Lauren Laverne and Sam Baker: too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Published in The Independent on Sunday on April 19, 2015

One has enjoyed a distinguished career editing women’s magazines including Cosmopolitan and Red, the other is the hip presenter of a long-running Radio 6 Music show. Combine the talents of Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne and the end product was always likely to make a splash.

So it has proved, with the arrival of The Pool. For the uninitiated, it’s a website for women: smart, funny, down to earth, written by a “pool” of female writers providing appealingly varied content. Both Baker and Laverne take it as read that the modern woman is as keen to read about the leadership debates as she is about lipstick. Which shouldn’t exactly be controversial in 2015.…

“It would probably, to this table of women, seem ridiculous to say [we’re appealing to] the kind of woman who is interested in fashion, but also politics and culture… duh, that’s like everyone we know,” says Laverne during an early morning interview at the website’s offices in central London. But that’s not always the case in traditional media, she suggests, where fashion – or a female perspective on a news story – can be dismissed as fluff.

The Pool has a unique format that Laverne and Baker hope will make it stand out. It runs to a schedule – a bit like a traditional radio or TV channel – with several “drops” of new material each day. Regular slots include a mid-morning news digest, a lunchtime read and a suggestion for what to cook for dinner. It’s a canny way of encouraging readers to make The Pool a way of organising their life, with the content designed to be as easy to read on a mobile phone as a laptop.

It was Laverne’s radio experience that gave them their “lightbulb moment”. In a brainstorming session, she recalled an old method for planning radio broadcasts: drawing “a clock”. The schematic describes each hour of a broadcast, laying out what will happen and when. It was the inspiration for the scrolling, time-based format. “We plan it like a great big radio show,” Baker says. “At certain moments of the day, certain things happen. I think the key to cutting through [the internet] now is creating a habit.”

Getting the site’s technical format right was a challenge, and even now that The Pool is up and running, it’s not always easy for the small, all-female team to hit the deadlines imposed by the precise content drops. There have been moments, Laverne jokes, when she’s torn her hair out over the clock: “Why have we added the dimension of time? Who would do this? It’s the work of a maniac!”

But it’s another innovation that strikes me as truly inspired: putting the time it will take you to read it at the top of every article. Browsing on your iPhone as you wait for your morning coffee? Here’s a one-minute read on new research about the gender pay gap. Something to accompany your sandwich-at-the-desk? Here’s an eight-minute read about how inventing a male character changed a female writer’s “voice”.

The internet can be overwhelming, and The Pool aims to help you cope with the deluge. “It’s like a badge of honour to be busy, but people really are really busy,” Baker says. (The duo are so busy themselves that our meeting takes place before they start work.) “There’s that sense of being overwhelmed, and nobody’s cutting through it. [So readers] want a great edit, a tone of voice they identify with, and to know it’s going to take three minutes to read.”

The Pool has been two years in the making. The well-connected pair assembled a team that includes beauty expert Sali Hughes, comedian Viv Groskop, and Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers. As for funding, that’s come from investment and brand partnerships. “People really don’t mind who is paying for the content if it’s good – and as long as you tell the truth,” Baker says.

Laverne and Baker met when the former became a columnist for Red in 2012, the women’s magazine edited by Baker. After Baker quit, they met up for what turned out to be a life-changing cup of coffee.

“I had some ideas for what the future of talking to women could look like, and we just saw things very much in the same way,” Baker says. Both women are active tweeters and – unlike some former colleagues – fired up by the huge potential of the internet. The Pool is a multimedia site, offering video and audio content, as well as traditional articles.

I ask if The Pool also grew out of the social media-led new wave of feminism? “It definitely feels like the right time for a website for busy, intelligent women,” Laverne says. “That current movement is encouraging women to use their voices.”

Not that calling out the patriarchy is the website’s raison d’être, as it is with sites such as Jezebel or The Vagenda. And it would be unfair to suggest all-women teams have a totally different way of running media organisations than men. But one comment Baker makes is striking in its unusual perspective: “We always ask ourselves: how does it make her feel? A lot of people don’t think about how something makes someone feel when they’re reading it – but we always try to answer that question.”

It seems that decluttering the web for busy women is working. “A friend said to me: it’s as if you took all the best bits of the internet – and nothing shit!” Laverne laughs. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Where next?