During the Covid pandemic, advertising income for media organisations fell, but readership increased – suggesting that there is still a demand for quality journalism when reliable information is required. In order to monetise the demand, many media outlets have turned to paywalls, readers’ clubs, and donation programmes.
In this article, we look at some of the solutions from Eastern and Central Europe and Russia (ECER) where Fojo has a programme supporting independent media. The following examples might help your media organisation develop a revenue-generation strategy that not only helps cover costs but also retains and builds audience loyalty while also supporting robust, independent journalism.
1. Develop a two-way relationship with your readers before you turn to them for money. The advertising-based business model meant that media houses provided information which readers passively consumed alongside advertisements. In the digital age there is more pressure on editorial teams to create a relationship with their readers, viewers, and listeners because of the increased competition for their attention. If theaudience is to pay for content, that content will need to cover the issues and values that are important to that audience.,. In Belarus, one independent media organisation, that came under pressure from the government, found that many readers were ready to support them, and not only with money.
2: If you decide to go for a paid-for model, where content is available behind a paywall, be sure that business strategy matches your media organisation’s editorial strategy. goals and mission. The subscription model can be a reliable and straightforward model in terms of business development. However, creating a paywall might mean that fewer people are able to access quality journalism. This is a particularly important consideration in countries that lack independent truth-seeking .journalism and where your editorial mission is to fill that void.
One of the major Ukrainian websites, “Ukrainian Pravda” (UP), decided to choose a membership model over subscription. “When UP was created, it was a response to censorship. We regard the right to information as an important, basic human right. We cannot limit peoples’ access to information. Also because Ukraine is on the way to becoming a democratic state”, – says Sevgil Musaeva, the Editor-in-Chief of UP. All the articles on UP’s website are open to the public, while paying “UP Club” members have access to extra benefits such as meetings with the editorial team and discounts from partner companies. In the first year around 3,000 people joined the e UP Club, reportedly covering up to 10% of the costs.
3: Learn from the experience of others. Even though media organisations are competing in the same market for their readers’ money, it doesn’t mean that there is no solidarity within the industry. Many media companies are happy to share their experiences with others who want to launch subscriptions or memberships, realising that all benefit from having more independent and resilient media outlets that can keep the decision-makers accountable. Such collaboration can also lead to content sharing, which results in like-minded media organisations enriching their own offerings and those of their partners for the financial benefit of both.
In Eastern and Central Europe, one of the most inspiring subscription models is Dennik N from Slovakia. This online publication focuses on politics and investigative journalism, which makes its mission and values easily understandable for the readers. With more than 42,000 digital subscribers, Dennik N has become a role model for many other media organisations that hope to fund independent journalism. The Slovak team developed many strategies to attract paying readers and is happy to share its experience.
Another useful source of information that many publishers from Eastern Europe mention is the Membership Guide created by the Membership Puzzle Project. This is a collection of cases and tips for those who want to raise funds for their work without restricting the readers’ access to their journalism.
4: Choose your technical solution wisely. One of the scariest parts of paid content models for smaller media outlets is the mere thought of how much technical work must be done and how much it can cost. Thankfully, there are a few options for those who are only starting and need a simple technical solution. In the case of membership, some media organisations are turning to external services such as Patreon. This option is useful if you are running a mission-centered media outlet. In Moldova, for example, Patreon is popular among independent media doing investigative (RISE Moldova, Ziarul de Gardă) or explanatory journalism (Moldova.org).
If you are planning to set up a subscription service there are a few solutions that don’t require huge additional costs. If your website is running on WordPress, check for plugins that enable you to set up a paywall. Otherwise, the aforementioned Dennik N, for example, allows free access to its Readers’ Engagement and Monetisation Platform. Its different modules are available as open source through GitHub. Most of these solutions come with pre-built data collection and optimisation tools that can help you choose the best strategy.
5: Do a small-scale test. If you are running a local or niche media organisation with a clear thematic focus and relevant mission, crowdfunding might be a manageable way to start. TV2, a local media outlet from Tomsk in Russia, first tested donations as a source of income for its unique small-scale project – documentaries about hard-to-reach places in Siberia. It took three days only to raise money for the first documentary expedition. According to Yuliya Korneva, the initiator of the project, many in the audience have personal connections to these places and understand the value of this work.
With readers’ support, TV2 was able to travel to remote areas ofSiberia to collect footage of disappearing small ethnicities and cultures. The resulting documentaries have proved to be a big success: the viewing record is now at 1,3 million views on YouTube. To put things in perspective, there are slightly more than 1 million people living in the whole Tomsk region. Following the success of the crowdfunding for journalistic expeditions, TV2 has created a broader donations programme to raise funds for day-to-day operations.
If your media organisation has access to exclusive information or useful data, you might also want to experiment with a smaller paid-for product to gauge how your readers respond. Some of the examples of such products could be online tools (i.e., an aggregator of all open tender calls for private companies in your region) or a newsletter (i.e., a letter from the editor with more “insider” information about recent events and a personal commentary).