Digital native differentiates itself with scrupulous precision, transparency
Luca Sofri is a personality in Italian media. He has been a print journalist with several major publications and a television and radio commentator. But that was not enough to make his digital news startup financially sustainable.
He experimented a lot in the past 12 years, glimpsed bankruptcy for a time, and had a little bit of luck. That is not exactly a recipe for success, but it does describe the experience of many digital media entrepreneurs. His story might contain some learnings that others can put into practice.
I interviewed Sofri at the end of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and he admitted that covid-19 worked in favor of Il Post.
News consumers in Italy were hungry for reliable information about the pandemic. The traditional news sources, in search of traffic and ad revenue, were providing conflicting, contradictory, or sensationalistic information about how contagious and serious the disease was.
So a key contributor to membership growth was Il Post’s free daily newsletter on the pandemic, which adopted a balanced, data-driven approach. It got 70,000 subscribers in its first week.
As it happened, Il Post had launched a membership program the year before, modeled after the donation program of the Guardian in the UK and the membership model of elDiario.es in Spain. So it was ready to satisfy the demand for reliable information.
Staving off bankruptcy
Il Post’s membership model was meant to avoid insolvency. The publication, which had relied on advertising and events for revenue, lost 500,000 euros in 2018 when digital advertising plummeted (close to $600,000 at that time). Membership was an immediate hit and totaled 15,000 by the end of 2020. At about $95 a year or $9.50 a month, members were adding significant revenue.
By the end of 2021, Il Post was no longer losing money, largely due to the success of the membership program, which had grown to 50,000 members.
In an interview (Italian) with the media industry journalist Valerio Bassan, Sofri said that Il Post expected to finish 2021 with 55% of its revenue coming from memberships, 35% from advertising, and the rest from “everything else”.
How they did it
A major driver of membership growth was to make their popular daily podcast, Morning, available only to paying members. It is a news review produced by deputy editor Francesco Costa. Total listenership dropped, but more paying subscribers came on board just to hear Costa. He is known as a witty commentator on US politics and culture and is author of the popular book Questa è l’America (this is America).
Another contributor has been the production of two print products, Cose spiegate bene (things explained well), one about books and another about gender. They sold about 3,000 copies online before being available in bookstores. Both were on the non-fiction best-seller lists and were reprinted twice, Sofri said. The third one, about all aspects of legal and illegal drugs, has just been published. All three were available on Amazon this month for €18.05 each.
Since I interviewed Sofri in 2020, he has become more reluctant to talk about specific revenue or membership numbers. He told Bassan that the subscriber numbers reported by news sites are not certified by independent bodies and are used for promotional purposes. So even the numbers he himself might give out should be viewed with skepticism.
In addition, the numbers that are disseminated by others often include subscribers in the trial phase or who have taken advantage of promotions at bargain prices, Sofri said. “For us it is different: all our subscribers are active and pay the full subscription price.” Comparing Il Post’s numbers with those of other publications would be misleading, he suggested.
What about the 50,000?
A few weeks after the interview with Bassan, he gave an interview to the UK’s Press Gazette whose headline read “Il Post: How a new type of news brand for Italy attracted 50,000 paying members.”
Sofri told me last week that he was not the source of the figure. He would not verify the number used in Press Gazette but a knowledgeable source confirmed its accuracy for me.
The point is that this publication is doing well in an unusual media environment of rapid change in platform technologies as well as user tastes and habits. The staff has doubled to 30 journalists from 2020. But the goal remains the same, to spiegare bene (explain well) the reality of what is happening in Italy and the rest of the world.
The articles published by journalists do not have bylines, Sofri told me, because he doesn’t want readers trying to guess at their motives rather than on the facts that they present.
UPDATE: Sofri published the final figures for 2021 in a blog post on May 6 (Italian). In brief, revenue grew 76% over the previous year, and the publication ended 2021 with a surplus of 659,000 euros. The main reason for growth was a 121% increase in subscription revenue. The surplus will be used to invest mainly in more people, improved technology, and new projects.Luca Sofri, founder of Il Post
Il Post illustrates a reality of media business models today. Each one has to be unique to the particular market conditions, the competition, consumption habits, and the talents of the staff, among other variables.
Il Post seems to have found its niche. In a media ecosystem flooded with inane, trivial, misleading, or false information, its value proposition is to produce trustworthy information relevant to people’s daily lives.
This value proposition is what it has in common with publications like Mediapart in France (investigative journalism behind a paywall) and elDiario.es in Spain (independent news with a freemium model of membership).
The ever-more abundant studies of public-service journalism around the world — Inflection Point International and Unesco’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression in Media Development, to cite two current examples — present some common elements of successful, viable business models.
The ones that grow large enough to compete with traditional media, such as Mediapart and elDiario.es, usually start with large amounts of financial capital (in the case of Il Post, about 1 million euros from five investors, according to the Press Gazette) or social capital in the form of veteran journalists with good reputations and large followings. Usually they have both.
But for smaller digital natives, three of the most common and important elements:
- they focus first on the needs and wants of the users in their everyday lives rather than on advertisers
- they treat journalism as a public service rather than a profit-making enterprise
- they innovate and experiment continually to respond to changing technologies and user needs
I plan to keep watching Il Post. They might come up with something else we can all learn from.