July 24, 2020

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: This European media collective used the pandemic as an opportunity to conduct online focus groups and build a proposition for its membership program that it soft-launched in June.

Membership was a long time coming for Are We Europe, the pan-European media collective founded in 2016. The nonprofit had previously struggled with a micro-donation strategy and it made them think twice about seeking a more sustainable model.

The pandemic became a catalyst for a series of focus groups and surveys that would end up shaping their four-tier membership offering, which it soft-launched last month. Readers told them that they valued emotional connection and a sense of European belonging, so messaging and call-to-actions emphasised these feelings.

Here, Tara Kelly of the European Journalism Centre explained how the team did it, all while editing and publishing an edition of its quarterly print magazine.

What is Are We Europe?

Are We Europe is a nonprofit media foundation based in Brussels that reports on the shifting nature of European identity. Founded in 2016 by a group of Dutch university friends, it aims to promote cross-border storytelling through its quarterly print and online magazine.

It has a dedicated core team of 12–14 team members working on a full time and part-time basis involved in multiple editorial projects, including its branded content studio and other partner projects. It recently scaled this full-time team down to five core freelance editors due to the pandemic. The other seven to nine people are still working on specific projects when needed.

Multimedia and written content for Are We Europe’s quarterly magazine and website is produced by a cross-border network of 800 writers and creators that are notified via email when new opportunities are available. Written in English, it publishes mostly long-form reported feature articles as well as podcasts, videos and photo essays, along with short stories or the occasional opinion piece.

These stories seek to bridge the local, national and transnational through personal tales, social critique and in-depth analysis. The founders believe that Europe doesn’t have to be boring and shouldn’t be “all about Brussels, Brexit and breaking news.”

Are We Europe is ad-free and is funded through three main revenue streams:

  1. Subsidies or grants from foundations and partnerships (40%) including organisations like The Robert Bosch StiftungEuropean Cultural FoundationAdessium FoundationSVDJ (Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek) and The Bertelsmann Foundation.
  2. Branded content creation (40%) for clients including think tanks, environmental non-governmental organizations and other organizations engaged at the European level.
  3. Quarterly magazine sales and subscriptions (20%) through stockists across Europe and through recently-launched member subscriptions.

It also makes money from its co-working space, KANO, in Brussels.

With 15,000 monthly pageviews and 8,000 unique viewers, Are We Europe attracts a niche audience of English-speaking Europe-based educated millennials. The typical reader speaks multiple languages, tends to be a young professional and often took part in an Erasmus student exchange. The majority of its audience is aged 25-35 (60%). Digital analytics also show it has more women (57%) readers than men (43%). The most common destinations of website visitors are the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, U.S., Germany and France.

How did Are We Europe handle the COVID-19 crisis?

Because of the fast-moving nature of the pandemic, Are We Europe’s editors initially struggled to figure out the best way to respond to COVID-19 and to plan coverage for its print and online magazine.

However, they noticed several positive trends that emerged during the pandemic including volunteer initiatives, debates about equality and global warming. The team used these topics as the focus of a special edition of the magazine called The Silver Lining that was all about European volunteering and solidarity initiatives during the pandemic. It explored solutions happening at a local level and what can other countries learn from those solutions. It tackled this through stories in print, online and in video and podcasts.

The print edition, published in June, featured approximately 25 articles, op-eds and photo essays and was supplemented by video and podcasts online. One story looked at how football fans rallied together to build field hospitals and another at how 50 street papers across Europe tried to step up and help rough sleepers. Another long read, entitled “Lonely hearts club”, told the story of how volunteer helplines in Poland, Germany and Italy offered simple human conversation not just for the elderly, but also younger people who faced loneliness during the lockdown.

For the team, The Silver Lining was an opportunity to show experiences of European solidarity during the pandemic. To fund editorial and printing costs for the edition, Are We Europe won a $5,000 COVID-19 coverage grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

In March and April, as cases of COVID-19 increased across Europe, the team began to discuss what a membership program might look like. Taking inspiration from other membership organizations, like The Correspondent and Delayed Gratification, they talked about whether membership was the right path and about its previous experience of soliciting reader revenue back in 2017.

Back then, Are We Europe sought microdonations via Patreon, asking readers to buy writers a coffee as they read an article (“Enjoyed reading this piece? Consider buying Martha a cup of coffee”). It found little success with this approach.

During these two months, Are We Europe’s engagement editor and the now membership program manager hosted a series of online focus groups with readers to understand their needs. Using Google Hangouts, they asked about how readers perceived the magazine and what membership could entail. They discovered that the magazine’s articles and interactive stories are the foundation of the membership, but that its community valued Are We Europe’s work for its emotional connection and sense of belonging. Interviewees also remarked they appreciated how Are We Europe’s content resonated with them and felt it gave them something national media couldn’t.

