How Belgium’s Apache increased its membership base despite layoffs, budget cuts and COVID-19

The pandemic arrived months after this Belgian cooperative’s staff and budgets were downsized. That didn’t stop it growing its paying members by 20%.

July 1, 2020
Category: Business & Work

This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organizations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. 

In a nutshell: A weekly COVID-19 newsletter and a care homes investigation were just some of the ways that helped Apache attract more members in five months than it did the whole of 2019.


When financial difficulties meant that Apache — a cooperatively owned investigative outlet based in northern Belgium — had to lay off staff at the end of 2019, it never expected to have to deal with a pandemic just a few months later. But that was the situation its seven remaining staff found themselves in.

Fast forward six months and the once-struggling independent publication is alive and thriving. Explanatory articles, an investigation into care homes (known as “nursing homes” in the U.S.) and content sharing partnerships with other publishers have helped grow its membership base by 20%. It even managed to secure enough funds from its supporters to start a magazine, which is due to launch before the end of the year.

Tara Kelly of the European Journalism Centre spoke to one of Apache’s team to find out more.

What is Apache?

Apache is an online reader-funded news site offering investigative journalism, in-depth features, explainers and beat reporting. It was founded in October 2009 by a group of five journalists, many of whom were laid off from national newspapers during the 2008 financial crisis. Based in Antwerp, Belgium, articles are written in Flemish for a Belgian audience.

Today, Apache has five full-time journalists (three of whom were the original founders) who cover the cities of Antwerp, Flanders and Brussels as well as current affairs happening around the world. There are also two non-editorial staff members: one is responsible for sales, marketing and newsletters while the other focuses on subscriptions, invoicing and finance. Apache made cuts to the editorial team in December due to financial problems.

Originally founded as a nonprofit organization, Apache is now a cooperative — meaning it is owned, through its publisher De Werktitel, by 1,770 individual shareholders. In order to become part of the cooperative, people must buy three shares at the cost of €150. These shareholders can then vote on Apache’s strategy and on key decisions at an annual general meeting. The cooperative allows each shareholder one vote, irrelevant of how many shares they own. Owners don’t have to be Apache members but most of them are.

Apache is a reader-funded organization. Through its membership scheme, members pay €9 per month or €80 per year, although there is the option for willing supporters to pay more (this option is €10 per month or €120 per year). Students and shareholders are eligible for a 20% discount. The news site currently has 4,800 paying members who have access to the Apache archive of 6,000 stories and who receive a members-only newsletter.

The Apache team hosts 3-4 events per year to which they invite guest speakers or conduct small debates with a few panel members. Events are open to non-members as well as members and are either free or priced at €5-10 to cover venue costs. Brochures and other information about becoming an Apache member are handed out. This has proven to be an excellent way to introduce potential members to its work as well as to connect longstanding paying members.

Almost all of Apache’s journalism is behind a paywall. The team believes any stories from their journalists should be reserved for members, and that any guest posts or unpaid editorials should be free for everyone to access. Very occasionally, Apache will put certain articles outside the paywall and promote on social media, as they did during COVID-19.

There are also four newsletters, which are sent to 20,000 email addresses. Paid members can subscribe to the daily and weekly newsletter for members, which have an open rate of 40-50%. A non-member version of these newsletters has an open rate of 25%.

At the end of 2019, Apache’s staff realized they needed more revenue streams to help the organization become sustainable. It decided to launch a quarterly magazine for members, but required financing to do so. To fundraise, the team first approached shareholders to support the project. The team also sold 100 drawings of a Belgian graffiti artist “Bonom” for €250 each. In the second phase of the campaign, Apache targeted members in exchange for a year’s access to the magazine.

The campaign has been successful and the publication is on target to reach its goal of €80,000 by the end of 2020. The magazine will officially launch to members in December. There are currently no plans for it to be sold on newsstands.

According to reader surveys, Apache is read by engaged news enthusiasts and decision-makers living in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, in both cities and rural areas. Its reach is limited compared with mainstream media, but investigations are read by politicians, people working in civil society organizations, opinion leaders, and businessmen. Apache attracts an older male audience — one-third of its readers are older than 45, and seven out of 10 readers are male.

With three different language communities in Belgium (French, Flemish and German), the country’s media market is small and highly concentrated. There has been a significant amount of consolidation to the point where just four big players own a range of Dutch newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV channels. Much of the news content is syndicated, with people consuming the same articles across different news outlets.

Apache believes its distinctive independent journalism is in demand by audiences because of this lack of diversity across the media sector.

How did Apache handle the COVID-19 crisis?

In April and the first half of May, at the time when the virus was at its peak in the country, everyone on the editorial team worked on Apache’s COVID-19 coverage. During this period, the team made the decision to make some of its articles on COVID-19 freely available and published an article explaining its choice to do so. The team felt that it was vital that Apache’s non-paying readers had access to reliable and in-depth information during this uncertain time.

