When Jon Connell quit his job at the Sunday Telegraph to found The Week magazine in 1994, colleagues thought he’d gone “round the bend”.
More than 25 years after the launch of The Week, Connell has a new venture: The Knowledge, a news digest for the digital era.
Once again, the journalist-turned-entrepreneur will have his doubters. But The Knowledge already has one significant advocate – Lord Rothermere, who has chosen to buy a majority stake in the start-up through DMG Media.
“I just think he – Lord Rothermere – thought it was an interesting idea, and he’s always been interested in The Week,” Connell tells Press Gazette. “And I kind of know him, so it seemed a good fit.”
‘In many ways, launching a magazine was vastly simpler’
In terms of investment, therefore, The Knowledge is off to a better start than The Week, which had to rely on funds from the sale of the Connell family home as it started out.
But Connell is under no illusions about the challenges of establishing a new news brand in the digital world.
“It’s a very different challenge,” he says. “In many ways, launching a magazine was vastly simpler.
“You had one thing to think about – it was weekly. Yes, you had to worry about print costs. Yes, you had to worry about paper costs and how to distribute, and so on.
“But it was a very simple business model. We went for subscriptions from the beginning. We used mail-outs – so literally through the mail – and that’s how we gained our readers. And it worked very effectively. It took some years, but it worked very effectively.
“Now we’re in a world where there’s no point sending something through the mail because it gets shoved straight in the bin, almost certainly.
“Everything is digital, so it’s very complicated. You’re juggling email, website and all the possible ways you could market it through digital media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. So the marketing and business side of it is much more complicated than it was for me back in 1994.”
The Knowledge, says Connell, is a “product of the lockdown”. He came up with the idea with his daughter, Flora, a former musician who is now a junior assistant editor for the title.
The Knowledge’s website and app share several traits with The Week – articles that quote and reference numerous news outlets, a luxury property section, a sprinkling of light-hearted news presented alongside serious coverage, etc.
“Everything that matters and a few things that don’t is the formula,” explains Connell.
‘We’re like a sat-nav. We try to guide you to stuff that’s interesting’
Similarities between The Week and The Knowledge are unsurprising, given both were invented by Connell. But The Week already has a website. So where does Connell see the gap in the market?
“I felt there was perhaps the need for a different kind of product aimed at a slightly different, younger market to The Week,” he says, explaining that The Knowledge will aim to use GIFs and video content to differentiate itself.
“The Knowledge is based around a daily newsletter, on the grounds that people now expect their information daily rather than weekly.
“And I think it’s probably overall more internationally minded. In the sense that we’re aimed at a domestic audience, but we draw willy-nilly on everything from the New York Times and the Atlantic to the Sydney Morning Herald and papers all over the world, as well as the British ones.”
Connell launched The Week as a product for guiding time-strapped readers through the most important news events of the past seven days. Now he feels “people, if anything, are even more busy than they used to be with even more things to distract them”.
“There’s a mass of original content out there, very good original content,” he adds. “But most of that content is provided by websites, media sites, that want to keep you on their site. Whereas what we’re doing is taking stuff from everywhere and trying to condense it. You’re with us for five minutes, and you know a lot.
“We’re like a sat-nav. We try to guide you to stuff that’s interesting. We’re saying: There’s a mass of stuff out there but, hey, we’ll give you the most interesting, fresh new ideas, which we think will interest you.”
‘Newsletters are the new newspapers’
Connell ended his association with The Week in 2019 after its owner, Dennis Publishing, was acquired by private equity firm Exponent. (Exponent sold on Dennis, including The Week and The Week Junior, to Future earlier this year for £300m.)
He co-founded Minerva Intelligence, a corporate research firm, shortly before leaving The Week. Among Minerva’s products is the Sunday Briefing, an exclusive weekly newsletter aimed at chief executives.
Clearly, The Knowledge is a separate proposition. But Connell plans to make the newsletter briefing format of Minerva a staple of The Knowledge brand.
“I think it’s a bit of a cliche now,” he says. “But newsletters are the new newspapers.
“This is not my analogy, but it’s a good one, which is: We don’t do buffet anymore. We like stuff brought to our table. And the great thing about email is it’s coming to your table. You’re in your email, you’re there every day. You have to make an effort to go on to an app, to go on to a website, but with email, if you get it right, there it is.”
In the long term, Connell thinks The Knowledge – like The Week – can establish itself in America, where he feels there is room for a “jollier and more concise” form of news coverage. He also wants The Knowledge to supplement regular subscription and advertising revenues by launching a series of specialist, premium newsletters.
For now, though, the focus of Connell and his eight editorial staff is on building up a large, monetisable UK audience for The Knowledge’s main website, app and newsletters.
“The first goal when you’re building a newsletter product like this must be to get it out there,” he says. “You’re competing with so much noise that I think we should build our readership first. With a good quality readership, there are always ways to monetise it.”
Jon Connell quickfire questions…
Favourite film? Charlie Varrick
TV show? Call My Agent! and To Serve Them All My Days
Musician or band? “I’d have to say One Eleven and my daughter, Flora”
Social media? “I don’t really do much social media”
News website? Unherd
Magazine? “I can’t not say The Week. I obviously love The Week because I created it and it’s got my DNA running through it. But The Spectator and the New Statesman are on really good form at the moment.”
Career high point so far? Being named Washington correspondent for the Sunday Times, aged 30, and winning an editors’ editor of the year award in 1999.
The most challenging moment of your career so far? “In the greatest moment of madness, in 1994 – having thought up The Week in January of 1994 on a walk – I went up to Charles Moore, who was my editor at the Sunday Telegraph at the time, and said: ‘I’m leaving – I’ve got a project I want to do.’ And I think he thought I was round the bend. And I know Max Hastings thought I was round the bend because he more or less told me so, and wrote a letter to me saying that he hoped I’d enjoy my sabbatical. Then, to be fair to Max, a year or two years later he wrote me a very nice letter saying: ‘Dear Jon, When you left the Sunday Telegraph I thought, like a lot of journalists, you were throwing away your career. And as a friend and as a colleague I thought it was a mad decision. And I’m writing now to say that I was wrong.’
“So it must have been the most challenging moment. I sold my house in London to invest in The Week. I had one young daughter and another one on the way. We moved to the country in the greatest act of madness – gave up my salary, my car, all my perks. And suddenly there I was, aged 41, with no job, no money – trailing in London to talk to venture capitalists, who are not at all adventurous and didn’t give me any. And so I ended up putting half the proceeds of our house and cajoling some friends into getting The Week going. Looking back, it was pretty mad. But on the other hand, I was convinced it would work and was rather determined to have a go.”