Journalism startups will think beyond English

Those of us who try to pursue paths forward for journalism face a peculiar obstacle. I’m not talking about the speed by which media consumption evolves, or the inscrutable media habits of the teenagers that dwell in my house. No. I’m talking about the language I’m writing in.

The international debate on the future of the media business has a bias toward English. This is less trivial than it might seem. Our most important hubs of information — Nieman Lab, CJR, Poynter, others — are based in the U.S., as are the companies that drive many of the changes in technology. Almost invisibly, the conversation is framed in the context of the American news consumer: On a national level, endless options for quality journalism, much of it free — and for publishers, the theoretical possible of reaching a vast audience if you succeed, even with a niche operation.

Crisis can help us see things more clearly, and I hope the ones we are in now will do exactly that. Hopefully this will propel us toward ambitious journalism startups across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. My prediction for 2023 is that those of us working in small and small-ish languages will begin to grasp the opportunities we have for creating original journalism products tailored to our national context. That we understand that the best solutions are more likely to hide two countries over, than in the English-speaking world.

The problem with our collective focus on the English language is often a question of math. The Guardian’s much lauded (and rightly so) yellow-box-please-support-us model is brilliant, exactly because it draws on the immense reach of theguardian.com’s most powerful articles. Conversion rates can be a fraction of a percent and still cover the costs of running a newsroom the size of The Guardian’s.

The scale of The New York Times gives it similar gravity-defying powers. The price of a Times digital subscription can be next to nothing, essentially placing it in a category of one: the news product where I must ask myself if I can afford not paying two dollars a month for the most well-resourced news app in the world.

Niches hardly even exist in English, at least not the way we define niches in smaller countries around the world.  A history enthusiast with a podcast, a newsletter, and a YouTube channel can make a decent living publishing in English — but it’s a mathematical impossibility in my native language, Danish, and in most other languages in the world.

I’ve often heard colleagues around the world agonize over this lack of opportunity.

This is a fundamental mistake.

The English language creates what can be compared to the biotope of the jungle. There is an abundance of activity, the forest reaches the horizon, but someone is poised to eat you at all hours of the day. Competition is fierce. The media landscapes in most countries in Europe are more like meadows or a lowland shrub in comparison: Plenty of space and very little competition. If you look hard, you are almost certain to find audiences with unfulfilled needs. In many smaller countries, a few legacy organizations dominate journalism, and it is safe to say that most of them have a firmer grasp on the past than on the future.

I co-founded the membership-driven digital newspaper Zetland in Denmark following this logic. We knew that we would need to make people pay a lot of money for our product (unlike The New York Times). We knew that to survive, we needed high conversion rates at every touch point with potential members (unlike The Guardian). We had to make our newsroom exactly large enough to deliver on our promises — and laser-focus our resources on what we could do better than old media in Denmark.

We came to understand that whatever we came up with, our only path to success was to pick up on even the slightest signal that could help our product evolve. We cultivated trust and a meaningful relationship with our members. We made it.

I spent most of the past year in the U.S. trying to come up with even more radical paths for sustaining the journalism the world needs most. There is much we can learn from our American colleagues. But there is as least as much we can’t.

So, who do we turn to for inspiration? To the people succeeding with business models and products tailored to the confines and peculiarities of their local meadow. And if anyone out there sees an opportunity in a non-English setting, we at Zetland are standing by to help you do something about it.

Jakob Moll is a co-founder and head of development at Zetland, a trailbrazing membership-driven digital newspaper in Denmark.

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