June 17, 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: Reader surveys, explanatory articles and transparent membership messaging were just some of the tactics that helped treble visitors and increase paying members by 70% in three months.

Digital publisher The Local quickly became a focal point for English speakers across Europe when cases of the coronavirus were discovered. Retired expats, young professionals working abroad, regular visitors and those with second homes in European countries, among others, turned to its nine websites looking for clarity about the virus and lockdown rules where they lived.

The Local — which launched a membership model in 2017 — responded by publishing scores of explainer articles, making certain COVID-19 articles free, giving members a chance to donate and sending out surveys soliciting questions from its audience. The collective results of its efforts have been notable — traffic tripled to a peak of 17 million unique visitors and paying readers grew from 15,000 at the end of February to 26,000 as of today.

The European Journalism Centre’s Tara Kelly spoke to the managing editor of The Local Europe about how the team managed it and what they learned from the last three months.

What is The Local?

The Local Europe is a digital publication with nine English-language sites in different countries around Europe. It was founded in 2004 by Paul Rapacioli and James Savage in Sweden and has since expanded into Germany, Denmark, Norway, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland (as well as a “lite” site for Austria). Savage remains heavily involved as CEO and publisher while Rapacioli is a board member.

The editorial team is made up of 11 full-time staff and two part-time journalists as well as several freelancers who cover weekends and holidays. It includes three columnists and a freelance video editor plus 10 non-editorial staff, which includes a small sales team, a social media manager and a digital marketing manager who runs The Local’s membership program. A large segment of staff is multilingual, with some speaking up to six different languages.

The Local staff (Courtesy: The Local)

The aim of The Local is to equip foreign nationals with the information they need to navigate each of the nine countries in which it publishes. Its main focus is on explaining what that news means for an English-speaking audience living abroad.

As well as explaining the news in each country, The Local’s coverage focuses on issues including how Denmark still has the world’s highest taxes, the best way to obtain residency in Norway, how to get German citizenship, buying your dream home in France and navigating the office culture in Sweden. The Local Sweden also hosts a virtual book club that is not yet available in other countries.

The Local’s audience varies according to country. The Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany sites tend to be read by younger professionals, sometimes those with families. The readership of the French, Italian and Spanish sites tends to be older, with more retirees and mature families with second homes.

On an average month, there are between 6-7 million unique readers in total across all sites. During the pandemic, this increased substantially: In February, there were 9.7 million readers followed by an all-time high of 17.6 million in March. In April, it dropped to 9.2 million and, in May, 7.3 million.

The Local launched its membership program in 2017. Website visitors receive three free articles per month before having to become a member. All premium content — including features, columns and guides to help with navigating life abroad — is behind a hard paywall. Standard membership costs €4.99 for a month (after an introductory rate), €49.99 for a year or €99.99 for three years. Members benefit from the ability to comment on stories and see no banner advertising. The Local uses content commercialization platform Piano to manage its membership and newsletters.

Prior to the pandemic, The Local’s revenue was around one-third membership and two-thirds advertising. Since the crisis, membership has gone from around 15,000 at the end of February to 26,000 as of today. This means that membership now accounts for around 60% of The Local’s revenue, with advertising at 40%. However, these figures may change again depending on what happens in the coming months.

The Local has free daily newsletters for both non-members and members. They currently have 74,000 subscribers in total across eight countries. Written by editors and journalists in each country, they contain commentary on the day’s news and stories that members may have missed as well as a large push to sign up as a member. The newsletters have a very healthy average open rate of 67% and a clickthrough rate of 16.43%.

The Local also has a Europe & You newsletter focused on Brexit and its impact. The automated Word of the Day newsletter is based on their French, German and Italian Word of the Day articles.

How did The Local handle the COVID-19 crisis?

Direct advertising sales dropped sharply as a result of the pandemic. The first sign of trouble was in February when a big deal with an airline fell through, after which other clients started canceling or pausing discussions.

Direct sales figures for March 2020 were 83% lower than the 12 months prior. This sharp drop in revenue placed even more emphasis on The Local’s aim of writing articles that are useful to its readers. They have continued to do this throughout the pandemic.

