Thursday 19 July 2018

Three new kids on the block: Irish media startups now making waves

 

‘We’re not interested in cats on skateboards,’ says Maximum Media founder Niall McGarry
‘We’re not interested in cats on skateboards,’ says Maximum Media founder Niall McGarry
Eoin McDevitt, foreground, and Ken Early backstage at one of Second Captains’ live events
Lois Kapila, co-founder, Dublin InQuirer. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Ireland's media landscape is changing quickly. But what are the breakout companies and services? How are they getting on? What is it that they do that is making them successful?

Adrian Weckler spoke to the founders of three of Ireland's most interesting new media firms, from very small to international-level enterprises. One is targeting local news through print, another is building a profitable podcast business while a third aims to be a new mainstream alternative to RTE or INM

1: The international challenger: Maximum Media

What it does: Websites, podcasts, video shows, live events.

Niall McGarry wants it all. He is confident that his Maximum Media outfit - publisher of Joe.ie, Joe.co.uk, Her.ie and a number of other properties - will deliver.

"There's no reason why we can't be as big and influential as RTE or INM [Independent News & Media, publisher of the Irish Independent]," says McGarry.

"We've had great growth in Ireland, we've invested hugely and we're building something big in the UK. We also want to take on radio in a big way."

McGarry, who started the business nine years ago, sits on a growing stable of video channels, podcasts, websites and commercial partnerships that have made his company into a significant player within Irish media.

With its profitable Irish operation making up the majority of revenue between here and the UK, he says that turnover this year will exceed €14m, making it larger than all but a small handful of national Irish media brands.

As such, it has climbed to more than 100 staff, including new tiers of upper marketing and editorial figures recruited from established advertising and media brands.

While viral videos on social media remains one of its most visible public calling cards, the company's business strategy leans heavily on commercial partnerships with big brands.

"We did a €300,000, five-month deal with Paddy Power for the 'GAA Hour' [podcast] and made it into one of the most listened podcasts in the country. That's a lot of money for a five-month sponsorship, but it was all based on KPIs [key performance indicators] that we were able to promise and then meet."

McGarry says this is indicative of the kind of business that's out there to be won by a media company with ambition.

"We've done similar things with companies like Renault, Gillette and SkyBet, all over six figures," he says.

"Cadbury is also a long-term partner. These companies are paying for eyeballs. The cheque sizes floating around have become stronger."

These sponsored partnerships also fund a number of live events that the company holds. However, he says there is more to building a media group than striking commercial deals with companies and ratcheting out podcasts or paragraphs.

McGarry's operation is hiring in some established names from the world of sport, in particular, to bolster its credentials as a rising player in the market.

"One we're going big on right now is football," he says. "If you look at the people we've got in that space, it's high level talent. It's people like Si Clancy, Nooruddean [Choudry, the podcasting 'Bearded Genius'] and Melissa Reddy. We're going to build that a lot more."

He also points to non-commercial shows commissioned that are positioned as audience builders, possibly to show big brands what's possible. One of these is 'Unfiltered', a video podcast with the controversial London radio host James O'Brien, who interviews celebrities such as Gary Lineker, Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran and Eric Cantona.

"We made a decision not to put a sponsor on that but it's been a phenomenal success," he claims. "The latest figures show that it has around 80,000 to 100,000 listens per week and completion rates of over 70pc. For us, this is a brand-builder."

McGarry says the long-term future for the business is in building a free-to-air media company that is more responsive to how platforms work and how people consume modern media online than other companies.

"We make less than 15pc of revenue from seeing an ad on our platform," he says. "We're there to create content.

"We believe the future of media is traditional media done digitally. We're not interested in cats on skateboards, there's no editorial or commercial buzz around that. We're building shows and video series, both in long and short forms, that people can consume on a variety of platforms.

"We live in a free-to-air era and will do for the rest of our lives. People can watch video in their Twitter or Facebook feeds. We're happy to supply for that as long as they're part of our community."

Having identified distribution as the key to the media business's growth, McGarry is thinking of new ways to accelerate it.

"We want to embrace artificial intelligence, even though there's a long way to go with it," he says. "Ultimately, the future for us should be as number one in the distributor space."

As for McGarry's own future with the company, he dismisses talk of cashing out any time soon.

"I've seen a lot of people saying that we're building it up to flip," he says. "All I can tell you is that I'm nine years into the project so far and we're not doing that.

I see the long term business of where it can go. There's definitely room for ourselves and RTE and INM. I'm excited by what's coming next."

2: The paywall success: Second Captains

What it does: Podcasting shows with a sporting focus (secondcaptains.com).

Everyone and their dog hosts a podcast*. But almost no one in Ireland makes it pay, let alone building a profitable business and international following from it.

Yet that is what Mark Horgan, Ken Early, Ciaran Murphy, Simon Hick and Eoin McDevitt have done with their 'Second Captains' podcast. The former Newstalk sports presenters have created a programme that gets more than 11,000 paying monthly subscribers (at €5 per listener) and thousands more non-paying listeners.

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Eoin McDevitt, foreground, and Ken Early backstage at one of Second Captains’ live events

While they've been going since 2013, their 11,000-strong paid following has been built up in less than 18 months. Last spring, the five broadcasters launched the podcast's premium 'world service' section, taking in subscription cash via the online Patreon system. In that time, Second Captains has become Ireland's clearest example of a post-advertising media business that is based almost entirely on listeners' willingness to pay for what they're hearing.

