The state of The Kākā nation
This is a report for paid subscribers on progress and proposals for the year ahead, including ideas to pivot for faster growth to fund more in-depth investigative and policy debate projects
TLDR: This weekend I turned 55, which puts me at the upper-end of middle-aged (40-65), and The Kākā turned six months old, which makes it a juvenile, so I thought it was a good time to take stock of this Substack and talk aloud about its future.
Officially, I have another 10 years left in me to do some more useful things before I can start collecting my universal basic income. Apparently, the Kākā (ie the bird) can live to the age of 20 in the wild. That sounds about right, but I’d like to sketch out what the next 10-20 years or so might look like. :)
Firstly, thank you to all of those who have subscribed, especially those who are supporting this work as paid subscribers. I wanted to give you all an update after six months with a paywall and I plan to do that every year or so from now on.
The Kaka has been more successful in its first six months since paid subscriptions were turned on than we expected, especially after we opened up more of my types of public interest journalism articles and podcasts to the public. I’ve also just completed a Substack Fellowship, which has given me a few ideas for pivoting to reach a wider audience and build a bigger community of paid subscribers to support even more of my type of mission-led journalism about and for Aotearoa-NZ.
(I want to share more detail about that success and float a few of these ideas with paid subscribers below the paywall fold. I welcome the views and suggestions from paid subscribers about building an even stronger and more productive community of journalists, listeners and readers. I’ll update this for all subscribers in a couple of weeks after a conversation with paid subscribers and a few trials.)
The last six months
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the appetite from both free and paid subscribers for the sort of journalism I’m doing on The Kākā, and in particular the focus on doing this journalism in public, for the public, about the top issues of public concern: housing unaffordability, child poverty reduction and climate change inaction. We achieved our two-year targets for subscribers and revenues after three months. The juvenile is beginning to wash its own face.
This initial success of The Kaka is counter-intuitive to me a least. I’m a long-time free-market-friendly type and a sceptic about people’s willingness to pay for things done in the public interest. We’re mostly a selfish bunch when push comes to shove, especially when we spend our own money or go behind the curtain in the voting booth. I assumed The Kākā would be a platform for me to do some interesting things for a few people that would be fun and might wash its own face after a couple of years.
Instead, we hit our targets for the first two years after just three months and we’re now in a position to dedicate more time and pivot more in the directions that have driven this growth. When I say we, I mean myself and my sub-editor and photographer and (wonderful partner) Lynn Grieveson.
Not what I expected
We launched The Kākā fully on Sept 21 last year as a paid email newsletter with some podcasts and invites to webinars for subscribers, having built up a ‘free’ list of over 4,300 subscribers in the previous year. I initially expected limited demand for a paid email newsletter about these sorts of issues. So I kept doing bits and pieces of freelance work for HugoVision, BusinessDesk and others.
There is a classic trade-off in doing news behind a paywall. Understandably, the tougher the ‘property right’ on news, the less likely it is to make it into the public domain. That in turn tends to drive news subscription services to ‘for-profit’ topics of niche interest, including news and information to make asset owners and business owners better informed and more likely to make profits.
Typically, the model is to write specifically for those for-profit readers and lock that down as tight as possible. That’s to ensure there are as few ‘free riders’ as possible and that potential subscribers realise they will have to pay to get that information, rather than wait for it to get out or subvert whatever paywall system is in place. Also, it turns out paying subscribers don’t like free riding.
Of course, that makes it difficult for anyone wanting to produce news in the public interest that is designed to be of use to as many people as possible. The more open a piece of journalism is to the public, the more likely it will be shared and read and eventually filter into the public consciousness.
It becomes a paradox if you want to do journalism in the public interest. The more public it is, the less likely it will be to support itself through subscriptions. But the more ‘free’ and available it becomes, the more it has to rely on sponsors and advertisers to survive. That, in turn, can shape and limit the scope of that public interest journalism.
It’s a fairly classic tragedy of the commons problem in public good economics.
Why not apply for Public Interest Journalism Fund money?
That’s why there’s often a public subsidy paid for public goods to ensure they are available and protected for all. Hence the big push for public grants and subsidies for public interest journalism, particularly in the wake of the growth of Facebook and Google. Their growth has amplified misinformation and dragged advertising revenues away from ‘traditional’ mainstream media, which tends to employ professional journalists and editors full-time (usually) to act as gatekeepers and chaperones to ensure the public information is sane, reliable and broadly published in the public interest.
