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May 22, 2018, 10:32 a.m.
Business Models

After crowdfunding success, Swiss magazine Republik charts a course to “reclaim journalism as a profession”

“We believe people don’t pay for articles anymore. They pay to be part of the community.”

In its first seven hours of existence, the Swiss online news magazine Republik — a startup with the allure of in-depth journalism and membership transparency — gained 3,000 subscribers and 750,000 Swiss francs. But that whirlwind of support created a new pressure: delivering on its promise.

Thirteen months (and thousands more members) later, Republik is living up to the hype, reporting substantive investigations and finding new ways to engage and collaborate with readers — like virtual “dinner parties” to discuss the impact of its work.

“If you don’t have democracy, if you don’t have really good information that you can cite, there’s a problem,” Susanne Sugimoto, Republik’s CEO, told me. She calls 20 Minutes, the free Tamedia tabloid read by about half the country each week, “a business success story, but it’s not a success story in terms of journalism with a deep quality.”

Members of the Republik founding team had been talking about business plans and editorial goals for several years; the threat of looming layoffs in the legacy media industry helped them commit to turning the idea into something real. Constantin Seibt, a high-profile Swiss journalist twice named reporter of the year, and Christof Moser, a professor and journalist, “had had enough,” Sugimoto said, and left their jobs to devote their energy to Republik. While they’ve been able to convince a remarkable number of Swiss to pay for their content as crowdfunders and members, Republik will need to continue selling the public on it: Only 11 percent of Swiss pay for online news.

“We can do it together, or not at all,” is the German-language site’s refrain, repeated by Sugimoto in our talk, in her presentation at WAN-IFRA’s conference in Copenhagen in April, and frequently throughout the Republik site. A membership costs CHF 240 per year. (The Swiss franc is almost exactly at par with the dollar, so you can safely imagine a $ in front of the numbers here.) Sugimoto said the team needs 25,000 members to break even within the next year; it currently has 21,000.

“We believe people don’t pay for articles anymore. They pay to be part of the community,” Olivia Kühni, one of Republik’s journalists, told me.

Republik is built on the idea of public debate on political, business, and societal topics; to encourage that, it zeroed in on ensuring its members (or publishers, the term they prefer) thoughtfully absorb the reporting — and then participate. “We are reclaiming journalism as a profession,” the magazine’s manifesto states, according to Google Translate. “Our job is to lead a reasonable life (with family, job, hobby) as we work through the noise of the world…Republik is financed without advertising: Our readers are the only customers. And consequently our bosses.”

The rallying cry resonated with the Swiss, as evidenced by Republik’s crowdfunding success (it’s also being backed by several investors). The founding team members had established reputations and social media followings already, and they’d been encouraging interested potential members to submit their email addresses before launch. Along with those impressive opening hours of crowdfunding, they raised CHF 3.4 million within five weeks. But they don’t just pour that money into Republik: In a nod to their public focus, the team developed Project R, a nonprofit cooperative for funding more journalistic projects and training to help build sustainability for journalism in Switzerland.

The cooperative was the proverbial chicken before the Republik egg, the latter introduced as the first initiative from Project R. In March 2017, the cofounders outlined Project R’s purpose as “everything institutional” versus Republik’s as “all journalistic.” The starting team of six built out the branches before the magazine’s launch in January 2018. Republik’s roster now includes 34 people, though not all are full-time.

The first few months of a live Republik witnessed growing pains — but the reader support has, in a way, helped carry some of the burden.

“We had the problem in the beginning that everyone was trying to do the ultimate piece, their best piece ever,” Kühni said, stressing them out and preventing them from doing good work. But “there was this fandom in the beginning and that kind of made us skeptical, because we want critical and supportive readers but not fans. That has changed a bit now — people are still supportive, but they’re also giving us a lot of constructive, detailed criticism. They really participate in the quality of the product.”

Kühni, who joined Republik from a slower-paced monthly magazine (Republik publishes one to three pieces a day), was drawn to the intersectionality of coverage. For example, she’s working on a project with software engineers focused on the future of work in the automated world and a separate trilogy on the past, present, and future of the drug LSD. “We’re working together with two journalists and a chemist and somebody from the visual department,” Kühni said. “We try to build this interdisciplinary team and try to look at the topic from different perspectives. I think that’s very different than how journalism here used to function.”

One of her favorite aspects of the Republik community has been the discussions with readers about her pieces. After publishing an article, Republik will set up a window of time for the reporter to be online and participate in debates with the readers, digging into the details behind the story. Between 25 and 400 members have participated in a debate at one time, she said.

“We don’t just put up a comments section. We’re actually present there from a certain time to discuss with the readers. It’s not something you keep open forever — it’s more like a dinner party,” she said. “The debates I have done with the pieces I wrote, that was when I got a feeling for the community and got to talk to the readers.” They asked her about her sources and potential flaws in the data, and she was able to reap some future story ideas as well.

A major investigation into racketeering in a tourist town outside the main metropolitan areas of Switzerland also helped build the site’s credibility beyond city dwellers, not to mention caused a candidate to drop out of a governor’s race. “We did a lot of foreign policy, and we did some politics and analytical pieces. We have a lot of people good in that,” Kühni said. “But what we didn’t have so far was a real muckraking story from the countryside, where people live every day. It showed that we’re not just these progressive people in the city talking about debates.”

“I think the secret about this is really about the community,” Sugimoto said.

POSTED     May 22, 2018, 10:32 a.m.
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