"We were probably the first in Ireland to commit to podcasting as the major way forward," says co-founder Mark Horgan.

"I suppose we've been fortunate to have been broadcasting when there's a distinct change in the industry, a shift to where consumers are clearly comfortable paying for their media. On the other hand, we started out in 2013 and there wasn't a huge podcasting scene at the time."

Second Captains emerged when a number of broadcasters and production staff on Newstalk's 'Off The Ball' programme left the station over a disagreement with the then management.

Today, the five co-founders have amassed the biggest radio-style subscriber base in the country, outside music streaming outfits such as Spotify or Apple Music.

While it covers sports-related news and features interviews with well-known sports figures, the podcast's main appeal arguably lies with its own presenters' style: from Ken Early's wry philosophical observations on football to Eoin McDevitt's straight, neutral host routine.

It works. While the five broadcasters do a handful of annual live events, including occasionally sponsored ones, they have found that focusing on paying listeners is what has taken off.

"The lion's share [of our revenue] comes from subscriptions," says Horgan. "The whole business really works around that and this has completely been the case since we launched it."

Listener loyalty is a key element, Horgan says. Once people sign up, they generally don't leave the service. "We find that 90pc of those that sign up [to a paid subscription] stay signed up. The other 10pc might drift in and out depending on what's on, such as right now with the World Cup."

The podcast's five years in operation has taught the five founders some lessons, Horgan says. Most of all, the subscriber dynamic has impressed upon them the need to deliver what they believe they're best at: radio-style podcasts. One casualty of this is an ambition to mix in television or video somewhere. So they no longer do the TV slot they had with RTE.

"We just wouldn't have time," says Horgan of adding in television. "It's all go every day as it is. The whole basis of the business now works around the podcasts and members. We found out a lot in the first year [of the subscription model]. Now that we have a little more freedom and security, we're able to start thinking of developing other things, but it's still really other types of [podcast] programming, not TV or anything."

Another lesson they learned, he says, is that investing time and money in quality, while scary, can pay off.

"For our fifth birthday in March, we did interviews with people like [filmmaker] Ken Loach and Vincent Browne. Those things took a lot of production time and effort, with extra travel, but the reaction to those shows was an increase in [subscription] numbers. If you put out good shows, you'll see a return."

Horgan says future output may include investigative content or deeper politics, building on a politics segment that Ken Early has broadcast. "Those proposals are currently in development," he says.

[*Including The Big Tech Show, presented by this reporter at independent.ie/podcasts]

3: The battling startup: The Dublin InQuirer

What it does: Campaigning local Dublin news (dublininquirer.com) via web, app and a monthly print newspaper.

Lois Kapila believes in the power of local news. Her fledgling 'Dublin InQuirer' is trying to build up an audience based on reporting the kind of issues that don't get much play in other media. These include close attention to Dublin Council issues, transportation blockages and urban planning matters.

The publication is online, in-app and is available in print once a month. The website is currently free to access, while a €5 monthly subscription includes delivery of the newspaper and access to an ad-free version of the app.

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Lois Kapila, co-founder, Dublin InQuirer. Photo: Adrian Weckler

"We print 1,100 copies of the newspaper at the moment, but almost all of them are gone to subscribers," says Kapila, co-founder and managing editor. "We stock the newspaper at about 15 locations around Dublin."

At present, the 'InQuirer' employs two staff reporters, Zuzia Whelan and Conal Thomas, while Kapila herself also writes for the service. A number of columnists are also featured.

Kapila and her husband look after the business side of the company, including distribution, subscriptions, accounting and administration. At present, Kapila is still working to make the 'InQuirer' profitable. Other than subscriptions and ads, the operation is funded by her and her husband, who has a separate day job.

"We're trying to double subscriptions by next year," she says. "If we do that, we'll be more than sustainable. I borrowed some money from family and there's a small bank loan too. We looked a lot at equity crowd-funding, but I'm not sure we're at that stage."

Kapila says that her vision for the 'Dublin InQuirer' is not very similar to many other online media startups that are chasing traffic with viral videos to court advertisers.

"We're doing something completely different to many of those sites, which I don't really count as news journalism," she says. "Advertisers sometimes aren't going to want to place ads besides some of the stuff we do, but I don't want us to compromise our journalism. I guard our editorial independence quite closely."

Kapila says she would like to expand the newspaper's reporting into more in-depth beats. "When we have more resources, we'll look to add a couple of reporters and start doing more areas such as jobs and criminal justice in the city. I want to do some longer-term reporting."

To do this will mean more money. Kapila says she is rethinking the service's current business model, including the introduction of some form of paywall for online content.

"We launched the print product to incentivise people to pay for news, as well as having some premium news," she says. "In the next month we're going to change some things with the digital subscriptions. At the moment we're giving most of it away free. We want to be able to pay reporters more, so we're more behind a subscription model. But we want to manage it in a way that's still inclusive and open."

Like other fledgling media, the 'Dublin InQuirer' also looks to events to supplement its business. However, Kapila regards events as a chance to network and get feedback from readers and subscribers, rather than as a straight money-making option.

"We do a music night every month, pub quizzes, debates, that kind of thing," she says. "They're more of an opportunity to meet subscribers and get feedback than something to make money. Being reader-supported makes us focus on that relationship very closely. We're trying to nurture that."

Kapila doesn't aspire to being a national player. "We're going to grow in line with the number of subscriptions we have rather than scale massively," she says. "I don't ever see us getting enormous. For example, we'll never be doing breaking news."

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