This is why the Government has created a $55m Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF). Here’s the December funding announcement and the September announcement for those wondering who has received money and for what. I don’t have a problem with this money being granted and to the projects listed so far. I wish them all the best. I have argued in favour of such a fund in the past.
But it’s not for me. I’ve been down this track before and have spent more of my time than I’d care to admit over the last decade effectively begging Governments, corporates and wealthy individuals for money to allow me to public interest journalism operations.
I failed mostly. It makes sense if you have an infrastructure to leverage all the application time and effort into a big chunk of journalism for a big chunk of money. But it doesn’t make sense for a one-man-band and can’t really help but be more useful for the likes of NZME, Stuff, Newsroom, The Spinoff, MediaWorks and local newspapers and radio stations. There is an interesting status-quo bias problem inherent in the fund, but it’s hard to avoid that.
At 55, I’ve decided life is too short to spend ticking boxes and tweaking journalism ideas to match a necessarily prescriptive set of rules about the types and formats of journalism. I’d rather do the journalism instead.
I’m now in the unusual position of having attracted a big enough number of individual subscribers to support the work I want to do. I’m also in the privileged position of having received a fees-free education and having owned homes I’ve occupied since 1993. That means I don’t have to pay rent. That is the guts of it. I’ve been saying for a couple of decades that everything in personal finance, politics, society and the economy in Aotearoa-NZ is always, always about housing. It’s the same for me.
I couldn’t do this as a young journalist paying rent who does not have a long body of paid work and expertise and profile, upon which to build up a group of supporters and support themselves in the lean early years. My experience is no model for anything or anyone.
The PIJF is not a grand plot
My wariness about applying for public money is not some sort of holier-than-thou appeal to the people who spat at me at the protest and told me I was ‘bought’ mainstream media and that I was Labour’s ‘sock puppet.’ Firstly, I haven’t taken the money, and secondly, neither Labour or National think I’m tame or pliable. Thirdly, I’m not saying those who have received the money are somehow compromised. Far from it, in my experience.
I don’t buy into the oft-ranted idea in recent months that the $55m fund is some sort of Government-run censorship exercise that is turning our media into a captured bunch of wokesters who are afraid of everyone and listen to no one. It’s just not true.
I’ve worked with most of the people who are applying for those funds and manage the journalists and articles produced from the fund’s money. I know them. I’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes. It is mostly excellent work that wouldn’t be done without the money. They are no one’s patsies.
So how will we continue and grow without it?
I don’t want to rule anything out ever, but for now I don’t see a need to apply. It makes me tired just thinking about applying. So many zoom calls… So for now, I’m happy to say The Kākā can remain as a independent source of news and analysis done in the public interest that is fully funded by individual subscribers, rather than Government grants, corporate sponsorships or philanthropic grants.
Instead, I think there’s even a few ways we can accelerate this growth and make it properly sustainable and useful to the wider public by focusing on our readers, listeners, subscribers and the need to cover the triple crises in front of us of housing unaffordability, climate change inaction and child poverty. We can grow and be better without the PIJF.
So how could we ramp this up?
We’re now in a position where I can go (almost) ‘all in’ on The Kākā. For the last 18 months I’ve been freelancing for HugoVision, a subscriber-only fortnightly PDF newsletter for executives, Stuff and The Spinoff. For the last six months or so I’ve also been writing a daily overnight markets briefing email for BusinessDesk. Remember, I assumed this would be a sort of fun sideline that would prove that people like free stuff and won’t pay for news and information about solving poor peoples’ problems.
I estimate I’ve been spending at least half my working time doing non-Kākā work for most of that period, including a day or two a week doing When the Facts Change, a weekly podcast for The Spinoff.
But the success of The Kākā has allowed me to focus more time on The Kākā. My work for HugoVision and BusinessDesk is finishing. I stopped writing for Stuff last year and I expect my only non-Kākā work from Easter will be When the Facts Change, which I love doing doing and is an excellent free outlet for the sort of public interest journalism about the political economy I do. I am paid by The Spinoff to produce a season of 48 weekly episodes per year and expect another season to start next month. The podcast is sponsored by Kiwibank, who pays The Spinoff for that sponsorship. To be honest, it would not be sustainable for me in the long term on its own, but makes sense in tandem with The Kākā.
I had hoped to be doing plenty of speaking engagements over the past couple of years, but then came Covid. I am hoping these will ramp up again, and I welcome new opportunities for speaking at events.
