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Beacon Bulletins: The WhatsApp-based startup trying to become the Netflix of news

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 13 September 2017, 18:47 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Petrol price hike. Demonetisation. Doklam. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Aadhaar. Just some of the hot topics that have been in the news recently and Beacon has covered them all.

A former product manager at Firstpost, Mithun Kidambi, has been running this WhatsApp/Telegram service since April of this year. Beacon is a news service you wouldn't want to put on mute. The premise is simple – curate the news that matters the most and communicate it through a well-written, succinct bulletin.

All one has to do is sign up and choose whether you want to receive the news on either of the two popular messaging services, WhatsApp or Telegram. Kidambi and his team of helpers will do the rest, texting you two short bulletins a day, each containing about five stories on average.

The bulletins comes with brief messages that precede the stories of the day. It's not the usual faff you see floating around on Facebook or Twitter, but a carefully thought out selection. It's also not just text. It can be infographics, videos, podcasts and more.

Beacon

Most importantly, you don't have to join one of those WhatsApp groups with dozens of members who forward the same thing many times a day. Or, worse still, flood your phone with fake news. Beacon uses what is called a broadcast list to send messages to each of the subscribers individually.

"No more fake news. No more click-bait. No more nonsense. Get NEWS that keeps you informed," reads the company's website.

Beacon Bulletins' "two agenda setting bulletins everyday" are free for the first month. Thereafter it'll cost you just Rs 1 per day.

Kidambi hopes that Beacon can get the people of the country to re-engage with the news and be at the centre of the daily conversation. Kidambi says that WhatsApp is one of the best mediums for distributing information as the base is continuously growing, hence it's being used as a starting point.

Beacon is not in a league of its own. There has been a mini revolution in this sector. There are fact-checkers, hoax-slayers and others sending daily messages debunking the biggest fake news stories of the day. There is also Rocket Post Live, run by Shivendra Gaur in Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh. Rocket Post Live, as of end March, has gotten 8,000 subscribers paying Rs 100 a year.

In a chat with Catch News, Beacon founder Mithun Kidambi talks about how the idea for a service like this came up, the competition in the sector, fake news and more.

Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:

SB: What is Beacon and when did you come up with the idea?

MK: Beacon Bulletins is a news bulletin service, where subscribers receive bulletins twice a day. We deliver via WhatsApp and Telegram right now.

The idea to start Beacon was sparked off partly by the profusion of nonsense being passed around on WhatsApp as news. We believe that WhatsApp is a great medium for information distribution but has been largely ignored by most because of its DIY nature and lack of any bulk messaging capabilities.

Simultaneously, we were also keen on creating a news service that highlighted real issues and focused on delivering news beyond sensational headlines and click-bait. We believed that there was an audience for this and this audience would pay to receive their news.

Thankfully India has a lot of good journalism happening, beyond the obvious catchment of big name news websites and for these publications, discovery is a gap. With Beacon Bulletin we aim to bring these voices to an audience who may not end up trekking to these publications on their own.

SB: Why a curated news bulletin on Telegram/WhatsApp? Why not through email or some other medium?

MK: As stated above, WhatsApp, and to a smaller extent Telegram, are highly underutilised information distribution channels. Also, both are far more personal. This ensures a level of active participation. The problem with email is the perception of spam and the profusion of newsletters that already exist in the space. Also, email is not the communication channel of choice for many users, particularly the newer users.

SB: Who are your primary competitors in the space.

MK: Because we curate reports from a wide variety of sources we can't really call other news publications competitors. News apps like In Shorts, Flipboard who aggregate content can be considered competitors. Also products like Nuzzle, Feedly etc that help in content discovery based on personalisation are competitors. After all, a person has only so much time to spend every day reading the news.

SB: How has it been since launch and how many trial users have converted into paying users?

MK: Honestly, when we started, we weren't sure how people would react to news on WhatsApp and so since our start on April 12, we've kept it low-key. No Facebook updates or any such. All the user acquisition has happened via word-of-mouth. So far we've got a little over 200 subscribers. Our conversion rate to paid subscribers is currently around 40%, and a majority of those are opting for the higher, two-month-long subscription package. This has given us confidence to now publicise Beacon Bulletins.

SB: How do you choose the news you want to present to your readers?

MK: Topicality, zeitgeist, events of consequence and so on. Essentially a constant scan of what's happening and then picking the most demonstrative and sane piece about the news. We tend to go for first person reportage as much as possible, staying away from 'news curation pieces'.

The other clear objective is to highlight news that gets pushed out of the mainstream news, like stories from rural India, stories about gender and so on.

We're also clear that click-bait, 'news' from the entertainment industries, product launches, minor political events and business profiles will be excluded. The reports need to be wider in scope and the events need to be consequential.

SB: How do you deal with the onslaught of fake news that is cropping up every day?

MK: We have no compulsion to 'fill space', so to speak and so end up finding enough relevant topics to cover and avoid the sensationalism that fake news thrives on. The other aspect is too skeptical to a fault. If a number seems too big or a story seems to fit too well we choose to step back and let the story pass. Yes, sometimes when the government creates fake news we do get caught like the case when the Maharashtra government announced the end of the farmer's strike a few days before it ended.

SB: How big is your team and do you plan to expand anytime soon? Or is it just a one/two people operation?

MK: Beacon Bulletins began with me and a friend who'd been a senior on the desk of agencies and major news publications helping me out. He helped out for a few weeks while moving between jobs. Then for a few weeks, it was me alone, now I have another friend helping out with certain aspects of the Bulletins.

The plan is to expand and take the next logical steps with Beacon, Beacon Bulletins being the first product, so to speak.

SB: Apart from paying subscribers, what other revenue sources do you envision for the future?

MK: The idea is to create a Netflix or store for news. Journalists are best at sourcing information and writing out reports that challenge the way we think and perceive the world. I believe that in order to be able to do that fearlessly they should not have to worry about derivative metrics like page views etc. The idea is to make Beacon into a platform where people pay for the news they get.

SB: Do you plan on expanding beyond WhatsApp/Telegram and into other categories?

MK: Yes, as a matter of fact, a fair number of our subscribers want features such as saving an article, discussion boards and so on. The natural progression is a product that allows them to do this while keeping the current model of distribution going.

There are plans for verticals as well. I'm in early conversations with editors who want to focus on particular verticals.

SB: How big do you expect the industry to be in the next couple of years?

MK: WhatsApp has some 200 odd million MAUs in India out of 300 million smartphone users. By 2020 it is reported that India will have 520 million smartphone users. This means we're looking at a market size of 350-400 million users in India by 2020.

First published: 13 September 2017, 18:47 IST
 
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.

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