Will Indians pay for long-form business features? That's the question Rohin Dharmakumar asked himself when he co-launched The Ken last year. He spoke about the philosophy that his premium business news startup is built on, at Digipub World.
Would you pay Rs.3,245 per year for one detailed article (2,000-2,500 words, sometimes more) a day, on technology, healthcare, startups, business and science?
"All our content is behind a pay wall," said Rohin Dharmakumar, co-founder of The Ken, an "unapologetically" subscription-driven, premium business news startup, that was launched in October 2016. "This model is already working in Western, developed markets. It wasn't like we were coming up with something completely new. The question was - 'Will this work in India?'" said Rohin, at Digipub World last week, where he spoke about the genesis of The Ken.
We (referring to himself and the other co-founders of The Ken - Seema Singh, Ashish K. Mishra and Sumanth Raghavendra), as consumers of business news, could see that it had reached a point where there was far too much noise. What's true, what's not, what's an exclusive, what's in-depth? That analysis was missing," said Rohin.
Rohin and team identified a clear need gap: Professionals, entrepreneurs, founders and investors, craved a finite pool of articles that they could trust and use to make decisions. Most of his readers come from urban India, primarily Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai. They are professionals from business, tech and finance-related fields. "We're laser sharp when it comes to what we write about. We don't write on policies, culture..." he said. Journalistic meandering doesn't go down very well with paying subscribers.
There's another kind of news consumer out there: One that wants access to in-depth business news features and analysis but may not be ready to pay for it "as yet".
In the pre-launch days, when Rohin and team were still testing the waters for basics like 'Do people want to read long-form business features?', even getting people to give them their email ids was a challenge. But eventually, they were happy to find that there was demand for long features and that putting these articles behind an "email wall" was not all that bizarre a proposition. In fact, his readers often write back to the team with their feedback on the day's story. Today, his daily newsletter reaches roughly 20,000 subscribers (of which, the paying subscribers are in the "low single digit thousands").
For Rohin, it comes down to this: "When someone pays you money, it shows they feel what you are doing has value - that is the moment of truth that journalism has run away from for far too long, because we feel - 'If I charge people money, they will not read me'. That hides the fundamental problem that what you are creating or publishing is not worth paying for. Every morning, when we publish an article, we think - 'Is this good enough? Is this what people will want to pay money for?'"
A pleasant surprise has been discovering that Millennials are willing to pay for news. They, unlike the previous generation, don't have this 'collective memory' of having never paid for news. "The younger generation is paying for Netflix, Dropbox, Gaana... they see news as yet another service they can pay for..." he said.
On the subject of pressure from advertisers in the context of news publishing, Rohin said, "In our careers (the founders of The Ken are former journalists), we've seen how advertisers and brands have interfered with editorial operations and we didn't want that to happen at all."
He ended his talk with: "We're unapologetically revenue-driven. That's another thing Indians, especially journalists, are very diffident about. But as a news operation, if you don't think of a revenue model, then sooner or later you'll have to compromise. News is a business and you have to run it."
The bulk of his firm's revenue comes from direct subscribers. More recently, the team launched a 'corporate plan' system through which a company can buy subscriptions for its employees in bulk at a discount.