Before Tav Klitgaard shifted his career focus to technology and journalism, he worked as a jazz trumpet player, and the creativity and innovation that all great jazz requires is something he carries along with him.

“One way that I could actually help improve society was to go into journalism,” Klitgaard said of his career change. “And the wonderful thing for me right now is that I am the CEO of a media company, and the trumpet is still with me. What I try to do is take tech creativity and bring it into the world of journalism.”

Copenhagen-based Zetland is a remarkable example of a journalism start-up that does nearly everything differently from a typical news publisher.

They start each morning with a group song, for example, and they intentionally publish only a few pieces of content a day. At the beginning it was just one or two articles, now it’s four or so. Every story is always made available to their members in both text and audio form.

In short, they don’t just think outside the box, they actually work that way.

For starters, they are completely focused on the kind of news and information that people want and will pay to support. And that’s what Zetland’s consumers really are, supporters and believers in something that they want not only to consume but also feel they are a part of.

It’s an approach that is working well: Today, Zetland has a staff of 65, and 40,000 paying members (in a Danish population of 5.5 million), with about a third of those members being younger than 35.

What’s more, they are funded almost entirely by their members. They have no advertising.

A new kind of jazz, or JASS

Klitgaard says he sees what they do at Zetland, including its business model, as a variation of jazz, or more specifically JASS – Journalism AS a Service.

“If you go out on the street and ask our members what we are, they would say ‘It’s an app.’ ”

And to an extent, that is certainly true, and one that by design is colourful, playful and highly engaging, Klitgaard said.

“There is a lot of member engagement within the app. We try to engage a lot with our community,” he said.

As noted above, every Zetland story is available as either text or audio, and a surprisingly high number of their members – some 80 percent – prefer to consume the content via audio.

What milk and good red wine have in common with journalism

Zetland’s mission is to educate and inspire people through their content, Klitgaard said. While noting they have realised these two goals are pretty different, he said he thinks a key to their success is they have managed to combine them.

He offered an analogy to how they think about the content they produce as two different general categories inspired by milk and quality red wine.

“Milk is a product that has to be fresh. It’s also a product where you are not really able to distinguish yourself. The price of milk, a very good bottle of milk might cost a little more than a discount bottle of milk, but it’s not a lot,” Klitgaard said.

But a great thing about milk is that most Danes drink a lot of it, he added. Consequently, most people there will have to go to the supermarket every day to buy milk.

“It’s the same thing with journalism because most people wake up in the morning and want to understand what is going on in the world. So it’s kind of a similar product to milk. It also gets old very quickly,” Klitgaard said.

Then there’s red wine, especially good red wine, which is “a quality product where some people are willing to pay a lot more for a great bottle of red wine than a cheap bottle of red wine,” he said.

‘Where the magic exists’

In Denmark, all supermarkets put their milk fridge in a back corner, Klitgaard noted. They do this because they know people who come in wanting milk will go to the fridge, and they will pass a lot of tempting goods along the way.

“While they are there, they might also buy a bottle of red wine, even though there is a wine shop next door. But because the wine is right there on the shelf, just next to the milk, they will take it from there,” he said.

The analogy to news, he continued, is “we have these very strong user needs. It’s a very strong user need that people want to understand what is going on in the world. Combine that with giving them inspiration, giving them advice on how to form their day, form their life. That is where we at least have seen that magic exists.”

What Zetland does, Klitgaard said, is to always have fresh milk and quality red wine on their shelves, i.e. two current affairs articles, and two feature pieces.

Culture might be key to their success

Zetland has been running a profitable business since 2019, shortly before Klitgaard came onboard.

“We’ve managed to continually grow our revenue and are planning to grow it a lot more,” he said. “We run a pretty healthy business, and you’ll see that we are running more towards other areas other than just memberships. We are publishing books, we are selling our technology.”

However, their success might be due to more than just their business plan and content.

“One thing that might actually be more important than what we do is how we do it. And that is rooted in the company culture.”

Noting that culture can be difficult to talk about, he added that it is nevertheless vital.

For example, one thing they try to do at Zetland is combine different expertises.

“That’s also one of the reasons that I brought my trumpet today because my background as a musician is something that I can actually use in my daily job.”

Understanding the close relationship between content and distribution

At every level, Zetland always tries to focus on the customer, “which is for us, a member. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s also a very, very important cliche,” Klitgaard said.

In addition, he said, they’ve realised that content and distribution are very closely related and connected.

“Everything is the experience of getting a relationship to the content. And the distribution channel is very important in that,” he said. “I am a tech guy, and maybe that is why I believe so much in the distribution of the product, but I believe that content plus distribution is what creates the experience. That also means something in terms of how you create a team. What types of people you need in the newsroom.”

Something else Klitgaard said Zetland has learned is that it’s crucial to become “a brand that people really relate to. And we do that by being what we call a human brand. We try to be very human, we try to be very personal and personable in our experience and our output and that is what actually creates the beauty of the business model. We almost exclusively make money from subscriptions. And in order to do that, I believe you need to think about these things. At least that’s what worked for us.”

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