The Flock founder on the award-winning site’s pioneering subscription model, being ad-free and delivering value for readers

The Flock was created during the UK’s first lockdown and launched on 1 June 2020, publishing topical, inquiring stories for a mostly female audience. It quickly acquired a loyal readership interested in feminism, social affairs and conscious consumerism, and has gone on to win multiple awards, including the Freelance Writing Awards Freelance Project prize, Creative Edinburgh’s Start Up of the Year 2020, as well as being longlisted for a UN Women special recognition prize.

With no advertising, an innovative “pay it forward” subscription model and news round-ups that prioritise stories relevant to readers, a large part of The Flock’s appeal is the way it so successfully embodies the values of its core audience. This is also indicative of transformations in the wider industry, with media brands large and small employing more reader-centric approaches as they drive revenue through subscriptions and direct-to-consumer rather than advertising.

What makes The Flock and its early successes even more remarkable, though, is the fact that it is run entirely by one person: Edinburgh-based journalist Jennifer Crichton, whose own values and experiences as a freelance journalist inform her unique approach. We spoke to Crichton about The Flock’s origins, how it engages its diverse audience, how its subscriptions work, the advantages of being ad-free, being a one-woman business, and much more. Read the full Q&A below.

Jennifer Crichton, founder of The Flock. Image by Aleksandra Modrzejewska.

Earlier this year, you won the Freelance Writing Awards Freelance Project prize (congratulations!). Could you tell us a bit more about your own background in media, and how that led you to start The Flock?

I’ve been a journalist for 18 years, starting out in local newspapers and later moving into radio broadcast news in Scotland, rising to be station head of news. Then, in 2011, I moved to Dubai, where I quickly found radio news to be somewhat limiting. I took a sideways step into women’s magazines, initially on Hello!, then spent seven years working on a host of local and international glossies for the region’s two biggest publishing houses. For my last two years in the middle east, I was working as editor-in-chief of Good, a title taking an early focus on conscious consumerism, supporting the UAE’s thriving small business, creative and charities sectors. At the same time and for the same publishing house, I created Nomad, the region’s first glossy travel title with a focus on experiential and ethical travel.

I returned to Scotland in 2018, and continued freelancing for both the UK and UAE markets. By the turn of 2020, I had two part-time editing roles, was writing regularly for a host of magazines and newspapers, and had a busy calendar of events hosting and panel chairing commitments. And then, Covid hit, and almost overnight, I lost most of that pipeline work. I knew I wasn’t the only journalist hit by the contraction in available work, and when I was offered an extraordinarily low fee for a national broadsheet pitch, I realised there was a real danger to the livelihoods of many of the freelancers I knew and loved working with. I started playing with ideas for a platform that could better meet the needs of both readers and freelancers, and The Flock came from there, launching in June 2020.

Since then, as you say, I was awarded the Freelance Writing Awards Freelance Project prize, which was an amazing achievement against such strong competition. The Flock was also named Creative Edinburgh’s Start Up of the Year 2020, won grant funding under the Creative Informatics Resident Entrepreneur programme, was longlisted for a UN Women special recognition prize, has been selected to appear at Web Summit 2021 in Lisbon next month and has joined expert panels and roundtables with everyone from Codebase to the UNEP and UNFCCC.

The Flock is ad-free. Why is this so important?

The advertising model doesn’t really seem to be working for anyone at the moment, with print and online both being hit by falling revenues and social media hoovering up increasing proportions of ad-spend. We also know that advertising doesn’t speak to women in The Flock’s target audience – in fact, according to research, 91 per cent of female consumers feel misunderstood by advertisers and 70 per cent feel “alienated” by advertising.

Our research and feedback suggests our subscribers appreciate the advertising-free model, as well as our commitment to amplifying a diverse range of voices and issues.

What advertising often does do, sadly, is unduly influence what a title can and will cover – especially in the women’s sector, where small, ethical fashion and beauty businesses without huge advertising budgets often struggle to gain a foothold over big-spending international brands. The current advertising model also threatens integrity when it comes to the coverage of some very pressing issues – who can truly examine the impact and scale of fashion greenwashing, for example, while accepting advertising spend from fast fashion?

My market research suggested our target audience would be willing to pay for an advertising-free platform they could trust. And by being advertising-free, The Flock has total editorial freedom over the subjects it covers, the businesses and individuals we feature and the issues we choose to raise. It also allows us to allocate our coverage based on merit, not marketing spend.

The Flock has a really interesting “pay it forward” subscription model. Could you tell us more about that, how it works and why you chose it?

The Flock initially launched as an entirely free platform while I tested the market and honed the site’s look and feel. I then won a grant under the Creative Informatics Resident Entrepreneurs programme, which is aimed at exploring innovative, data-driven new business models for the creative industries, and the model came from my work within that initiative.

Obviously, in order to remain advertising-free, The Flock needed to generate income from its readers, but I was also acutely aware that the platform only came into existence because we were living through an unprecedented period of uncertainty. With women being hardest hit by caring responsibilities and loss of income throughout the pandemic, applying a blunt paywall model and limiting access entirely to those who could afford a subscription felt counter-intuitive.

The pay-it-forward wall, as it came to be called during development, was my way of trying to square that circle – to ensure a sustainable income for the site and at the same time, ensure continued access for our readers on reduced incomes once the site became paywall restricted.

