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Independent and ad-free: the future of news?

Journalism doesn’t come for free – but journalists don’t want owners or advertisers breathing down their necks. Is it possible to be independent and ad-free, or is this just a fantasy?

Founder of Krautreporter and Steady, Sebastian Esser (@sebastianesser) is one of Europe’s most innovative publishers. He took to the Trust in Journalism Conference 2019 stage to share his vision for the future of news.

This session of the Trust in Journalism Conference 2019 was organised in partnership with the Engaged Journalism Accelerator.

Sebastian spoke about how Krautreporter came to be:

“We thought to ourselves: what can we do differently, not necessarily better, but different? That was five years ago. We started a big crowdfunding campaign. We said we wanted to publish just one story a day, and we would like to not publish any ads. We would like to not accept money from anyone except for you [the audience] and we will work with you closely if you agree to make this possible with us. So, let’s team up, let’s do this together. That was in 2014.”

“[In our campaign] we said we needed a million euro in advance, within the next four weeks. Sounds crazy when I say that out loud but it worked. So we built a publication built on memberships, not subscriptions. What does that mean in our case? We don’t ask people to pay to access our articles or content, we aren’t doing paid content which is the standard model in news nowadays.

"We are trying to build a relationship [with our audience] and build trust.”

Describing the processes by which Krautreporter seeks to build trust with its members, Esser explained:

“We send out surveys, we meet with people in person, we write a lot of emails, we answer to a lot of members. We also try to get to know who our members are by just asking them what their professions are, where they live, how old they are, hobbies they might have, what languages they speak. So if we are working on a story, the first thing we do is look into information about our members and then contact them and get their expertise.

"It’s a dirty secret of journalism that journalists usually don’t know as much about something as the people they write about. What’s great about membership is that we are not alone.”

Sebastian also spoke about the emerging 'passion economy' and its importance for journalism:

“People feel passion and that makes them want to start paying (...) Journalism is becoming part of an emerging passion economy where somebody believes passionately in this one thing so strongly that they will start publishing about it and then other people who share this passion join in and also support this by giving money. I don’t believe that this is only applicable to the big news brands. I believe it is especially for the smaller ones, for niche publications, for local publications, everywhere people share and have something in common.”

Ultimately, the message of Sebastian's presentation was a simple one – be a news organisation with passion and purpose and members will come:

“What we are selling is our purpose; and that is what we need to communicate.”

Have a look at this practical guide about community engagement and revenue generation researched and written by Krautreporter as part of their work with the Engaged Journalism Accelerator: The Engaged Journalism Playbook.


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