Overcoming the pessimism that permeates many visions of the future of the news media, today we find ourselves in a period of intense activity, i.e. in the “creative” phase of a Schumpeterian moment. Many startups no longer rely on advertising and are refocusing on the service provided to the reader. Crowdfunding has freed up initiatives and is allowing for experimentation. Brief.me, a daily newsletter launched in 2014, was born of such experimentation.
Paris Innovation Review – Where did the idea of Brief.me come from?
Laurent Mauriac – The starting point was an observation that came from personal experience. Despite the fact we both worked in editorial boards, we sometimes felt deprived in the evening, upon realizing that we had very little time left to find out about the significant events that had occurred during the day. And we certainly were not the only ones who had this feeling: Those who spend their lives in front of a computer screen are very aware of the feeling of disorientation that a never-ending stream of information can often induce. We need landmarks. Internet users suffer from information overdose.
There can be several editorial responses to this phenomenon.
Algorithms such as Google News or Facebook select information. The Facebook algorithm gradually targets your interests, based on your actions on their site. But if you consider the limiting aspect of this type of profile-based information targeting, this advantage turns into a disadvantage. Such filtering of information locks you into a worldview. But are not media also supposed to get you out of your bubble, surprise you, confront you with different views, to facts that you would tend to ignore?
Hence, another path is possible, provided one adopts a synthetic standpoint that is characterized by openness and one entrusts the work to real journalists. Brief.me is one possible form of this “second way.” It is a summary of the day’s news: a reliable summary that can be read in two minutes and that is sent every day at 6:30 p.m., giving readers a way to end their workday in front of the computer monitor.
Consistency is important. Brief.me is a daily appointment: always at the same time, always in the same form. It possesses a “handcrafted” quality: Attention to editorial work, to writing, to the human side are all equally important.
Google News is a newspaper kiosk; Facebook, a cafe where newspapers and magazines are left carelessly around. Brief.me is the frontpage of a newspaper. Algorithms could never produce this kind of product. That is what makes the difference.
There have already been many applications of this kind: developed by the New York Times, The Economist, etc. What makes Brief.me stand out from the rest of these apps?
Jean-Christophe Boulanger - The first difference is that Brief.me does not have any “inside pages” that endlessly reroute the reader to new contents. It is a self-contained product with a beginning and an end. In the context of digital media, this is significant: Cognitive studies show that finishing a task generates satisfaction. This satisfaction, which we formerly felt when we finished reading a printed newspaper, we can now experience again. Once we are done with the news of the day, we can move on to something else. This goes along with a soothing and simple layout: no pictures, nothing that grabs you by the throat. Only the essential points and all the essential points.
The choice of email as medium is another [important] difference. Email is underestimated as a medium today, yet it continues to have great interest. First of all, in the ultra-competitive world of smartphone homescreens, there is always a place for an email inbox. We might launch an app at some point. But for the time being, we would rather use an existing platform to create, develop and retain an audience: Email provides such a platform. Moreover, mobile use is not everything. Your emails are one of the last things you check before leaving the office, and the Brief.me email is more likely to reach you: Whether you are about to leave at 6:30 p.m., taking a break to read before tackling the final stretch, just noticing a new message that has arrived in your inbox, or checking your emails one last time – while on the commute home, for example.
Yet another difference is that the email format has allowed us to build a more collaborative relationship with our initial readership. It allows for feedback, more elaborate answers to our questions, and testing of new features. Nothing is more interactive than an email!
This emphasis on collaborative development was also one of the aspects of our business model, which was initially based on crowdfunding. One of the greatest advantages of crowdfunding is that it allows you to “prime the pump”: Beyond the purely financial aspect, it helps create a community, forge strong bonds, and encourage reader engagement. An emerging media, like any site or application, needs beta testers. There is no one better in this respect than “clients,” who paid out of their own pockets for a service and really care about seeing it optimized.
Laurent Mauriac – The initial readership is part of the adventure. Our initial readers have seen the publication evolve, and they found that we take their opinions into account. During the first months, we asked them a question every day: about the appropriate names for sections, for example, or about their interest in references from the foreign press or the relevance of particular subjects, etc. These questions were simple and most of them only allowed for answers from a limited number of choices (yes or no, this subject or that, etc.). But readers were also given the possibility of providing input. We encouraged them to contact us. We received over 500 messages. In addition to providing us motivation, these messages also contained very helpful observations. Reader input was critical to confirming our initial intuition about the publication and to gradually clarifying its optimal form. Eventually, we put out a slightly longer questionnaire, which took approximately 14 minutes to complete. The response rate was between 35 to 40%, which is remarkable.
This collaborative model represents one of the strengths of a project like Brief.me: the strong commitment of an initial community. What are its weaknesses?