The model is still very new but in essence, every monthly or annual subscription paid for by one of our readers generates a second free subscription for someone on reduced income. When women or non-binary readers in full-time education, on maternity leave, with reduced income due to job loss, illness, disability or caring responsibilities sign up for a free subscription, they are offered 14-days free access while their name goes on a waiting list. Each new subscription then pays another forward for a woman on that list, effectively doubling the number of account holders able to access the entirety of our content at any given time. The system has been in place for four months now and so far, we’ve achieved a conversion rate to paid subscription of 2.65 per cent – well above industry average, albeit on a small scale!

Our insistence on covering stories from all four home nations with equal weighting has proven to be one of our greatest strengths.

Who is reading The Flock at the moment, and what do you think these readers have in common?

Our readership is overwhelmingly female, around 80 per cent of our traffic is within the UK and approximately 60 per cent of our readers are women aged 30-45, though it appears to be feminist outlook rather than age which unites our audience – our paying subscriber base currently ranges in age from 21 to seventies! By and large, our subscribers tell us they regard themselves as conscious consumers, or wish to become more conscious consumers, and they have a strong interest in equality and sustainability issues. Our research and feedback suggests our subscribers appreciate the advertising-free model, as well as our commitment to amplifying a diverse range of voices and issues. The initial subscriber base includes politicians, Booker-shortlisted novelists, fashion and design industry leaders, journalists and editors, mothers, carers, artists, small business owners… it’s an eclectic group, but a brilliantly warm and supportive one.

What role do newsletters and social media play for The Flock, for example when it comes to connecting with audiences?

Social media has played a huge role in building the platform over the last 16 months, and particularly Instagram, where we now have in excess of 17.3k followers. Beyond funding to develop the business model, the site has been bootstrapped, so there’s been no budget for advertising or marketing, making social media a hugely necessary tool in spreading the word. Our Instagram community is highly-engaged, and I’ve been lucky that many high-profile interviewees and contributors have helped amplify the platform, allowing the following to grow at a time when social media has been challenging.

Newsletters, too, have been instrumental. Having played with timings, frequency and formats over the first year, I now send a free newsletter out to nearly 4,000 newsletter subscribers every Sunday, including an editor’s letter from me and links to all of the week’s content. This approach has been hugely fruitful, with new paid subscriptions tending to come most often on a Sunday when the newsletter readership receives their links.

Can you tell us more about your weekly news round-up, The Flock Fridays?

The aim of the ‘7 news stories you might have missed this week’ feature is to offer our readers a short, curated and accessible take on the week’s important events. The feature was borne from a realisation that many of our readers were experiencing news fatigue and often anxiety throughout the pandemic. They didn’t want to immerse themselves in 24 hour rolling news, but they wanted to stay informed.

I always say, the news summary won’t always be the stories that made the front pages on any given week – we know marginalised genders and communities are ill-represented at an editorial level in Britain’s news sector, so the stories which most affect our readers are not always those which make the splash. I therefore select the stories I believe our readership will most want to know about – those which will have the biggest impact on their families and communities.

The Friday summary remains one of the most popular, most-read and most-shared features on the site each week, and I know many of our readers have valued it greatly over the course of the last year. I also balance it out with Good News Tuesdays, a summary of positive things which have happened in the same fields on any given week.

Many media companies across the board experienced a “pandemic bounce” in site visits and subscriptions. How did Covid-19 impact The Flock, if at all, and did you learn any lessons from it that might be helpful going forward?

It’s hard to say whether The Flock would have experienced any sort of pandemic bounce as it was conceived of, designed and launched within UK lockdown one – I have no pre-pandemic comparison to draw on. Certainly, the site found a ready audience upon launch in a way that I suspect would have been trickier outwith the pandemic. And I do believe that the pandemic created conditions which have allowed The Flock to gain traction perhaps more easily than under normal circumstances.

New paid subscriptions tending to come most often on a Sunday when the newsletter readership receives their links.

We launched at a time when issues of equality and diversity, environmentalism, individual and collective responsibility were being increasingly amplified – there was a growing audience for content like ours, and people had more time to read. That definitely helped our early growth.

For me, one of the most critical benefits of the strange situation we launched into was the lack of geographical bias. I am based in Scotland, but The Flock is not a Scottish title, and the limitations of lockdown meant our national outlook was very easily established. I was able to conduct interviews remotely over Zoom from day one without that being an out-of-the-ordinary ask, and in fact, our insistence on covering stories from all four home nations with equal weighting has proven to be one of our greatest strengths. I hope that can help prove that there are benefits to titles in being less London-centric.

Do you have any plans for expansion?

Supporting freelance writers has been one of my key aims since day one, so I pay all of our contributors at a rate comparable to far larger, national publications and, having experienced the trials of unreliable and late payment far too often as a freelancer myself, I pay within a week of submission. Maintaining that picture of reliability for our writers is my first and most important goal, and that means protecting income right now while I continue to build our paying subscriber base.

That said, being the only member of staff has certainly kept me busy since launch – I either write or commission and edit every piece that runs on the site, handle all social media, write every newsletter and do all accounting and admin myself, and that’s been a steep learning curve. So while being a one-woman business has definitely helped me develop further as both an editor and a writer, I do hope to be able to take on another pair of hands soon – if only so that I can have a nap!

Instagram: @Join.The.Flock


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