Table of Contents

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Please tell us about yourself.

Ben Aris from bne Intellinews: My name is Ben Aris. I'm a long-serving journalist mainly covering emerging Europe. I lived in Japan a few years, I lived in India for a year, [and] Germany for seven years. But Moscow, I spent nearly 15 years there since 1993 and just fell into journalism. It wasn't a plan but when you're living in all these rich countries, you need a job and writing articles is something you can [do remotely].

First job

Was that your first writing job?

Ben Aris: I actually got my start, I was in Japan. There was a horrible recession in the UK after I finished university and so I just moved to Tokyo. And it was in Tokyo that I started writing a little bit. I had another job but I enjoyed it. I used to write commentary, opinion pieces about global politics just for fun and they published it all. So that gave me the confidence later when I was in Moscow, when I was actually doing real reporting, it gave me the confidence that I can write, [and people will publish it]. 

Starting bne Intellinews

Tell us about bne Intellinews.

Ben Aris: I was in Berlin working for The Guardian getting bored, and I wanted to re-engage with Eastern Europe. This was in the middle of the noughties and the whole region was booming, Russia in particular.

We managed to get it off the ground and it grew relatively fast until the 2008 crisis which buggered everything up, and put us into crisis mode. But, you know, we've been dealing with crises ever since. We work in the emerging markets world, which is very volatile, but it has grown. Now it's fairly large: we cover 100 different countries with at least 100 staff around the world. And because we've been doing it for so long and because it's so complicated, we have a very loyal readership who keeps renewing their subscriptions. 

Congratulations! You've done an amazing job.

Ben Aris: Thank you. I've got gray hair now as a result, but we do old-school journalism, we do objective, unbiased reporting on lots of very difficult markets. Obviously, the war [in Ukraine] is very emotional, and somebody has to look at it and say things like, the oil sanctions are not working and this is why, and the plan to bring the Kremlin to its knees has not gone well. And the war in Ukraine has not gone well.

There’s a narrative in the mainstream media about, you know, "Stand with Ukraine and never report the negative stuff, only report the positive stuff." But people I deal with, professional investors in particular, they're interested in what's actually going on because they've got money in the game in the form of investments and assets.

You try and be objective, but unfortunately, it means I annoy everybody. I annoy the Ukrainian side and I annoy the Kremlin. I got banned from ever going to Putin's speeches because I wrote a very critical piece. But, you know, it's like a sort of badge of honor, I get a medal because Putin hates me. This is good.

Career highlights

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career?

Ben Aris: I think it's when you get the story. The point of journalism is that it's not just a business–particularly my kind of journalism, news journalism. It's to inform people and to hold governments and companies to account.

[It’s rewarding] when you do a really good piece explaining something. I've been complaining about the narrative on the Russian reporting. I think a lot of it is very skewed and biased. But the biggest success we had was in 2016 where we caught an oligarch who owns the biggest bank in Ukraine stealing money from the bank. And not just a little. He stole $5 billion, and emptied the depositors. You know, normal pensioners, regular people in Ukraine. He stole all their money.

We discovered this because we got the loan book. So we wrote a story and caused a massive scandal in Ukraine. We wrote that as a cover story in November, and the central bank of Ukraine closed the bank down a month later. 

Advice for new publishers

What is your advice for publications that are just starting out? If you were starting a new publication today, what would you do differently?

Ben Aris: The key is to control costs. You're gonna have to raise a bit of money from family and friends. You don't actually need that much these days because you can launch online initially.

The other piece of key advice that my brother (who's a distinguished webmaster) gave me is that, if you get the content right, the rest will follow. If you get your idea of what kind of stories you want to write about, and if you get really good quality content, then you'll get a following and grow. And then as the following grows, then that starts to open up monetization possibilities.

Being forced to launch with too little money was actually very good for us because, from day one, I was focused on controlling costs. And again, you look at it very pragmatically, everything you're going to do, where's the revenue stream associated with that? Don't do anything unless you can monetize it.

It’s very tempting and very easy to spend money, so we've just been super cautious about [costs]. If I hire a correspondent because it's in a market that people are reading about and I get clicks and revenue from that market, I'm gonna spend the money on covering that country. But this other country I'm going to ignore because everyone else is ignoring it and it doesn't generate any revenue.

The benefits of syndication

Why did you decide to partner with Newstex? What do you see as the benefits?

Ben Aris: I'm a big fan of syndication. The way we work, we have a part of our output we put into the public domain, and the larger part is behind a paywall. But we're dealing with professional investors. And so we put the hardcore, actionable analysis and advice that investors can make money from behind the paywall. But we also write a lot more general-interest material about the markets as well that we put into the public domain and share with our syndication partners.

The syndication revenue stream has grown a lot. That’s the bit of the business that's actually growing strongly. And there's lots of news aggregators, and readers are increasingly going to use one service to get all their news. Those services are motivated to get lots of different, high-quality sources. We do something fairly unique in doing high-quality journalism about emerging markets. There's not that much serious coverage of those markets.

When we started, I think 50-60% of our income was from advertising, but print advertising has declined massively. It's now only 3% of our income. Then subscriptions from investors and traders was the next big thing. We did alright there. We built up significant subscription revenue because we're dealing with investment banks who are used to paying for specialized finance and market information.

But subscription growth is now stagnating as well because the business has become winner-takes-all and people are willing to pay for information from one or two must-have publications. We still have subscriptions and sell them, but it's slowing down to the point where it's starting to stagnate.

This winner-takes-all trend means that big, famous publications like The Financial Times only go down so deep into specialized subjects and markets. What they've started to do is bring in other publications like us that go deeper on specific sectors and regions. Their readers want to read the FT's overview coverage, but then some of them want to go deeper into emerging markets or other areas that we specialize in. We go into a lot more depth, and that means syndications from aggregators and major outlets are driving a bigger part of our revenue now. Everybody's out there trying to get quality niche publications like ours in order to supplement their own core reporting and analysis.