Italian podcast start-ups are betting a policy-free approach will pay off
Young Italians hungry for high-quality news reporting, sheltered from the endless political debates that characterize the country’s mainstream media, have become the latest front in the global podcasting boom.
Chora Media, co-founded by a former editor of major daily La Repubblica, this week acquired rival digital startup Will Media for 5 million euros in a bid to create the country’s largest digital audio media group. .
The sum is small compared to Spotify’s multimillion-dollar content deals with Joe Rogan and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but represents a significant step in a country whose established media are seen as laggards in the revolution. digital. .
Chora Media reached the 1 million listener mark six months after its launch and now has between 1.5 and 3 million downloads per month. Meanwhile, Will Media’s daily news digest ‘The Essential’, which was acquired by Spotify last year, is one of the most popular titles in the US platform’s Italian catalog with an average more than one million monthly listeners.
The number of news podcasts published in Italy increased by 126% between 2020 and 2021, according to data published by Spotify. The platform expects digital audio advertising in Europe to reach €200 million in revenue by 2023.
With traditional Italian media having lost 40% of their readership between 2014 and 2021, according to data provider Audipress, the country’s media are eyeing growth in the audio and digital space, which Spotify says will be one of the markets to fastest growing. in Europe.
Chora Media and Will Media are in their infancy.
Will Media was founded in early 2020 by former Airbnb executive Alessandro Tommasi and Instagram influencer Imen Jane, launched at the height of the pandemic with an initial investment of €1.2m backed by the platform. digital education Talent Garden and private equity investor Francesco Fumagalli.
The two founders have since gone their separate ways, but Will Media has made strides from an Instagram page with 200,000 followers to a profitable digital platform employing more than 30 people in less than two years. The Instagram page currently has over 1.3 million followers with whom Will Media shares news reels, explainers, data-driven posts and branded content.
The company also hosts live events and meetings. Francesco Zaffarano, the 31-year-old editor, was hired by Calabresi at La Stampa and La Repubblica, and later worked in London in several social media-focused roles at mainstream publications such as The Economist and the Daily Telegraph .
Chora Media followed a few months later and was launched by Mario Calabresi, the 53-year-old former La Repubblica boss alongside Guido Brera and Roberto Zanco, co-founder and fund manager of investment firm Kairos as well as the filmmaker Mario Gianani. , with a self-financed investment of €3 million at the end of 2020.
It quickly became Italy’s leading podcast production platform, employing almost 50 people, mostly tech experts, with plans to expand. His podcasts cover current affairs, mental wellness and social topics as well as audio documentary series.
Meanwhile, Will Media’s homepage features a drop-down menu offering topics ranging from sustainability to foreign policy. The main banner asks, “What do you want to impress on tonight at dinner?”
“Will be [Media] has succeeded because it offers younger generations pills of very factual information on select topics, which is exactly what millennials and Gen Z are looking for,” Calabresi said.
According to Will Media’s Tommasi, by removing the heart of daily political debate from mainstream Italian media from their offering, they are able to focus on factual, data-driven news that younger generations tend to prefer.
Spotify has also partnered with Chora Media to produce exclusive content and recently bought the rights to one of the group’s new products, a daily seven-minute foreign affairs podcast called “Stories”.
“It’s the ultimate demonstration that younger generations don’t shun news and information, the problem is the format,” Calabresi added. “I see a strong parallel between empty churches in Italy and empty newsstands: old people go to church and buy the newspaper, but young people don’t want to be told how they should live, by a priest or through newspaper columns.”
Millions of Italians have turned to podcasts and social media for news and factual entertainment, with the number of Italian-language podcasts from Spotify jumping 89% in 2021 from the previous year.
Yet Italian traditional media companies have been slow to embrace new media. Falling revenues, compounded by high fixed costs, have long discouraged strategy overhauls and digital investments and even now, subscriptions or branded content rarely surpass traditional advertising as a source of profit.
Calabresi, who was fired by the former publisher of La Repubblica in 2019 in part because of a drop in daily circulation, compares his experience to that of a surgeon operating for a decade on a sick patient.
Before heading La Repubblica, Calabresi was editor-in-chief of La Stampa for seven years. The two dailies were acquired in 2020 by Exor, the holding company of the Italian billionaire Agnelli family, after his departure and are currently undergoing a major overhaul of their strategy.
“I executed four restructuring plans over a decade and cost reduction was the sole objective of all of them, never investments, and if the newspapers die you can’t go digital without heavy investments”, Calabresi said.
“Editors weren’t bold enough and journalists were too conservative. . . they kept worrying about their byline on the front page and their article on the right-hand pages because that’s where the eye falls first,” he added. “But the next day, the paper ends up in a dump.”
While Chora and Will’s main source of income, which is expected to be a combined €10 million this year, comes from branded content. They insist that this approach does not compromise their offer.
“Our community is our watchdog and bad decisions or controversial partnerships would determine major backlash,” Tommasi said.
Calabresi is confident that Chora – which has ambitions to launch in both English and French – and Will are on the path to strong growth thanks to the interest of younger generations.
A former US correspondent, Calabresi approached Tommasi, 15 years his junior, inviting him for a beer and a toast at Bar Magenta in Milan last winter. Tommasi said, “I liked the idea because I was aware that sooner or later we were going to end up in a bigger group, but being bought by one of the traditional publishers would have been a contradiction in terms.”