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July 25, 2017, 9:55 a.m.
Business Models

Start your meetings with a folk song — and other ideas from the community-driven, crowdfunded Danish news site Zetland

“If you are to create community based on transparency, you also have to create community within your organization.”

— Every Tuesday, the entire staff of the Danish news site Zetland gathers for a meeting around a long wooden table in the conference room of its airy office in a formerly industrial area of the city.

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Zetland’s business and approach to coverage are built on membership, and its leadership uses the Tuesday meetings to update the staff on things such as the state of the business, growth in subscriber numbers, and other topics to ensure that “people are really invested in the big picture,” editor-in-chief Lea Korsgaard told me.

But before they get to any of that, they sing.

Zetland starts its meetings — including its daily news meeting — by singing Danish folk songs. Staffers also sing with audience members at Zetland’s events, which are a major part of the site’s identity and its community-focused efforts.

For Zetland, the singing is part of a larger effort to build a community around the news that’s built on trust, understanding, and transparency.

That’s why the site is forthcoming with its staffers — and its readers — about its operations and business.

It has a management Slack channel that’s open to anyone on staff. Another Slack channel automatically posts an alert any time a new subscriber signs up, with details of what type of membership they bought and where they came from.

Zetland also shares regular product and business updates with its subscribers through posts on its site. It’ll invite readers into its office and chat with them around the same long table where it has its staff meetings. And, for instance, when the mother and uncle of one of Zetland’s cofounders were named ministers in the Danish government, she wrote a note to readers explaining the situation and detailed how the site would mitigate any conflict of interest.

“If you are to create community based on transparency, you also have to create community within your organization,” Korsgaard said.

“The way we are transparent and talking to you has to be the same we are talking to our readers,” CEO Jakob Moll added.

Korsgaard, Moll, and I met for coffee this spring in a restaurant in the same building as Zetland’s second-floor office, and the pair spent the entire conversation interrupting one another to finish the other’s sentences.

Zetland publishes three to four stories every morning. The site doesn’t cover day-to-day breaking news; it’s instead focused on what Moll called “need-to-know” stories that are more in-depth and explanatory.

This month it also debuted a subscriber-only audio app that features Zetland journalists reading their stories, for those who prefer listening to reading. Members can also listen to the stories in their web browser.

While the focus on membership and live journalism events have been a hallmark of Zetland since its launch — in fact, the name Zetland comes from a (real!) animal that’s a cross between a zebra and a Shetland pony and is meant to symbolize the combination of the site’s digital focus and its community-based events — the site’s output has changed over the years.

Korsgaard, Moll, and two others — Hakon Mosbech and Silke Bock — cofounded Zetland in 2012. Inspired by American sites like the The Atavist and Byliner, they decided that the site’s main editorial output would be what it calls singles — ebooks that were longer than a typical magazine story, but shorter than a book.

At its events, Zetland journalists would get on stage and share stories, conduct interviews, and put on performances. These stories were often attendees’ first introduction to the site’s reporting.

“It was in garages at the beginning, but it turned out that it hit something and we could sell out in eight minutes,” Korsgaard said. “That was the entry for most people. That’s how they got to know us and then they discovered: Wow, they also do written journalism.”

But it proved difficult to build a business off of the singles. Zetland’s team hoped that Amazon would formally launch in Denmark, which could help with sales, but Amazon still hasn’t. While readers could subscribe to Zetland and get all the singles, it was a challenge to pitch the subscriptions as well as the individual stories for purchase when there was no continuity from month to month.

“My mistake was to say: Let’s go for the iTunes model, let’s let people pay for the stories they want. It was obviously not quite the way to go,” Moll said. “There wasn’t enough interest and you have to sell it from scratch every month.”

In 2015, the company decided to change course, and it looked to De Correspondent for inspiration. The Dutch site launched in 2013 with a focus on membership and a crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.3 million from nearly 19,000 supporters.

Looking to replicate De Correspondent’s success, Zetland launched its own crowdfunding campaign. (The sites even have similar aesthetics, down to the drawn headshots of staffers.) Its goal was to sign up 1,000 funders and raise 170,000 kroner (US $26,323). Zetland ultimately surpassed those goals, raising 533,837 kroner (US $82,661) from 1,388 supporters.

