As they push towards 10,000 subscribers, the idea is still in the works. The Russian-Ukrainian war has sharpened the demand for geopolitical information, so in recent months the newsletter has toned down the joker side slightly. But it’s still far from Bloomberg or The Economist.
They also find that more and more of their followers are now working in public policy or adjacent fields. But they still explicitly, though not exclusively, target those under 40 — not silly but pared down, presented in the way the Insta and TikTok generations find most palatable.
“We are like all the juice of foreign affairs without the pulp. We try to make it very concise, very friendly, easy to read,” said co-founder Zhang, 35, from her home in Washington DC.
“Everyone just wants to know, ‘How does this affect me?’ We’re trying to meet that market demand for high quality information, but also entertaining information, so the tone in which we try to deliver it is much more irreverent.
“And we don’t tell you how to think, or moralize, we just tell you what’s going on and help you think about these issues in your own way.”
Fowler, who is 36 and splits his time between Chicago and London, describes the gestation of International Intrigue – which will become known as Intrigue Media – as “undramatic”.
The couple were law graduates who both joined the Foreign Office & Commerce in 2012. Zhang had assignments in Israel and Hong Kong before going to Harvard for a master’s degree in 2019 and then landing a job at Google. Fowler spent 3½ years at the Australian consulate in Shanghai, also stepping down in 2019 for an MBA at London Business School.
“I was worried during the MBA about losing the connection to this world, the geopolitics,” recalls Fowler.
“So I said to Helen, ‘Do you just want to start writing a weekly newsletter?’ I told him it didn’t matter if no one read it, the process of writing it down every week would be good for our brains.
Riding the under-stacking boom
The first informal product was released in December 2020, which Fowler says “coincided with the craze for Substack” – the burgeoning US platform that allows writers to produce newsletters by subscription. “It made it super easy to start writing stuff.”
Substack offers aspiring writers a relatively simple template and landing page mechanism that allows them to attract subscribers with the click of a virtual button. The platform takes a commission if the authors charge for the content, but the Intrigue duo offered their production for free.
Zhang says Fowler was quicker than her to “unlearn what we learned” at DFAT, where the cables are often pretty dry (although there’s a weird Australian diplomat writing a pretty nasty headline). But the style started to flow.
“I’m naturally a relatively unserious person,” says Fowler. “So we started writing a few jokes, and that’s what started to resonate with people the most – they said, ‘It doesn’t feel like a chore to read it, it doesn’t feel like a chore. ‘”
“The first two editions, we were just mining it in an hour. But people started reading it and we were getting good feedback saying, ‘I’m not from that background, and now I get it. “
As the subscriber base grew, they began to wonder if there might be a way to make a living from their increasingly consuming hobby.
In November 2021, they turned International Intrigue into a daily briefing and potential full-time activity. They also removed it from Substack, so they could further personalize the newsletter, create their own brand and domain, and do their own search engine optimization.
For Zhang, who works at Google full-time, Intrigue Media is still an unpaid hustler. Fowler is on the project full-time, also largely unpaid, but they’ve hired two-and-a-half staff, with plans for more when they can afford it.
“We’re getting ad revenue, but we really need to scale, to keep that momentum going, because you know, daily news can be tough and time-consuming,” Zhang says.
“But there’s a demand there, and we’ve seen the growth, so we really have to jump in to meet that demand.”
“A Faceless Editor”
If their fundraiser is successful, the pair will increase the amount of media content, watch podcasts and workshops, build social media presence and try to create more value-added products for their followers.
“We’re aiming to get enough money to fund at least two or three more writers on board, and to have a sales manager and a business manager to really develop our product,” Zhang said.
Zhang believes that Intrigue Media will be able to ride on an upcoming M&A-style wave that will sweep through the Substack world in the next two or three years.
“People will bring Substack writers together and give them a platform, centralizing that Substack content into more niche topics and growing the audience and readership of that,” she says.
Writers operating under one banner? It looks a bit like a newspaper. But Fowler says he’s genuinely skeptical of a media company’s sustainability as media-only in the 21st century.
“It’s not economical to write thoughtful things and ask people for money. You can’t make money,” he says.
His vision is that once Intrigue builds a brand, a network of contributors, and an audience, it could evolve into what he calls “a faceless publisher”: a company that provides “everything that experts in Global business and content creators need to create their own business”.
Zhang says US backers are urging them to “aim high,” but she also continues to pinch the road they’ve already traveled.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the media and I didn’t expect it to go this far,” she muses. “Throughout this process, I realized how this could become a new form of media, a different way of telling a story and telling foreign policy.”