What is a publishing startup? The definition is loose, therefore abused.
In the business world that coined the word startup in the nineties, that label meant a few things that have to do with the disruptive power of digital technologies, the exponential growth rate of the business (often thanks massive injections of venture capital) and the highest rate of failure. Bootstrapped meant, instead, growing your business with little or no venture capital or outside investment. We still associate it with the notion of startups, but it is actually the way most businesses have grown since the industrial revolution. Few resources, lots of hard work.
Like every other business on earth, digital has disrupted publishing in every part of its value chain. That disruption has been a death sentence for many publishing businesses, especially magazines. Or, it has been like a rollercoaster ride: names like BuzzFeed or Vice claimed to be revolutionising journalism for the digital age but ended being victims of the attention economy.
Publishing is struggling to reinvent its business model. Subscriptions, memberships, not-for-profit? All-digital, digital & print, only print? Yet, something is happening. And – again – the pandemic played a propeller role. Indie book publishers thrived often with the active support of their readers (see this: The Guardian – “How Indie Publishers Survived and Thrived in 2020”).
The new ecosystem, known as the passion economy – a set of tools and platforms enabling many creators to develop and monetise their customer base offering concerts, fitness training, courses and digital artefacts -, has been a safe harbour for writers, journalists, micro-publishers.
In this occasional series of essays delivered in your inbox, I have covered the world of newsletters already: many publishing startups have been born as newsletters, and now they are expanding.
The other things happening alongside the pandemic has been data visualisation becoming a mass media phenomenon, together with an increased interest in science journalism (do not believe who says that – after the pandemic – that interest will evaporate: data literacy is increasing and the work, mostly good, done by scientists and science journalists will leave a trace).
This newsletter is all about intersections: between passions and publishing, media languages and formats, and business models.
For this springtime edition, I have found one of the best “intersection” stories of publishing startups: an intersection between social sciences, cartography, instagrammable data visualisations, all delivered as a print magazine. Founded in former East Germany in 2015, five years after it is a cult magazine among millennials and a surprise for many media professionals.
Catapults, ice creams and social sciences.
A different publishing startup, starting from the name.
When you see the magazine Masthead, with ice cream as a Logo and the word “Katapult” as its brand name, you might be confused. No, “Katapult” is not the name of a punk-rock band, and this is not a fanzine. And no, it is not a food publication about the art of cold delicatessen.
It is, instead, a print quarterly magazine about illustrated social sciences, where social cartography plays a big role. It was founded in 2015 by Benjamin Fredrich, a 33 years old political science doctoral student from Greifswald, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, after he won a local business idea competition and got a grant from the German Federal Ministry of Economics.
What happens normally after those competitions is this: you receive lots of business advisory and suggestions. If Fredrich had followed those business consultants helping founders to rollout startups, the magazine would have not been on paper but only digital, not published from Greifswald, and old University town quite distant from the publishing capitals of Germany, Hamburg and Berlin – and it would have not been named “Katapult”, of course.
Those were, so to say, the first steps that Benjamin took to manifest its refusal of standard business rules.
The next has been the business model, the purpose and the way to work. Before diving into the product, let’s review Katapult with facts and figures.
- KATAPULT has a quarterly cadence and finances itself primarily through the sale of printed issues (plus books publishing and sales of maps and other prints). From 50,000 EUR revenues in 2016, the magazine cracked the mark of 1 million EUR already in 2020, with 120.000 copies printed.
- You can find it in the kiosks of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg, but it has been the subscriptions that made it known outside of Germany, too: of the current 75.000 subscribers, around 10% come from outside Germany.
Believe me, these numbers are – for a quarterly magazine – huge. Germany does not remember in the last decades such a success in little over five years. The magazine doubles its circulation every year.
- The corporate form of Katapult is a non-profit company (gUG). The reason for that, at the very beginning, was the chance to put a one euro capital to establish it. It did not change later. The mission – promoting education and social sciences and nature conservation – is more important than profits.
- The magazine is professionally run: there is a newsroom (the Chief Editor is the founder himself) of around 30 employees and growing, including a newsroom cook (food matters). All of them, including the Editor-in-Chief and the cook, earn the same monthly salary – 3.000 EUR gross -, which is adjusted every year based on the revenue growth.
- Professionally run, but without overhead: no marketing research, no advertising department, no strategists telling what to do and what not. Ideas are discussed and executed. No audience research is needed, too. The growth of the magazine is a genuine history of word of mouth and self-selected readers: most of them, teachers and students between 24 and 36, politically and socially interested.
Visual, witty, eye-opening: can social science research become a social viral hit?