While it was undertaking the crowdfunding campaign, Zetland also talked with other investors, using the support from the Kickstarter as a way to highlight its viability. “We needed way more money, but just the fact that we could point to 1,000 people who would support us was key to investors,” Korsgaard said. “In that sense, I think we could think of the Kickstarter as validation of proof of concept.”

It ended up raising another 8 million kroner (USD $1.2 million) to fund the relaunch. Zetland is currently in the process of seeking additional investments.

After it completed the crowdfunding campaign, but before it relaunched the site in its current format, Zetland staffers drove around Denmark, meeting with supporters, on what it called its “Passat tour” (named after Korsgaard’s Volkswagen). The goal of the tour was to increase interest in the site but also to make a point of reaching readers and potential members outside of Copenhagen. While the Copenhagen region makes up about 30 percent of Denmark’s population, 60 percent of Zetland’s membership comes from the capital. Korsgaard said the site will continue to improve its coverage of other areas of the country.

“Our Copenhagen members don’t want to be part of a Copenhagen club,” she said. “They are the ones who say, ‘Get out of the bubble, get out of the bubble.’ They really don’t want to be perceived as someone living in a filter bubble.”

From a business perspective, too, Zetland needs to be able to attract readers from all over the country. Moll said the site tries to stay away from taking political stances: “We couldn’t afford to put ourselves in that niche. It would be dangerous. In this small country, we need to reach a large base and be interesting to a large portion of the population that is educated and has an interest in news,” he said.

The site now has more than 8,500 members. A subscription costs 99 kroner a month (USD $15) or 999 kroner (USD $154.72) a year. Zetland made 6.2 million kroner (USD $970,645) in 2016, and Moll expects the site expects to break even within 10 months.

Most of Zetland’s revenue comes from membership. It also struck a deal with a Danish mobile phone provider that lets its customers choose Zetland as an add-on to their cell phone package. (Other options include HBO and Spotify.) The team has also talked with unions and other organizations about similar bulk deals.

Zetland also runs a consultancy business, where it will help other organizations put on events and offers its staffers as speakers. “We’re scaling that down a bit to try and focus on the main business, but we could make quite a profit,” Korsgaard said.

Zetland received 4 million kroner (USD $620,000) from the Danish government as part of a program meant to support media innovation in the country. The hope is that by next March, the site will be eligible for the regular funding that all newspapers in the country receive. But the founders also hope the government will become more understanding of how Zetland straddles the journalism and live performance worlds.

“If you do journalism, it gets some sort of support from the government, and if you do theater you get huge amounts of money and subsidies from the government,” Moll said. “If you do journalism on the stage [you don’t]. They don’t understand that, even though what we do is bring young people into the Royal Theatre to listen to important stories about our present, which is exactly what the government would like to support in its cultural policies.”

At the present, Zetland’s live journalism events aren’t big money makers for the site; the ticket sales mostly just cover the cost of production. “We perceive it as marketing,” Korsgaard said. “We thought that it would be a big driver in converting members, but it turns out not as much as we hoped. They’re in Copenhagen or in other cities, but it’s hard to get out to them.”

Moll jumped in: “It’s also about firing up the base. They can refer members and they can share stories, so that’s an important part of our business model.”

Zeltand relies on its members to promote the site. Members can share stories with unique links that allow non-members to read the story along with a header that says that a specific member shared the story.

It also has an ambassador program in which members can share free two-week trials of the site with friends, who can also get a free collection of Zetland’s best stories.

And part of Zetland’s transparency approach includes regularly updating readers on product developments as well as soliciting and actually acting on user feedback on everything from the speed of its website to the name of its newsletter.

In 2016, after Zetland’s crowdfunding campaign and as it prepared to relaunch, it asked its members to suggest and ultimately vote on names for the newsletter. They decided on Helikopter. (That’s helicopter in Danish, in case that’s not obvious.)

“I totally hated it to begin with,” Moll said. “But Mads Olrik, who was running our community at the time, said we can’t ask the questions if we don’t want the answer. It’s been called that since, and of course, it’s perfect.”

POSTED     July 25, 2017, 9:55 a.m.
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