from India, followed by a significant U.S. readership (and after that, a long tail of a number of countries from Europe to Asia). Actual paying subscribers number in the low to mid-1,000s, according to Dharmakumar. In March, The Ken introduced a corporate bundle option (one login is limited to two active sessions). Sponsoring or gifting a subscription are also options, and while there isn’t an explicit student discount — and in general, The Ken doesn’t do discounts — Dharmakumar brought up an example in which a student asked for a discount but promised to pay after he graduate and was employed.

The Ken’s stories cater to a wider audience, but particularly students and younger working people who may not always be up to date on business jargon or care about day-to-day industry minutia, according to Dharmakumar.

“We’re explicitly going after students, younger professionals…because our overall goal is to make business journalism relevant to a much wider swathe of readers,” he said.

POSTED     June 14, 2017, 10:42 a.m.
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