Jean-Christophe Boulanger – The fragility of the model lies precisely in what was initially the project’s strength. The initial community of crowdfunders is driven by a strong commitment that is tied to the idea of contributing to the launch of a new and original publication. But this commitment cannot continue with the same intensity once the publication has found its definitive form. This is the first problem. There is also another: Approximately one quarter of the 900 initial funders came from the world of the news media. These insiders, some of whom simply wanted to support an idea that was appealing to them, are not representative of the wider public that we are seeking to reach. 80% of the first subscriptions were annual ones. We look very carefully at the subscription renewal rate. Over time, we will see if these initial supporters will continue to follow us and whether those who subscribed later found Brief.me useful enough to want to continue the experience by renewing.
Laurent Mauriac – Generally, we attach great importance to reading habits, and we use all available tools to measure them. We realized that a significant portion of our readers open Brief.me on the day after receiving it. Maybe this is because they have already left the office at the time the email is sent or maybe it is for other reasons. But my conclusion from this is that informing people in real time is not so important. Or rather that there is room for media that make other choices.
Are you considering variations of the main edition?
Laurent Mauriac – We started with the most difficult variant: a general newsletter. But one can imagine many other formulas: such as business letters, weekend supplements or variants targeting a specific audience (e.g., young people or expatriates).
The ecosystem of online media is constantly changing. Initially, there was the web, and then, around 2007, we saw the rise of mobile devices and tablets. Usage is also changing very quickly: We can mention, starting around the same time, the growing importance of social networks, the willingness to pay for online content, and the emergence of “indigenously mobile” newspapers, i.e. publications that were designed from the beginning – editorially, not just technologically – to be read on smartphones. (Brief.me is one of the latter.)
The online media industry is still searching for its business model and some observers are quite pessimistic. What is your take on the situation?
Jean-Christophe Boulanger – Independently of one another, Laurent and I both experienced the limits of a completely free model. We are fully committed to the choice of a subscription model, and it is the basis for the editorial line of Brief.me.
Many publications have shown that it is possible to produce online information profitably on a subscription model. Mediapart is a good example.
Subscriptions provide a form of security. The lack of advertising gives a certain sobriety and elegance to the product, which in turn guarantees a certain calm. This goes to the heart of what we promise readers: to provide not only a summary of the news, but also a levelheaded commentary on essential points.
Overcoming the pessimism that permeates many visions of the future of news media, we are currently in a period of intense activity: in the “creative” phase of a Schumpeterian moment. We are seeing many startups appear, and many of them have in common a cheap subscription model, at less than five euros per month. Crowdfunding has also freed up many initiatives. As the economic and technological cost of setting up subscriptions decreased, so too did the psychological cost. The first wave of pure players emerged in France seven years ago and even earlier in the United States. These initiatives were mainly led by former print journalists. We are now witnessing the rise of a promising second wave.
The crisis, however, is a brute fact. The digital revolution completely destroyed the possibility of any middle position between the big brands (such as the New York Times) and small niche publications. The challenge, especially for the weeklies, is huge. They are stuck in the middle, which is a very uncomfortable place to be.
Within the journalistic profession itself, value is migrating towards new functions: for example, toward the tracking of the most relevant sources.
The function of information production is being commoditized: Journalists are competing with experts who no longer need their mediation to reach the public and who are disseminating their knowledge for free. The information production function is a segment of the value chain that has clearly been weakened. But this does not mean that it is disappearing.
Regarding the dissemination of information, however, the situation is getting clearer and other functions are acquiring or recovering value. Brief.me, for example, offers verification and synthesis as a service. Still other functions are also worth exploring: selection and prioritization, for instance, are crucial and underdeveloped; explanation; contextualization; the highlighting of one subject among others.
The entrepreneur's role is precisely to learn how to extract and monetize this value. Today, information itself is virtually free. But the processing of information still has a value. The same can be said about the distribution function: Today, there is a migration of value towards new features, that we need to learn to valorize. In this regard, quality is absolutely crucial. The quality of the writing, for instance: In the case of Brief.me, and considering our readers’ expectations, fluidity and synthesis capabilities are crucial.
Laurent Mauriac – Journalism has never been a homogenous industry. It is way too general to talk of a structural crisis of the news media per se. There have always been specializations. Some specialties are in crisis; others are only just emerging or are doing quite well.
The feeling that we are in a crisis largely derives from the downturn in advertising revenues. The free-of-charge model was attractive for online media, since it allowed for significant audience expansion by eliminating the brake on purchase or subscription. But it proved much more difficult to implement, because of increased competition from sites outside the industry and an increased automation of advertising. The failure is not only economic in nature: The media that relied on advertising sought to multiply their number of page views [at all costs] and drifted towards entertainment.
In our judgement, it seems healthier to sell a product that you manufacture yourself and therefore to think about the service to the reader - not to the advertiser!
Adopting this view allows us to volatilize a number of [ingrained] beliefs. For example, size is not the point. Being in tune with readers, offering them a real service, appears much more important than having millions of page views.
The quality of the relationship with readers creates a much more solid and stable economic outlook. Building a strong relationship with a reader base, around a great service, also allows for other services or events to be explored: a club, for example. These services require new skills: I believe that what the "crisis of the press" needs above all are entrepreneurs. Information is virtually free? Let us stop seeing this as a problem. From the perspective of entrepreneurs, a virtually free commodity is a blessing: if, that is, they know how to use it to create added value.