Lakshmi Chaudhry on how upstart Splainer grabs a niche – and subscribers

Lakshmi Chaudhry is the founder of India’s Splainer, which she dubs Newsletter 2.0. She talks to WAN-IFRA about what goes into launching a business in the middle of a pandemic, the employed content strategy and fighting news fatigue.

Background: Starline

by Neha Gupta | February 23, 2021

Lakshmi Chaudhry forayed into journalism with, co-founded Firstpost, before starting Broadsheet, a newsletter targeted primarily at women, in 2018 and shutting it down in March 2020, owing to the lack of a feasible business model.

Splainer came about in June 2020 as a response to the crowded, rapid-fire Internet news cycle that persists today, backed by a sound business model. It goes against the drone-like format of everyday news, with intelligent and empathetic content punctuated with humour.

Splainer is a paid news service delivered daily via email and WhatsApp, with a current annual subscription priced at Rs 1,500 (€ 17.06). In India, where people are still sceptical of paying for news, the company has managed to acquire 3,000 subscribers in six months. 

WAN-IFRA spoke to Chaudhry about how Splainer was conceived, how it’s run by an all-women staff, its unique content strategy and business model, at least for India, and her plans for growing the company. 

Here is an edited version of that interview.

What was the motivation to launch Splainer in the middle of a pandemic, and how did the pandemic affect the launch and the company?

The primary reason was the outpouring of disappointment from subscribers when I shut Broadsheet down. I didn’t realise how much the work we had done meant to them, and how much they relied on it. It left me with two insights: 

One, you cannot launch a product without a definite business model. It can’t be an afterthought, as it was with Broadsheet, which is why we employed a paid-subscription model from the get-go. If you are confident of offering real value, then you must be willing to ask your audience to pay for it. Nothing in the current environment — be it shrinking advertising revenue or attention spans — bodes well if your audience is not willing to pay for what you offer.

Two, I became sharply focused on the experience of news. The pandemic has helped turn the spotlight on the tension between being well-informed and staying sane. If you want to know what is going on in the world today, a person must endure endless news application notifications, endless Instagram and Twitter scrolls, sift through innumerable links to find the good stuff, etc. We, in the media business, do not appreciate how incredibly unpleasant and painful it has become to consume news. When things go wrong, as they did with the pandemic, the effect on people’s mental health and wellness becomes apparent.

And no, I am not being starry-eyed or mushy about what we do. Today, any media entrepreneur has to be vigilant about news fatigue and “doomscrolling” because no one will pay for something that makes them feel bad every day. So, how do we make news consumption a positive experience? That’s a big and likely decisive question we must answer.

Why newsletters as the core product?

Is it a newsletter? Yes, it is, in the sense that the content is consumed in one continuous scroll. But I think of a traditional newsletter as text-only content delivered via email. From a user’s experience, do we really ‘feel’ the same as an Axios or Stratechery or Skimm or Times Top 10? Maybe not.

I deliberately created an edition that is consumed on the browser, which allows us to do a variety of things — in terms of images, videos, design — that are simply impossible in a rigid email template. The possibilities are endless and I see Splainer as a product that is in the process of becoming. I don’t have a name for it. Maybe this is newsletter 2.0 or maybe it is evolving and will become a new kind of product in itself. I’ve left that possibility open. 

What learnings did you take from Firstpost and Broadsheet that perhaps impacted Splainer?

Until Firstpost came along, legacy publications repurposed their content, slapped it online and called it digital media. We got started in 2011 and created that 24/7, on-all-the-time publishing cycle in India, taking on a highly opinionated, edgy take on the news. Now, everyone is doing the same thing but with diminishing returns, churning out 500 news stories, where 80 percent of the content is created to please the Google news bot or SEO algorithm. News now feels like sheer noise, and the pressure for high volume, both in the amount of generated content and the decibel level of debate, drives news globally.

Splainer is the anti-Firstpost. It is slow, focused on quality, not quantity. We send out one edition every day with the aim of rescuing our subscribers from a media environment polluted with negativity, fake news, and high-volume, low-quality reportage. 

Each edition sifts through this landscape to deliver a carefully researched and curated edition of daily news — offered with intelligence, humour, and empathy.  

How do you sift through the clutter of everyday news to decide your ‘big story’ and the subsequent headlines? Please elaborate on the process from ideation to execution.

The ‘big story’ must meet two criteria. 

