Credit: Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Journalists often pride themselves on being able to smash out several stories in a day. You get on the phone to grab a quote, check your sources, file your copy and then straight onto the next one.

Now imagine if you had to record an audio version of each and every story you wrote. That would be a huge task.

Danish publisher Zetland, however, took a very different approach. Its slow journalism style means it publishes two or three pieces a day, each with its own audio version read by the reporter, plus a daily news podcast. For a team of 20 editorial staff, that may not seem like much output.

But it is precisely this emphasis on audio that has helped the slow journalism publisher reach 17,000 paying members to date. It is now stable and breaking even, according to Tav Klitgaard, CEO, Zetland, speaking at FIPP World Media Congress 2020.

"There’s no need for more information and there’s no need for more fast information," he says. "We need media that will sort through the noise and connect all the dots."

Co-founder and editor-in-chief, Lea Korsgaard, speaking at the same event, explained that journalists introduce their story, the main premise and then read their articles word-for-word, with some sound production incorporated into the mix. Bear in mind, some of these stories take weeks to complete, so it is no surprise audio versions reach the 15-20 minute ballpark.

The stories are written in a way that makes sense when read verbatim; so no lengthy sentences or technical phrasing.

"It has a campfire feel to it," Korsgaard describes. "Like 'I'm sat here reading my story aloud to you'."

Since introducing audio content in 2017, 80 per cent of articles are now consumed via audio by Zetland's paying members. Audio articles tend to be listened to all the way through, in vast contrast to text articles which have much quicker drop-off rates.

But the word 'members', of course, is the rub.

It is possible to listen to articles for free on the website. However, non-members do not have the option to rewind or fast-forward, and they are at the mercy of the desktop or mobile internet browser they are using. But by using the app (at 129kr/£16-a-month after introductory offers), subscribers can enjoy the full experience.

This strategy has proved effective during the coronavirus pandemic, attracting at one point around 2,000 members in a three-week period.

Like other news organisations during the pandemic, Zetland had asked those able to pay more for the subscription to do so, while allowing those who have been hit hardest by the economic shock to receive a discount. In the end, Klitgaard said the two roughly balanced each other out swinging by a few hundred members each way.

For a non-legacy news organisation set up around four and a half years ago, this growth is significant.

Scandinavian countries are known for having audiences who are willing to pay for news content. For context, in Denmark, 17 per cent of the population pay for online news, according to the Reuters Digital News Report (DNR) 2020. That is lower than its neighbours in Finland (19), Norway (42) and Sweden (27) but higher than the 7 per cent of the British public who pay for online news.

Recent studies have also questioned slow journalism's main premise: to be a news source for news avoiders. It turns out it is news junkies who are actually most keen on the style.

Korsgaard said that Zetland's audience is a mixture of both: 30 per cent of its audience are under 30, while the remaining older demographic are those who have historically bought newspapers.

"We know from meeting [young audiences] that you could call them news avoiders, they say things like 'You are the reason why I began following the news again, because before I had quit'," she explains. "And of course, there are always those who follow news online who don’t pay for it."

Either way, Zetland has sustained its peak moments of membership over the summer and it now aspires to amass 40,000 total members in the next five years.

"The way to long super growth is quality because there are so many [news outlets] that are doing quick, low-quality stuff. We're not going there," Klitgaard concludes.

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