I don’t like being told what to think, says founder of apolitical news site The Squiz.

Former Tony Abbott spin doctor and now self-funded entrepreneur Claire Kimball has become one of Australia’s rising media stars with her quirky brand of daily news digests.

By Eleanor Dickinson
Splice Australia

This profile is part of a series of interviews we conducted in October and November 2018 to get a better idea of the media startup space in Australia. Specifically, we were trying to understand why there aren’t more media startups in a wealthy market like Australia. Our findings will be published in a report — paid for by Facebook — later this year.

With research and reporting by Jacqui Park and Alan Soon. Jacqui is the research and strategy director for Splice Media and the Senior Asia Pacific Fellow for the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology, Sydney. Alan is Splice’s co-founder.


 

“With The Squiz, we’ve worked on our balance and tone to make it factual, not punishing,” says Claire Kimball, who started the service. (Photo by Alan Soon)
“With The Squiz, we’ve worked on our balance and tone to make it factual, not punishing,” says Claire Kimball, who started the service. (Photo by Alan Soon)

On a typical workday, Claire Kimball writes a news round-up, records a podcast and sends out a newsletter before her readers’ alarm clocks even ring. The busy 43-year-old is the founder of The Squiz, an Australian daily digest of politics and current affairs for readers who want their news snappy and without a political slant.

“There is an increased dissatisfaction with mainstream media because it’s got very opinionated,” she says.

If you’re looking for media credentials in her LinkedIn profile, you won’t find them. Kimball doesn’t see herself as a journalist — her goal is to provide views and information without wearing the hat of someone in journalism. “Journalists are doing their best, but I like to form my own opinions and not be told what to think. I thought that would resonate with people.”

Delivering The Squiz each day to its 19,000 subscribers is far from an easy task: it entails a 3:00 am wake-up call, 17-hour workdays and a significant financial sacrifice for Kimball, who has funded the project since its inception in March 2017 till recently. In fact, she only started paying herself last month.

The product

On the surface, it’s quite the gamble for the Australian who previously held lucrative roles advising politician Tony Abbott before he won — and lost — the Prime Ministership, and the nation’s biggest supermarket chain, Woolworths.

However, after spending the past 15 years reading every newspaper back-to-front, Kimball says it became clear the public was ready for something different.

Many of the news sources Aussies have trusted for years are becoming opinionated, she believes, including public broadcaster the ABC. And even though outlets are still doing good work, opinion diminishes their journalism.

“I’m just done with it,” she says. “With The Squiz, we’ve worked on our balance and tone to make it factual, not punishing,” she says. “You’re not going to feel outraged. We don’t shout at people at 6:00 am. In the 18 months since we’ve published, we’ve had two complaints.”

That famous newsletter

Kimball hit send on The Squiz’s first newsletter to a subscriber base of 800 government and communications executives on 8 March, 2017. Since then, the subscriber base has risen to 19,000 — without marketing — while the more recently launched podcast has notched up more than 250,000 downloads.

But for Kimball, what makes the early starts worth it is the newsletter’s 50% open rate. Not bad for a publication that contains no original or breaking news.

“For me as a news consumer, the newsletters that stood out were those that had a voice,” she explains.

“It had to cut through the clutter and feel like it was somebody updating you. Newspaper emails miss the mark because they’re generic, cut-and-paste jobs, not a note to someone. They are just news and a bunch of links.”

Although Kimball refutes the idea that The Squiz has “a distinctly female voice”, it has struck a chord with women readers, who account for three-quarters of its subscriber base. “There is certainly a hole — from a marketing perspective anyway — for reaching high-income, professional women who are short of time,” she says. This female demographic has brought comparisons with theSkimm — a U.S. news service targeted at young women. Last year, lawyers at theSkimm argued that the logos were too similar (both featured silhouettes of women), compelling Kimball to rebrand The Squiz.

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Funding the business

Despite its appeal, Kimball only commercialized The Squiz six months ago. Her past connections at Woolworths served her well, with the supermarket becoming the first major brand to advertise with content marketing placements. Commonwealth Bank has also become a regular and is working with Kimball on bringing its media budget to its podcast in the future.

However, as any news publisher knows, it’s difficult in today’s fragmented media landscape to sustain a title from advertising alone. Luckily for Kimball, The Squiz recently raised its first round of investor funding, led by ex-News Corp executive Peter Tonagh.

Totalling more than US$295,000, the money will be channelled into growing The Squiz’s subscriber space by 7%, creating another newsletter targeting high-net-worth women, and paying salaries to Kimball and her commercial director Kate Watson. The Squiz also added Larissa Moore, Malcolm Turnbull’s former digital media manager, to the team to lead audience engagement.

“There is a very downcast sentiment about the future of media, but I didn’t come from any of that,” Kimball says. “We didn’t beat ourselves up because we were a startup. We didn’t think, ‘This is the future of news and it’s going to be awesome.’ “I prefer us to be reader-focused. The Squiz’s carved a space for itself. We don’t have any legacy issues to worry about.”

Eleanor Dickinson is a tech and business journalist based in Sydney. She's a former editor of Mumbrella Asia. Follow Eleanor Dickinson on Twitter.

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