They also sent out two surveys with questions such as “Why do you subscribe to Are We Europe magazine?” and “What do you want out of an Are We Europe membership?” The insights from the interviews and surveys helped the team design its membership program.

In June, Are We Europe launched its membership in conjunction with Steady Media, a platform for independent creators, with the following four tiers:

  • Fan: Support its work (€3 euros per month/€30 per year)
  • Member: Receive the magazine, access multimedia content and give away one membership (€5 per month/€48 per year)
  • Editor’s Circle: Everything in the Member plan plus access to future Telegram channel to interact with editors and other contributors (€10 per month/€96 a year)
  • Solidarity: Receive a personal video message from the Are We Europe team, get the print magazine, access to the editor’s circle and give away three memberships (€25 per month/€300 a year)

Though all content is free on the site, non-paying readers are encouraged to sign up and become a member to support its work. They also changed the messaging to reflect the topic of the latest edition of the magazine.

(Courtesy: Are We Europe)

The team opted to go with Steady because it has smooth integration, a soft paywall option and payment options for a wide variety of countries. They were also able to speak to one of the co-founders during their audience research and this helped them to decide it was a good fit for them. The fact it is a European-based platform, unlike Patreon, also helped.

Are We Europe has 57 members on Steady with a further 109 on other platforms. It is too early to say who these people are, but the team will conduct a second round of user research at the end of July which should give them a clearer idea.

Are We Europe tweaked its longstanding newsletter during the pandemic. Billed as a “slow news crunch” in which the team reflects on the latest news and links to stories from the magazine, the team also adopted a more uplifting and hopeful tone in line with The Silver Lining issue of its magazine.

A new feature — The Storyteller of the Week — was also added as a way to showcase one of the 800+ contributors that are part of Are We Europe’s media collective. Featuring them in this way and linking to their portfolio was just another chance to give them the platform that Are We Europe felt they deserved.

During the lockdown period, Are We Europe also became a partner of the Summer of Solidarity, the first pop-up continent-wide storytelling media initiative. The idea behind it is to collect and share human stories from across Europe throughout the summer of 2020. The concept was the brainchild of Natalie Nougayrède, an editorial board member at The Guardian, and made by philanthropic organizations including European Cultural Foundation, Hippocrene Foundation and the Robert Bosch Academy. Are We Europe has created the branding for the pop-up project as well as a website and several editors are working on the project on a part-time basis for the next two months.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Are We Europe?

Membership was a long time in the making for Are We Europe, even prior to the pandemic. But COVID-19 served as a catalyst to do a soft launch. So far, there has been no marketing of the four tiers and all current members have signed up organically through call-to-actions on the Are We Europe website and via pop ups in articles.

In September, a membership drive campaign will be rolled out with a clearer proposition following more user testing and focus groups. In the future, if Are We Europe can raise enough revenue through its membership scheme, it plans to prefund specific issues with topics and ideas crowdsourced from its audience through the Editor’s Circle membership tier.

A year and a half ago, Are We Europe set up a Brussels co-working space called KANO aimed at creatives, media makers and freelancers. It also served as the organization’s headquarters before the pandemic. The space hosts events like writing workshops, speed networking, yoga sessions and other community events, which are a significant source of revenue for the organization.

Since the pandemic hit, events have been canceled and revenue was lost from the closure of the co-working space. However, the team recently renegotiated its rent with the landlord and many coworkers returned after the initial lockdown ended.

Closing Are We Europe’s Brussels office and taking the newsroom remote was a difficult adjustment and eventually led to the team to downsize from its usual 10-12 people to a more dedicated and smaller team of five freelance editors. The group discovered being in the office wasn’t a necessity and they could streamline their operations using digital communication tools such as Slack and Zoom. The pandemic has made the co-founders rethink how they organise the team and how they grow and shrink it depending on the projects they have and expertise needed.

What have they learned?

Kyrill Hartog, editor-in-chief and co-founder, Are We Europe (Courtesy: Are We Europe)

“The pandemic presented an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to our mission and the need for truly European cross-border reporting to overcome national divisions. We offered readers hope and solutions, rather than only focusing on what isn’t working. We also got a step closer to our goal of building sustainable long-term collaborations with other key media partners. We will continue to build a pan-European media ecosystem bit by bit.”

– Kyrill Hartog, editor-in-chief and co-founder, Are We Europe

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.

Clarification: This article was updated to clarify how many full-time staff members work at We Are Europe and what their roles are. It was also updated to add a name to the list of foundations and partnerships that work with the organization. 

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