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VC-funded The Ken – one story per day behind a paywall – says it is the sustainable future of journalism

An Indian news website that publishes just one long-form story per day, behind a paywall, has received US$1.5m in venture capital funding including a cash injection from the Omidyar Network – the philanthropic investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Media company The Ken launched in 2016 with $400,000 from angel investors. It covers start-ups, technology, science, healthcare and policy. The title offers a range of subscription models and those that pay for a full subscription receive access to all articles as well as the ability to comment on said articles and permission to join the company’s Slack channel.

“We had a sense of disillusionment with the way journalism has turned out, and we all personally hated what advertising had done to journalism,” The Ken chief executive officer and co-founder Rohin Dharmakumar told the Nieman Lab.

“I came across many more people like me, who were okay with paying dollar prices for these types of publications,” he said. “And none of us could see ad-funded journalism as a place where we’d like to spend more time.

Dharmakumar looks to a new model

“I didn’t want to go back to the existing media outlets I’d worked at before. So I thought, can we give it a shot? Can we try a new media publication that’s not in the rat’s race for pageviews?”

Dharmakumar started the venture with co-founders Seema Singh and Ashish Mishra, both former colleagues at Forbes India. Entrepreneur Sumanth Raghavendra was the fourth partner to get involved. Although it is not yet profitable, the founders claim the organisation is strong financially thanks to investment funding and subscriptions revenue. The most recent quarterly revenues were said to be 200 per cent up year-on-year.

Explaining why the founders thought there was a gap in the market, Singh said. “We saw a lot of dissatisfaction in our extended network.

Singh believes people will pay for quality journalism

“We found people didn’t know what sources to trust. It was a good time to actually test our main conviction, that people might be willing then to pay for quality journalism.”

Raghavendra added: “If we were going to do this, we were going to do it differently. This wasn’t going to be a new BuzzFeed. The time for that is already over.”

The idea behind the one-article-per-day approach was to maintain quality with an admittedly small team of 15 staff. Most stories runs into thousands of words due to the in-depth nature of the reporting.

Those readers that are unwilling to pay are able to access one free article per week, if they supply their email address in exchange. They then receive daily emails with intros to stories that they can only then access by taking out a full subscription. The subscriptions are priced at US$108 annually for those outside India and US$42 for those living in the country.

To date The Ken has 20,000 readers on its database. However, the number that pay for a full subscription is thought to be around 1,500. Naturally, some 90 per cent of readers are based in India but there are said to be a number of subscribers in the United States, Europe and the rest of Asia. In addition, some 14,700 accounts follow the media brand on Twitter.

In an article by Dharmakumar on the website announcing the funding round win, The Ken claimed to have found “a set of mindful and long-term investors who truly understand the importance of unbiased journalism and evolving media business models”.

Dharmakumar added: “Not many believed we’d last beyond a year, because the conventional wisdom held that Indian readers would never pay premium prices to read any kind of journalism. The same conventional wisdom also held that even if readers would pay to subscribe, they’d demand more than just one story a day, because that’s what they were used to getting from other sources.

“Lastly, this conventional wisdom, by now a clinical schizophrenic personality if one had to visualise it, maintained that we’d never have enough companies, subjects or ideas to run in-depth long-form features every day. This $1.5 million now gives us the confidence and resources to build a much more ambitious media organization, but one with subscribers still as its beating heart.”

The organisation also said it now planned to recruit “more world-class writers, editors, UI designers, marketers, developers and product geeks” so that it could publish two or three deep-dive stories daily, rather than just one.

And Dharmakumar defended the decision to take VC money – a strategy that has not led to profitability for other new media players around the world such as Buzzfeed, Vice Media and Medium.

“The number of times promising start-ups lose their way because they started chasing metrics that their VCs wanted, not what their business demanded,” he said. “We’re cognizant of this. Which is why we spent a lot of time identifying investors who were genuinely interested in the long-term success and sustainability of The Ken.

eBay founder Omidyar

“Omidyar Network is arguably the best in that class. They are long on media. They have backed some of the best-known names in media globally. Every member of their team we’ve met till now has only been supportive of our vision. Other investors included Yuj Kutumb, the Family Foundation headed by Sid Yog, the founder and managing partner of The Xander Group Inc., and a mix of existing and new angel investors.

“The Ken’s vision is to become a daily reading habit that make our readers feel smarter and happier. And The Ken’s mission is to combine reportage, analysis, narration and product innovation to craft high-quality daily business journalism worth paying for.”

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