One, it must be significant. So, the Union budget is a no-brainer, but when we do something on Viktor Navalny or Facebook’s war with the Australian government, it is our job to also explain why it matters.

Two, it must add in some way to our audience’s deeper understanding of how the world works, and why. So, it is not just about the farmer protests, but also about the structural issues with farming and the new farm laws. We want people to feel well-informed in the richest sense of the word.

As for ideation, honestly, it’s a bit of a mad scramble. We have very simple processes. There are WhatsApp groups where all of us dump in stories we see. At some point in the evening, we decide our big story for the next day but it is often written very early in the morning (think 5 a.m.) since reliable reporting doesn’t come out until the following day.

As for the rest, headlines are balanced between global and Indian because we write for the global Indian who cares about both, whether she is in Dubai or Delhi or New York. Everything else smart and curious, good place, sanity breaks exists to remind our audience that despite the bad or difficult news, the world we live in is complicated, interesting and, yes, even wondrous. 

And that’s what I mean about the U/X of news. Each time you read our daily edition, you should have a positive experience, even at a time when much of the news is negative. That is the challenge we try to meet every day. You should feel powerful and well-informed, you should laugh, you should be intrigued, you should feel curious…

India has only begun testing digital subscriptions. What was the thought process in deciding on Splainer’s revenue model and is it sustainable?

Yes. Indians are like people anywhere in the world who will pay for something if it adds value to their everyday life. If they can’t see the value in your journalism, they won’t pay for it, however good it may be. If you want to charge your subscribers in the news business, and grow beyond a niche, you have to learn to be useful to your audience.

What are some of your subscription targets / milestones? Can you share any initial figures or results?

We now have 3,000 subscribers in just six months. A significant number are founding members who contribute anywhere between Rs 2000-10,000 (€22 to €113) to support us. My target audience is Indians everywhere so our long-term aim is to hit 100,000 subscribers in the next 3-5 years. 

This compares very well with any paid digital product in India. The best part is that we don’t need a large newsroom to deliver. A product like Splainer requires a small but talented team. So, we are very lean and very high quality.

Do you see opportunities to diversify your revenue streams?

Yes, if we can move into targeting different demographics, such as school or college students.

Yes, if we can create a unique template that can be franchised in other geographies. Yes, if we can get brand sponsors on board. After six months, we are now looking at all sorts of possibilities as we move forward. 

However, the key is to make the most of your money from your actual content, not side hustles as a content creator for brands or as an events management company. We will also have brands who sponsor a given edition and feature sponsored content at some point, but no programmatic ads or banners.

How does Splainer approach engagement, and what are your key metrics? Conversions?

We look at open rates and time spent, of course, and conversion from monthly to annual subscriptions. But we also look at key indicators of brand loyalty like referrals and gift subscriptions. 

We are building a brand that has direct and intimate relationships with our audience. So, our subscribers are extremely loyal and committed. For instance, several of our readers added an extra 12 months to their subscription during the Diwali sale just to signal their commitment, and others gifted Splainer subscriptions to anywhere between 5-10 people during Diwali and Christmas.

How are you combatting churn, and could you share some statistics on that?

Most of our churn happens around gift subscriptions, which, given human nature, isn’t very surprising. We often aren’t the best judge of what our friends and family will appreciate. 

What’s interesting is that we rarely lose those who actively choose to subscribe to us. So our churn is around 10 percent, and that is fine because every gift that fails to convert is still valuable in what it tells us about our subscribers. 

How does operating a completely woman-run media company, for women, differ from working in a typical Indian mainstream newsroom?

This is a common misconception. Broadsheet was for women; Splainer is for everyone. We are an all-women team but our content is not for women per se, which some people find mind-boggling even though all-male newsrooms have been the norm for centuries. 

Splainer is very popular with women, but 40 percent of our audience is male. I am sure we would work as well with men in the team, but currently I am focused on creating an environment and opportunities for young women to thrive and succeed, and I don’t apologize for it. We have an excellent trainee program and our overarching aim is to incubate women who will go out and become leaders in their workplaces one day. 

What are the challenges of establishing an all-women organisation in a male-dominated media space?

None. We are boot-strapped and make the revenue required to pay our own bills. Financial independence is the secret to women’s freedom, be it in the case of a startup or in a relationship.

What are the top priorities for Splainer in 2021?

Grow, grow, grow. We have to scale. It’s a big challenge, but we are a small and mighty company, and I know we are going to do it!

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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