Australian startup Capital Brief and Guardian’s Europe expansion bet on journalism model

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter. Stand by for optimism.

This week we look at two examples of journalism driving new launches: one by an established but genuinely innovative organisation with a mission based on journalism, and another by a pacy startup that reckons it has seen a new model.

Each is an optimistic story for journalists and for the business of journalism. Each is a reminder there are different ways to fulfill the mission of creating sustainable journalism and sustainable publishers that offer readers great content and create jobs and revenue.

We know there are many paths. We also know the hardest path is to turn around so-called legacy organisations. Some months ago, I interviewed the publisher of Axios, whose experiences in “old media” led him to believe it could never move at the speed needed to survive. The examples here — especially from The Guardian — challenge that. The other, from Australia, actually embraces the ethos from Axios and converts it into an Antipodean news startup.

I hope you are as inspired as I was by these two stories of ambition: one from a venerable yet fast-moving more than 100-year-old publication and another launched just last month. Let’s talk about it on the INMA Newsroom Initiative Slack channel within the overall INMA Slack.

Australian site learns from the new generation of U.S. news startups

Capital Brief is a new breed of news site in Australia that is unashamedly built on lessons from the new generation of American news businesses, growing from highly focused and high-quality journalism rather than reach and a click-based dependency on advertising.

Its co-founder, INMA member Chris Janz, has a resume that spans a couple of decades of trends from mass-reach advertising-drive sites where, as the book said, “information wants to be free” to attempts by major media organisations to reinvent themselves as digital-first.

He seems almost relieved that it has become media business logic to think of the journalism first and expect users to pay for it — and want to pay for it.

Capital Brief, which launched out of Australia in August, is targeted toward business investors.
Capital Brief, which launched out of Australia in August, is targeted toward business investors.

“It really comes back to my belief in the business of journalism,” Janz told me from Sydney. “You hear about the death of journalism and that media is a really tough business. I genuinely believe there’s never been a more exciting time to be in the business of journalism.”

Janz happily acknowledges the debt his start-up Scire and its first product, Capital Brief, owe to that breed of American sites that have carved out new models based on niches where readers are prepared to pay for the right reporting in a reader-revenue-first and journalism-first model. He mentions Jessica Lessin’s The Information, Jim VandeiHei’s Axios, and Ben Smith and Justin Smith’s Semafor as inspirations which he believes have proven the model.

“There’s been a wave of new publications in the States over the last couple of years. If you cast your mind back 15 years ago, the wave of digital journalism publications, then, the likes of Huffington Post and BuzzFeed were all built around scale from search and social, and they did well at their time. They built massive audiences. The world has moved on. Over the last couple of years, we've seen a rise of a whole host of new editorial models that all have slightly different businesses and very different audiences. The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re built off the back of quality journalism, quite sharp journalism.”

That is almost exactly the premise of Ben Smith’s book Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, which exposes the money lost and damage to journalism the headline rush for reach and dependence on tech and social media caused.

A veteran of those times with senior roles at Nine Entertainment, News Corporation in Australia, and earlier start-ups and ventures, Janz probably could have written the same book and has certainly read Traffic. More importantly, however, he knows those lessons instinctively and has the scars.

“I lived and breathed that period,” he said “I have held the belief for quite some time that media has moved on from handing over control of your platform and your journalism to someone else, whether it’s a search engine or a social platform. I’m a big believer in quality and that’s what we’re doing.”

Capital Brief, which launched in August, is the first project from what Janz and colleagues hope becomes an umbrella holding company for a range of services, Scire – Latin for “to know.” Funded by its principles — Janz and his business partner fellow media veteran David Eisman — and the Australian venture capital firm Shearwater, Scire plans to create Australian media sites with what Janz happily calls “elements from a whole bunch of models that we’ve seen, tried and tested elsewhere, with a bit of a twist.”

Capital Brief is aimed at business people who invest their capital — hence the name to a large extent — and gives them actionable financial, business, and political news in a country where the federal capital (another reason for the title) has a big say in regulation and the economy.

