In Italy, a digital startup’s membership model takes off

Luca Sofri has been publishing Il Post for 11 years with the aim of producing quality journalism for a discerning audience. He believes Italian readers are looking for news they can trust.

This is not easy to do in Italy, he told me in a Zoom call from Milan. His model of quality journalism is prestigious English language newspapers that strive for accuracy and admit their mistakes. By contrast, he says, Italian media unapologetically aim to stir up emotions rather report the facts-it’s good for their business.

So it has taken years of trial and error for Il Post to carve out a space in the media market with its aspiration of producing accurate news about Italy, Europe, and the world.

Luca Sofri, founder of Il Post

A lean operation

The content is a mix of aggregation and original reporting. On the revenue side, Il Post depended mainly on advertising, supplemented by events, training, and e-commerce. When money was tight, Sofri relied on four silent partners.

(Versión en español)

Then in 2018, advertising started to plummet, and the publication lost 500,000€. It appeared that 2019 might be even worse. Something had to be done.

Sofri knew about the successful donation model of The Guardian in England and the membership model of eldiario.es in Spain. He borrowed some of those ideas and decided to ask readers for support.

In May of 2019, Il Post launched its membership program: for 80€ a year (around $90) or 8€ a month, members would receive an ad-free version, the site’s podcasts, a daily newsletter (including Sofri’s daily commentary on a musical recording), and they would have the right to comment on articles.

11,000 members in one year

The membership offer was an immediate hit. In the first three weeks, 3,000 people signed up, the vast majority for a full year. Membership grew steadily and then jumped to 11,000 when covid-19 hit and the publication launched a daily newsletter focused on the virus.

Even with the membership payments, Il Post lost 170,000€ in 2019 on revenues of 1.3 million. However, it looks as if 2020 will finish in the black, despite the fact that a series of revenue-generating events had to be canceled because of covid-19 restrictions on gatherings. Advertising, particularly branded content, is up 25 percent in 2020.

Memberships represented about 14 percent of revenues in 2019 but reached around 30 percent in early 2020. “We have focused on building loyalty rather than counting the number of users and page views,” Sofri told me ( financials here, in Italian).

As of the end of November, the membership total was 15,000. The renewal rate for those members who signed up in early 2019 has been an impressive 80% (a more typical rate is around 60% for news publications).

According to SimilarWeb.com, Il Post had 13.6 million visits in October. Its traffic totals roughly 12% of that of Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily-not bad for a small digital startup.

The differentiator: accuracy

Il Post has a newsroom of 14 journalists. None of the news articles have bylines. Sofri says this is to avoid having readers try to guess at the motives of the journalists rather than focusing on the facts they present.

On the other hand, Deputy Editor Francesco Costa produces a popular podcast and column about politics in the US. It’s called “From Coast to Coast”, punning on his name, which means “coast” in Italian. Sofri says Costa’s book on US politics, Questa è l’America (this is America) has sold 25,000 copies with the help of publicity in Il Post.

Sofri himself has written several books in a varied media career. He rattled the cages of the major media with his 2015 book, Notizie che non lo erano: Perché certe storie sono troppo belle per essere vere (The news that wasn’t: why some stories are too good to be true).

The book describes in excruciating detail how Italy’s most prestigious and trusted media brands routinely invent stories out of whole cloth to attract readers or viewers.

Carp, not salmon

Sofri wrote that, unlike news organizations in the rest of Western Europe and the US, which have sensationalistic tabloids that are distinct from more serious news brands, the Italian press combines the two types of content in one package.

The result is that people get a false picture of what’s really happening in the world. The media behave like a dishonest fish-monger who sells you carp, passes it off as salmon, and then says with feigned innocence, “everyone makes mistakes,” he wrote.

Italian media behave like that: they make no apology or attempt to correct the fraud, Sofri says. This is dangerous for democracy. People are confused about what to believe. They end up not knowing what to believe or believing nothing.

In this time of an economic and public health crisis, the need for good information is paramount. “We strive for accuracy and are very careful with our language,” Sofri says. That value proposition seems to be bearing fruit.

Related: Do big journalism brands have a future? It depends

Originally published at https://jamesbreiner.com on December 1, 2020.

Entrepreneurial journalism, periodismo emprendedor, multimedia. Work with Tec of Monterrey, ICFJ, FNPI, Poynter, Bizjournals. http://newsentrepreneurs.com