Every Katapult´s page is a visual experience: dull information and complex statistics are decoded and made accessible to a broad public using wonderfully insightful, quirky graphics. The illustrations are vivid, sometimes they seem “childish”, but they all are well thought, and you realise it when you start reading the related – crispy, yet thoroughly documented – articles.
The scientific fields covered by the magazine might scary most readers – economics, political science, history, linguistics, gender studies – but the way they are presented, often starting from burning questions or slightly provocative headlines, provides readers with several “aha” moments in each issue. These “aha” moments become often social media viral hits.
One example of that is the eight-page essay with 13 footnotes summarising the current state of scholarship on the question of why women are still outnumbered at all political levels one hundred years after introducing women’s suffrage, that in Germany happened in 1919. This body of knowledge, on Katapult, is completed with eye-opening maps. Some graphs compare countries by the rate of cities with a female mayor: these maps tell a counterintuitive story about a Country, Germany, ruled by a woman for the last 16 years!
Even worse, the map showing how many cities in Germany have male vs female mayors and how many of them have a mayor called Thomas. The data tell another uncomfortable truth, only masked by the witty comparison: in Germany, there are more mayors called Thomas than female mayors.
Unusual views, surprising numbers.
Besides the longer features, shorter pieces use one chart, one map, or sometimes only a few numbers to provide unusual views on things you probably never questions.
An example of that is this is the “Trock´ne Zahlen” (Hard numbers) column, which surfaces strange comparisons like this one: the waiting time for a Trabi, which peaked at 15 years in the DDR, is compared with the waiting time for a Tesla Model 3, which was four years and two months in 2018.
In “Fragmente” (Fragments), not-so-known facts and social researches are summarised in less than 200 words plus one map, graph or illustration, like these two: one about the fact that, up to a certain level, higher incomes make you happier or why one of the regional state TV stations located in former East Germany, is called Middle German TV (MDR Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk).
Another good example of an unusual view, which is also a sarcastic way to say something very unpleasant: show things that melt… but only one seems to disturb all of us.
The revenge of the point of view.
The secret of Katapult’s success lies not only in how it shows things but in the unambiguous political point of view. Social science IS political science: all human science IS political.
Like-minded people – progressive, lefty, proud Antifa – run the magazine. And they are not shy at all: a typical Katapult issue begins always with a page of negative reader opinions about maps from the last issue: “Strange eco-propaganda!”, “Stupid stuff, as always from do-gooders.”, “You write even more shit than the other German media”, “Stupid gender-people”, “You share fake news!”… just a few of the nicest comments received on social media and republished on the mag.
Present and future of Katapult.
Since Autumn 2020, Katapult has become also a book publisher. Their first book sold 70.000 copies. From flags to languages, from a portrait of philosophers with addictions to maps that will change your worldview, their books are eye-opening like the magazine, with, also, a format fit for post-modern coffee tables.
The latest evolution, announced for 2021, is the most challenging and ambitious: to launch a local newspaper for Mecklenburg Vorpommen, this time digital-first, and with the declared goal to counteract – with hard numbers and visualisations – the populistic, xenophobic voices overrepresented in the local news in the region. Hats off, Katapult people, may you bring to local news media the same spirit you bring in your magazine!
What does the future of media look like? Lessons from the Katapult´s success story.
I hate the talks about the future of media. The future of media, like the future as such, is what YOU decide it to be. I prefer to go back to my child’s memories and some old good sayings: the necessity sharpens the mind, and the best way to blaze new trails is to forget about what people say it is better to do.
There is still a role for print media: millennials believe in it more than many Gen X people (me included). And there is a lot we can do to save local information (and our local communities as well). But a few things are clear, both for digital and print aspiring publishers:
- The most successful new publishers are not generalists but have a tight focus on communities.
- They know the power of data visualisations and use it as a lever to solve complexity and take topics out of their academic ebony towers: visualisations are the new language of media.
- You do not need anymore to rent your audience from big tech platforms: with patience and a clear editorial mission you can develop a direct relationship with your audience, so close that you can tailor your editorial products around them, person-to-person (no need for an algorithm, only human relationships); that thing used to be called “niche”, once upon a time; it became a way to say “small, therefore irrelevant”, but things have changed – you can develop your niche and become a global phenomenon as well.
- There is still a place for advertising, but the most sustainable business models are based on subscriptions and memberships. If you believe in something and make it your mission to deliver on that, you’ll find people eager to support you on that path. After the hangover we all had with poor content made to bait clicks and feed algorithms, we realised that originality and quality are a precious asset. Many of us would love to pay a reasonable price for making it thrive.
More about Katapult (in German):