So with all this extra time I have to do all the things I’d really like to do with The Kākā, here’s a few ideas aimed at widening the audience and increasing the resource available to further our ‘mission’ of doing explanatory, accountability and investigative journalism for the public interest on housing unaffordability, climate change inaction and child poverty reduction.
I’d like to:
increase the usefulness to a wider group of paying subscribers of The Kākā by continuing to put out a Dawn Chorus of key news with a podcast at 7am and adding a Dusk Chorus at 5pm for paid subscribers only;
widen the availability and usefulness of my deeper-dive articles and podcasts by doing two columns and podcasts a week, including a Tuesday column and podcast at 11am, and a Friday one at 11 am;
these deep-dive columns plus podcasts would be for paid subscribers first, but be available for the public the following morning at 7am; and,
making the columns available for free to republish on any publicly accessible news website with the proviso that any outlet with a print publication also agree to publish it in print on the Wednesday and/or Saturday with credit along the lines of: “This article was produced with the support of individual subscribers to The Kākā, which is a daily email newsletter and podcast.”
The new targets and what ‘success’ might look like?
I think there is the momentum and room for The Kākā to reach 2,500 fully paid subscribers by the end of 2023. We’re just over 1,500 paid subscribers now and have 6,800 total subscribers, including ‘frees’. Getting to 2,500 would make it a truly viable and sustainable prospect for those 10-20 years until I dissolve into a useless heap/swan off somewhere sunny with Lynn.
If we were to get over 2,500 paid subscribers, that would create space for us to start expanding our offering with new writers providing even more coverage of housing, climate and poverty.
I have a million ideas for new areas and issues to cover and dive deep into. This constant creation of ideas for new coverage is mostly a bad thing. I find the things I don’t have time or resources to do often more frustrating than the satisfaction with the things I can do. But most threats are also opportunities…
This way we would be able to do more investigative and explanatory journalism projects, including the potential for more local journalism on housing and transport, along with deeper coverage of councils and Government on these issues. I think there are huge opportunities for more forensic reporting and analysis of housing development, infrastructure planning, transport projects and the political noise and positioning around all of these.
So how do we get to 2,500 paid subs by the end of 2023?
We need to both grow the total of free and paid subscribers and convert those ‘frees’ into paid subscribers. We need to do that with a clear and credible commitment such as this:
“The Kākā does essential journalism in the public interest on housing unaffordability, child poverty reduction and climate change action, which is funded independently by subscribers and available to everyone in Aotearoa-NZ.”
“The Kākā promises paid subscribers will be sent this journalism first via email and be able to share that journalism with the public, as well as be part of a community to support and improve that journalism.”
We’d be in a position to deliver daily emails and podcasts for paid subscribers for 46 weeks of the year, along with twice-weekly podcasts and columns for all paid and free subscribers.
There are a few things we could do to both expand our accessibility and potential for new paid and free subscribers, including:
offering full paid subscriber level access for free to advocacy and charity groups focused on the areas of housing affordability, climate change and child poverty;
offering full paid subscriber access to all members of corporates and group subscribers for a simple $1,900 per year subscription, which would allow anyone with the organisation’s email suffix full access to The Kākā with no limit on the numbers;
making full paid subscriber access for free to all students and teachers at schools, universities and polytechs; and,
offering full paid subscriber access to anyone under the age of 30 for $3 a month or $30 a year.
I propose starting these offers and features after Easter, which is when my work with BusinessDesk and Hugo Vision finishes. I’m also on a one-month ‘in-between’ break until the next series of When the Facts Change.
So what do you think?
I welcome your comments and suggestions below. I’m intensely conscious that real people have paid their own money for the work I do and suggesting that I should ‘give more of it away’ to everyone (albeit only the twice-weekly columns and after a 20-hour delay) may not thrill everyone.
But my hypothesis is that paid subscribers to The Kākā feel it is worth it to see all my journalism first, be able to comment on it, and feel they are making a difference by ensuring this journalism is both done in the first place, and then available to the public.
So what happens now?
I’ll be trialling the 7am and 5pm choruses for paid subscribers before Easter, along with the twice-weekly columns at 11 am on Tuesdays and Fridays (for public release on Wednesday and Saturday at 7am)
Meanwhile, I welcome your feedback and Lynn and I will decide before Easter what is sustainable and we can deliver on.