“If I were to describe the recipe, it's 80% the capital — as in how money works and how businesses work — and 20% the politics and regulation,” Janz said. “It’s very intentionally the intersection … we were looking for a masthead that almost said what it says on the tin.”

Capital Brief already has a staff of around 20 journalists led by one of the country’s most experienced business editors, John McDuling. The site is a mix of free and behind-registration and subscription but started right away with a subscription model based on identity — not passwords — given the experience of the way passwords tend to get widely shared. 

Capital Brief is A$29 (US$18.50) a month and A$19 if you pay for a full year. Janz reckons Scire will focus solely on Capital Brief for maybe six months before considering its next move and that he has about three years of financial runway from now.

He’s clearly excited: “Oh, it’s so much fun.”

Looking at the Capital Brief site on any given day, there’s a heavy emphasis on politics — sensible in a country where the finance minister, central bank, and regulators hold huge sway — as well as sharp takes with a knowing edge on business leaders and corporations.

There’s a strong emphasis on newsletters and some clever design with strong signals of freshness. I’m intrigued that they have used the suffix too — not — perhaps hinting at international ambitions. I will check in with Chris Janz in a few months to see how Capital Brief and Scire are going so we will stay tuned on this story.

Full disclosure of course: Janz has been a director of INMA in the past.

The Guardian enters Europe, a graveyard for UK publishers in the past

The Guardian has launched a new version of its increasingly international Web site aimed at continental Europe — even as Britain has left the European Union — and against a background of various attempts by UK publishers to enter the market across the Channel.

As a veteran of a couple of earlier ventures to expand UK and UK-American media ventures into Europe, I am impressed they are going where so many others have dared to tread and are doing so in English rather than any of the local languages. It is true, of course, that more than ever English is the er … lingua franca of Europe.

“The Guardian’s correspondents have been covering European affairs for more than 200 years, and we’re delighted to be expanding even further with new reporters, specialists in crucial Europe-wide themes such as the environment, culture, community affairs and sport, and an array of new European columnists,” Guardian Editor Katharine Viner said in a statement about what is clearly a journalism-led approach to carve out a place or meet an unmet need.

“In today’s globally connected world, we believe there’s a great need, and a demand, for a European lens on world issues,” she said.

To some extent, The Guardian has proven such a model can work. It opened an Australian edition under former editor Alan Rusbridger in 2013 and has since become a top-five news site in a ruthless and hotly contested market against rivals like News Corp.

It also launched a standalone newsroom and site in the United States in 2011 and has established a strong profile in the media ecosystem with its liberal or left-of-centre approach and some ground-breaking investigative journalism, such as The Counting on killings by police.

In each case, from a Newsroom Initiative point of view, it has posted a charismatic and innovative editor to head each digital title and more or less let them go — and built newsrooms. It is also true that its content aligns to its supporter-rather-than-subscription model, though it increasingly has what amounts to subscription offerings. It also has an international edition.

Its results have been remarkable after some difficult times, and it is arguably built on a rare synergy between its ethos and its newsrooms, as well as superb analytics and innovation. International revenues rose by 17% in its last financial year and account for 35% of total revenues, which may go some way to explain the move into Europe.

That success may also have given impetus to the rival Independent’s decision this month to expand in the United States with more editorial staff and more targeted content.

By way of background, I was involved in a big expansion of The Times (of London) — reach rather than investment as such — built on an immense increase in readers from the United States in the mid-2000s. In Europe, I helped launch FTMarketWatch sites in Germany and France as offshoots of FTMarketWatch in the UK and the original MarketWatch in the United States in the early 2000s. None of those survived and nor did an ambitious newspaper and digital expansion by the Financial Times to create in Germany. Years before the late and disgraced media mogul Robert Maxwell created The European newspaper.

Given its success and commitment in Australia and the U.S., it seems The Guardian may get it right: investing in journalism online without the cost of an old-style newspaper project.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at or with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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