Apache launched a landing page for COVID-19 articles to help readers navigate its coverage. The team also published a new weekly COVID-19 newsletter with their most important articles, investigations, and features, complemented with links to other interesting articles elsewhere on the web. This newsletter has 700 subscribers to date.

Apache’s website traffic during this time grew. Unique visitors rose from 90,000 in March to 145,000 in April (61%) while pageviews also increased from 220,000 to 300,000 (36%). Most of the incoming traffic came from COVID-19 articles.

Apache explained the context of the pandemic to its readers and provided in-depth information on the economic, social and health crises that it triggered in Belgium. The team published interviews with four essential workers from the construction sector to education, health care and supermarkets. They also investigated the actions taken by the Belgian government and why it refused to release minutes from certain government expert group meetings.

It dug deep into issues around the facial mask black market, how poor policy choices in Belgium deepened the coronavirus and a shortage of personal protective equipment. Articles also exposed some forgotten and fragile groups in Belgium’s population that many charities had never encountered before; for example, undocumented migrants in asylum centers, people kept in overcrowded prisons and those in financial hardship.

During the first phase of the pandemic, Apache collaborated with a number of partners that allowed them to republish their articles. For example, it republished articles from EOS Magazine, a Belgian science magazine, and also collaborated with MO*, a Belgian magazine and website covering global trends and news, on the #BeterNaCorona-project. This partnership involved the sites producing a series of video interviews in which they discuss the future of the world after the pandemic.

One thing that fell by the wayside as a result of COVID-19 was Apache’s podcast. Prior to the pandemic, the Apache team created occasional podcasts that were distributed via Spotify, iTunes and other channels for non-members. However, a lack of time and resources forced the team to halt the podcast until further notice. Budgetary limitations meant that hiring a freelancer was not an option. The team is planning to publish one podcast episode later this year and hopes to start producing it regularly again in 2021.

During the pandemic Apache also published non-COVID-19 articles because the team felt other issues were still important and they wanted to offer a variety of coverage for readers. One example of this is an article co-written by Apache and Médor, a Belgian quarterly print magazine, for its June edition. The article was mainly written before the pandemic hit Belgium and focused on the links between the port of Antwerp and the controversial Brazilian port of Açu.

Apache launched a crowdsourcing campaign for information about what went wrong in the care home centers for elderly people after more than half of the victims of COVID-19 were found to be from Belgium’s residential elderly care homes. Readers and whistleblowers were invited to share their experiences in a callout article that was shared on Facebook, Twitter and in Apache’s newsletters for members and non-members.

The team received 40 tips via email suggesting what they should investigate and providing insider knowledge. This led to Apache investigating and publishing a dossier entitled “Elderly for sale” which explored the role of real estate and the commercialization of health care centers in Flanders. While the impact of the stories is too early to tell, more investigative care home stories are in the pipeline.

Today, Apache has 4,800 subscribers, which represents an increase of 800 (20%) since January. This rate of growth is far greater than usual. By way of comparison, Apache attracted 500 subscribers in the whole of 2019. The team has put this bump in paying members down to its COVID-19 coverage, something that other publishers have also seen in the first half of 2020.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Apache?

Apache’s spike in membership revenue helped it recover from a slow start to the year. In February and March, membership sales were 3-5% below target. However, April and May were excellent months and made up for the deficit. Sales of €190,000 since then are almost 50% higher than the same time last year and mean the organization is back on track to reach its yearly revenue targets.

This cost management is important given Apache had to lay off staff in December.

The better than expected sales in April and May 2020 and some extra funding from the European Journalism COVID-19 Support Fund means the team will be able to invest more resources into the elderly care home crisis investigation. The team intends to work with local freelance journalists to make the story relevant to regions across Belgium, although further plans have yet to be decided.

For the Apache team, the pandemic has been an unexpectedly rewarding period. Although the team had a difficult few months using Zoom sessions to collaborate and brainstorm ideas, the experience brought the group closer together. The staff agrees that COVID-19 forced them to think carefully about how they can cover difficult issues in a way that best serves their readers.

There is also greater positivity about the future of Apache thanks to the boost in members since March.

What have they learned so far?

Bram Souffreau (Courtesy: Apache)

“The team has shown resilience at a very critical moment. Last year, Apache had to take difficult decisions and had to restructure the entity. We had to take leave of some team members, and the budget was downsized. In the first months of this year, we worked on an ambitious recovery plan. COVID-19 could have thrown a spanner in the works, but thanks to the hard and creative work of the editorial and marketing team, the threat was transformed into an opportunity. Another lesson we learned is that we can count on our readers and shareholders, even in the midst of a pandemic. They shared our content, fed us with new ideas and stories, and helped us by subscribing and acquiring shares in our cooperative.”

– Bram Souffreau, general manager, Apache

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This case study was produced with support from Evens Foundation. It was originally published by the European Journalism Centre on Medium and is published here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Poynter Institute is also the fiscal sponsor of the Verification Handbook.