Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
6 mins read

Splainer is re-imagining what it means to build a direct relationship with an audience

Serial media entrepreneur Lakshmi Chaudhry is testing a space for constructive and empathetic journalism in the middle of a pandemic.

Lakshmi Chaudhry had struggled to include female consumers when she started and ran Firstpost. Relegated to the corners of soft news and “women’s issues”, the working assumption was that “women don’t care about the news.”

In response, she co-founded Broadsheet in June 2018, a newsletter primarily for women. The weekday email delivered a condensed wrap of the news, offering multiple viewpoints and sources on an array of interests. 

It provided an alternative to the never-ending algorithmic feeds. And it did so in a voice peppered with wit and relatable quips, talking to its readers as people with shared concerns. 

It is this consideration for the consumer, especially the women among them, that has propelled Lakshmi into her third venture, Splainer, which launched in June 2020. 

In moving to a subscription-based model, Lakshmi is now focused on serving the needs of her readers better than Broadsheet which, unable to find a viable business model, shut in March 2020. 

In its first month, despite starting during the pandemic, and in a country often reluctant to pay for online news, it amassed 600 subscribers, including nearly 200 Founding Members. Six months since, that number has tripled. 

Below is an edited interview with Lakshmi.

LLakshmi Chaudhry, Splainer

Can you tell me how Broadsheet came along?

Broadsheet came out of my experience at Firstpost, which I co-founded back in 2011. There wasn’t much digital content in India then, and Firstpost was a disruptor, bringing in live-tweeting, live-blogging, breaking-news within hours of it happening, etc. 

There, I really struggled to include women to read the news. And this is an ongoing problem across the board, not just for Firstpost or Indian media. The view is that women don’t read the news because women don’t care about the news. Therefore, women’s media was very much defined as shopping, leisure, beauty, health, maybe parenting — soft news.

There was also the problem of volume in both senses of the word. My intuition was that women are disengaged from the news because of the way news is presented to them — the sheer amount of it and the extremely high decibel level. It then becomes a chicken-and-egg thing. The news stays the same because it assumes the problem is with women, not with news. 

So, Broadsheet comes out of that. I’d seen The Skimm and had a bit of an aha moment and thought, maybe this is the way to go. 

What makes it news for women?

It’s for women who are busy, who tend to be multitasking and who really don’t want to spend six hours on Twitter, reading everything and fighting everybody. I wanted it to be conversational, to offer context, background and explanation, without dumbing it down. It was that: helping women find stories that are of interest to them. 

How did that lead to Splainer?

Broadsheet was an almost experiment, and it took off in unexpected ways. We ended up being read by 35-40% men, power news readers, pretty much every newsroom in the country, all the way to college and school kids. 

We had this huge range and we were onto something. But because of the way we started, we never really baked-in a business model.

We raised a lot of angel money but there was no revenue model that was viable for us. 

How is Splainer different from Broadsheet? 

I doubled down on the experience of reading and the pleasure of it. I wanted that sense of enjoyment that your grandparents had reading the newspaper with a cup of tea or coffee. Putting all of it into an email is about convenience, but for the experience, it’s much more visual, playful, and I like to think, warm and welcoming. That’s why it iterates on a browser because it gives me a much bigger toolset, and allows me to put a paywall on. 

I was very keenly aware that we would be launching in the middle of a pandemic, what is a very difficult time for people, in terms of the disease, of their job security, anxiety and stress. And the news doesn’t get better. Which is where the dog navigation and the different sections come in- putting the reader in the driver’s seat. They can start with “smart & curious” or “the feel good place”. After “the big story”, which is typically not good news, you have a sanity break, which is a nod to how difficult it all is, to give the reader a breather and reminder of the pleasant things.

Were you set on a subscription service for Splainer?

Yes, I was never going to relaunch without money. It makes me completely independent of investor money and makes it a self-sustaining business. 

Every startup right now is feeling that pain of being dependent on someone else’s money and not getting it from their consumer. I was very clear that whatever I was going to build was going to have a direct relationship with my consumer or audience. And the way we will grow will be based on their needs. 

Who would you consider Splainers’ audience and what is your plan to reach them?

Splainers’ audience is pretty much the English-first audience — 40 million in this country. It is for everybody but it is by women, and that sensibility and editorial lens in the world will always be in its DNA. 

And the way to get them, because we don’t have any marketing money, is by targeting those networks, institutions, organizations. And that has to be smart. It is not going to be throwing money at Facebook or Instagram. I am completely uninterested in that form of marketing and it’s not even relevant for Splainer. 

Our brand has a very direct, strong relationship with its audience and we talk to them all the time, which is why we have a whopping 40% student discount. 

We’ve done well so far, and I think we will have enough to sustain us for the first year by the end of the third month. 

How do you choose your “Big Story”?

Sometimes it chooses itself. If there’s a really big headline then it’s a no-brainer. But lots of times we will think of a story that, a) is important to understand and b) has huge value for our audience and c) there is something to explain about it. Otherwise, what’s the point of wasting all that real estate in something that can be summed up in three sentences?

What is your criteria for the other news stories that go in?

I think of our audience as global Indians is spread across the globe, so there’s a balance between global and Indian that I maintain. We also don’t do stories that don’t have a point, which is why we say “headlines that matter”. If I see yet another story of Trump saying something stupid, it doesn’t go in. To me the “so what” filter is really important, because I understand my audience has only so much bandwidth and attention.

What is a typical work day routine for you?

Our days start very early. I start at 5:30 am and the team at 7. We get Splainer out by 9:30-45. Then I do the other part of my job, which is not the daily edition, like checking the tech, revenue, subscriber growth. 

My executive editor Sunaina then takes charge and I start working again on the newsletter at 2 pm, when the team checks out and comes back at around 4:30 and does the bits of the edition that are evergreen. At 5 pm, I check out and do a bit of work at night. 

What do you think of the condition of newsrooms in India right now, as compared to when you were working in one?

I think it’s much more vibrant honestly. The digital boom has been very good for India. All the different models and kinds, whether it’s The PrintScrollWireNewslaundryThe Ken. I’m really pleased they’ve all found a way to thrive and grow, which shows that there’s a genuine appetite for them. 

Yes, there is a lot of political pressure and self-censorship, but what I worry most about is what’s happening at the regional level, where some of the bravest and best journalism is done, and they don’t have the same kinds of buffers of privilege, or even national attention. And for all this pressure of the next billion, they’re all seen as cash cows. Not a lot of people are saying let’s do regional and give them high quality journalism, which I think should be a goal.

By Sabah Virani

A researcher, writer and journalist based in Mumbai, otherwise occupied with the world of thought, structures and histories. Follow Sabah Virani on Twitter.

Republished with kind permission of Splice: reporting on the transformation of media in Asia