“Five times bigger than music”: ‘Spotify for news’ startup Inkl is growing during COVID-19, as consumer demand for media shifts

Inkl-team

Gautam Mishra (top left), Bronwen Clune (bottom right) and the Inkl team. Source: supplied.

Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen startups launching, raising and growing off the back of accelerated trends in e-commerce, telehealth and edtech — so it’s significant that ‘Spotify for news’ startup Inkl has also seen a boost to business.

Founded in 2014 by Gautam Mishra, Inkl is a subscription service allowing consumers to access news from more than 100 different, trusted sources for one fee.

Over the past year, the startup’s revenues have doubled. And more than half of that growth has come since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic has changed consumer behaviour in all manner of sectors, and that’s no different when it comes to news.

But, as is often the case, COVID-19 has simply accelerated trends that were already happening.

The media sector has seen “some pretty big changes in a fairly compressed period of time,” Mishra tells SmartCompany.

First, traditional media outlets are seeing a drop in advertising revenues.

“We knew Facebook and Google were taking money out of the market, but nothing like this,” Mishra says.

“It’s been really enormous.”

Over the past few months, as the COVID-19 crisis has deepened in Australia, we’ve seen the closure of more than 150 newsrooms across the country. News Corp suspended the publishing of 60 community newspapers, 10 Daily shut up shop, and Buzzfeed Australia shut down its news division.

Elsewhere, newswire service AAP was saved from closure by a last-minute sale, but some 75 journalist jobs were still cut. And in June, ABC announced budget cuts that would see 250 jobs lost, including up to half of the ABC Life team.

However, at the same time, we’re seeing an uptick in news consumption in general, and for global news, Mishra notes.

“It’s a global pandemic, there’s an interest in global news,” he says.

And that doesn’t only mean stats and figures. Readers want to know about vaccine development and different government responses, for example.

“People generally are interested in how the situation is developing around the world.”

With less free news resources available and more demand for reliable news, “that’s translated into a growing acceptance around payment for news”, Mishra adds.

Fake news and Facebook

But of course, there’s the crux of the matter. More than ever, people want — and need — reliable news, from reliable sources.

The ‘fake news’ debacle first came to the fore in 2016, amid Donald Trump’s US election campaign, Mishra notes. Previously, there’s been a tendency to dismiss it as an American problem, he adds.

But, “that’s blown up in a way that people didn’t expect”, he says.

Between the COVID-19 5G conspiracy, and anti-vaccination and anti-mark rhetoric, we’re starting to see a real backlash against Facebook and other social media platforms that allow questionable content to do the rounds.

“There’s a lot of demand for these guys to try and fix the situation, have a bit more verification of the information, and basically establish the authority of the people putting news out,” Mishra says.

“The platforms aren’t really doing that.”

Bronwen Clune, Inkl’s freshly appointed vice president of growth, points out that the challenge of unsubstantiated news is nothing new.

But, in times of crisis like this one, it’s made much more apparent to those who may not have given it too much thought in the past.

“The pandemic actually has exposed the power of news, and that misinformation can actually put lives at risk,” Clune tells SmartCompany.

“There’s been a shift in people’s thinking about how important it is that the information we get is reliable.”

However, while the social media giants do host some questionable news sources, they haven’t been all bad, she suggests.

They’ve played a part in normalising the practice of reading news from various sources, and even reading various pieces covering the same story. People are less inclined to rely on one publication — digital or otherwise — for all of their news.

Inkl provides that same experience, “but obviously everything we’re delivering is via verified news organisations”, Clune says.

“While they’ve created a lot of chaos in the industry, people have changed the way they consume news, and we’ve just got to keep up and keep evolving with that.”

This is a major change in consumer behaviour, Clune notes. And it’s not something that’s going to be temporary.

Inkl isn’t reacting to the crisis, she says.

“We just have a solution to misinformation and we can solve that problem,” she says.

It’s about time

That’s not to say Inkl isn’t taking advantage of the opportunity that has presented itself.

Clune says the team is working on new products and new aspects of the business, particularly with a focus on helping journalists build sustainable incomes. But, it’s early days, and she won’t be drawn on the details.

Mishra also hints that we may see a funding round in Inkl’s not-too-distant future.

“I’ve seen a very marked change in investor appetite in funding high-quality news projects,” he says.

What he does say for sure is that the opportunity here is a global one. One of the decisions the founder made in the startup’s earliest days was to make Inkl a global platform from the start, rather than growing country-by-country, he explains.

“That was sort of terrifying in the early days,” he admits.

“But we’re seeing the benefit of doing that now, because we’re seeing a lot more interest from publishers around the world.”

More and more publishers are approaching Inkl, rather than the other way around, Mishra says.

It’s validating, in a way, he adds. As all founders know, leaving your job to launch a startup is daunting, and it can be tricky to know whether your audience will be receptive.

“It’s pretty clear now that all the rationale, the analysis and the thinking behind what we’re building was correct. It’s nice to get that validation from the market.”

This is where founder resilience comes into play, Clune says, holding a bashful Mishra up as an example of that. He saw a problem that was about to emerge in an industry and started building the tool to tackle it, she says.

“In some ways, the vision was very early, but certainly had that foundation not been laid we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now,” she adds.

“Most journalists who work in the industry can see the writing on the wall.

“It’s not a surprise to any of us that the moment to solve this is becoming critical.”

Some things never change

At a time when many media businesses are struggling, Inkl’s growth shows a wider acceptance of a new era of media, beyond just going digital. That will ultimately be good for the industry, Mishra says.

“It’s going to really accelerate the path to a more sustainable future for publishers.”

There were two main reasons Mishra took the plunge and launched Inkl, he says, recalling many discussions with his wife about the decision.

“One is that there’s this huge market opportunity — it’s five times bigger than music,” he says.

“But on the other side, this is a fundamental problem that the world has to solve.”

In an era of unprecedented upheaval and disruption, there are always things that remain the same. The need for sustainable, reliable news sources is one of them.

“You’ve got to solve some of those issues, and make sure people understand what is and isn’t real. That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed.

“The only thing that will change is the urgency around some of those conversations.”

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