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May 9, 2018, 8:15 a.m.
Business Models

Zetland’s members asked for an audio version — and now it’s more popular than their written stories

“We’re definitely not a short-form news outlet. When we launched, we thought it would be late evening media, something where you would crash on the sofa and read our stories.”

— A feather boa, an inflatable cactus, and a pair of zebra masks appeared on a stage (no, really) as a drummer began tapping away at cymbals. A medley of viral videos played behind a man standing downstage, whose monologue on the “attention war” in technology had just been interrupted by this impromptu parade.

Granted, this all happened in Danish — but the language of technology overload is universal. But how often do you see journalists broach the topic of content overconsumption with their audiences? This was the 13th Zetland Live, the in-person performance showcase of Copenhagen-based, membership-driven news outlet Zetland, and the monologue-giver was Zetland’s cofounder and audio editor Hakon Mosbech. I couldn’t tell you what he said, but the audience seemed to respond enthusiastically.

It’s at events like these that Mosbech and other Zetland journalists have gotten to know their members face-to-face. And it’s where editor-in-chief Lea Korsgaard and other staffers started hearing suggestions from their audiences that they wanted to listen to their regular journalism instead of read it. Zetland publishes in-depth reporting daily on topics like culture, the climate, education, and economics, with the mission of “not to make news — it is to make sense.”

“Our members asked for it, literally,” Korsgaard told me in an interview a few weeks after the show. “When we met them at our live events and saw our emails and comments sections, they really asked for it when we asked how we can improve Zetland. A bunch of them asked us to either go into podcasting or reading the stories and letting them listen instead of reading them.”

They didn’t have much hard data to evaluate the idea, but they decided to test it out anyway. The response has been so overwhelming that since the fall, 60 percent of Zetland members have been listening to their journalism compared to 40 percent reading. Zetland has 10,000 members — up from 8,500 last year — with a price tag of 99 kroner (US $12.30) per month or 999 kroner (US $124.08) per year. They haven’t broken even yet, but they’re on track to do so next year and just brought on new investors, Korsgaard said.

“Instead of demanding that ‘we like written word so you have to read our stories,’ we try to get a sense of how can we adapt to your world and your way of living,” Korsgaard said. Zetland spent six months developing the audio component, testing the audio stories in the beginning of 2017 and launching an app for them in June.

Despite their members’ enthusiasm for spoken journalism, the journalists still start out by writing their stories, recording their own out-loud renditions later. Korsgaard said they haven’t changed much of their style or reporting process, and the written content they publish is the same as the audio. Some of the team members have a background in audio — like cofounder Mosbech, who used to host a weekly radio program on the media — but they enlisted the help of a voice coach for training. The Zetland style already gravitates toward a down-to-earth vibe, such as starting a story with “Okay, let’s find out what’s going on with….” Each audio story now begins with a short personal note from the journalist about what the story meant to them before they begin telling it. “It’s some details that tell the listener it’s a person behind the story, not a machine that wrote it,” Korsgaard said.

The experiment appears to be working so far: Members tend to be more loyal and thorough in their Zetland audio consumption than their text consumption, and they seem to be adopting listening to Zetland as part of their daily routine. “We’re definitely not a short-form news outlet,” Korsgaard said. “When we launched, we thought it would be late evening media, something where you would crash on the sofa and read our stories. But we’re definitely more commuter media that we thought.”

Being pleasantly surprised by their members’ desires is a recurring theme for Zetland. In our previous coverage of Zetland, we noted how frequently the organization tries to solicit input from members, like when they asked for suggestions for their newsletter name. (“I totally hated [the name readers chose, Helikopter] to begin with,” CEO and cofounder Jakob Moll said then. “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.”)

The addition of 1,500 members over the past year helps toss some more voices into the mix. To build their member count (and income), Zetland runs some social media ads, but Korsgaard also said “old school” TV commercials and flyers in Copenhagen’s newspapers have actually helped bring in more members than expected. “It turns out that TV commercials played a much huger role than we would have ever thought,” she said. They’ve run commercials in one of Copenhagen’s evening TV news hours and during the Tour de France. (More than 60 percent of Danes use the country’s two public service TV broadcasters at least weekly, according to the 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report.)

On the heels of the audio success, Zetland now also publishes an audio version of that daily newsletter, which aggregates other media organizations’ stories too. And they’re in the early stages of experimenting with video to connect with younger audiences. The company also recently redesigned its website for better navigability — and won the digital Best of Show award from the Best of Nordic News Design competition for its old design the same day it launched the new version.

“If there’s a lesson to learn, it’s really nice to win awards and celebrate when you do, but don’t let that decide how you should develop the site or your content,” Korsgaard said. “It’s your readers and your members who should have the last say in how your product is [done].”

Image of Zetland journalist Sara Alfort recording a story courtesy of Zetland.

POSTED     May 9, 2018, 8:15 a.m.
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