As part of their commitment to better serving readers during the pandemic, the editorial team adjusted their working hours to cover weekends and a larger proportion of the day. Editors also increased freelance budgets to help cover the sheer amount of news and to try to ensure staff had a break at the weekend. During this time, the team moved to working remotely and collaborated over Google Hangouts and Google Chat.

At the beginning of the crisis, each Local site published a story with an embedded Datawrapper map showing where COVID-19 cases were occurring. Although the team tried to keep the map up-to-date, it became difficult to do so because testing data differed in every country. Instead, sites moved to focus on the daily death toll, which was more reliable and could be broken down by regions and visualized using Datawrapper.

The teams also produced daily breaking news stories after the daily government press conferences took place to summarise what officials had announced and numerous articles to explain constant changes in policies.

Early on in the crisis, some members began to ask if they could donate to The Local in return for its “invaluable” and “essential” journalism. As a result, the team provided an option for members to donate at the bottom of all stories. Although little effort was made to market this initiative, it raised €4,300.

(Screenshot, The Local)

The Local’s coverage during the pandemic centered heavily on explaining to readers the often confusing rules around lockdowns in each country or, in Sweden’s case, why there wasn’t one.

In France, for instance, The Local did a piece explaining the permission forms you needed to fill in to leave the house. In Spain, another article looked at what you could and couldn’t do in different lockdown phases. Because this information was not easily available in English via government websites, readers were reliant on what The Local provided. This coverage still continues as countries across Europe loosen lockdown measures.

Before COVID-19, The Local’s sites hadn’t tended to get much cross-country traffic. However, given that people were interested in how other European governments were handling the virus, the team decided to publish more Europe-wide stories. The first story, published at the end of March, got over 90,000 page views and it was followed up by a series of dispatches in which members of the team wrote about the pandemic and how it was altering daily life across Europe.

(Screenshot, The Local)

As the crisis developed, the team realized it was important to make some coronavirus content available to all readers. There was a strong public health case for doing so. The paywall was disabled for stories about important COVID-19 government announcements, meaning that anyone could access the information.

Each site retained a free daily article that was updated with the latest coronavirus news. The teams also engaged with readers to explain the policy of providing some free articles but also how it was vitally important to keep the paywall in place to fund the organization. Free articles also contained messaging explaining the importance of membership.

(Screenshot, The Local)

(Screenshot, The Local)

(Screenshot, The Local)

(Screenshot, The Local)

Listening to readers was an important part of The Local’s coronavirus coverage. Each site sent out a minimum of one reader survey every month from March to June to understand how COVID-19 was affecting their lives. Questions included: “Have you been forced to cancel your trip to Italy?,” “Are you a self-employed person who would like to share your story?” and “How is the coronavirus in France affecting you?”

The editors of the France site also hosted four Facebook Live Q&As fielding questions from their audience. It proved to be a useful means for The Local’s journalists to find untold stories. Some were turned into articles.

The Local also altered its on-site membership messaging during COVID-19 to explain to members that it relied on readers to continue its coverage. It laid out how badly advertising revenues had been hit and spelled out how many members it needed to cover its costs (40,000). It also contacted all readers for whom they had email addresses (both members and newsletter subscribers) to keep them up to date with how the company’s finances were doing.

(Screenshot, The Local)

How has COVID-19 changed the future of The Local?

The crisis has helped strengthen The Local’s link with its readers. Many got in touch with editors to tell them the sites had become an “invaluable” resource and “essential” to their lives during the coronavirus. As government policies change across the nine countries where they publish, The Local team will continue to be member-focused in its approach to coverage.

The Local’s revenue shifted dramatically at the peak of COVID-19 in March — membership and programmatic ad sales went up by 200% while direct ad sales revenue plummeted by 80%. This shift means The Local’s overall revenues closely resemble pre-crisis levels; however, the center of gravity has moved from direct sales to membership. This is a positive change for the business because member revenues are easier to predict.

The challenge now is to increase advertising revenue while ensuring new members stay with them post-coronavirus. The team will continue to explain the financial impact of COVID-19, why they have a paywall and how it makes them accountable to members.

The coronavirus crisis brought the team closer together as there was a need to share ideas, offer support, and work on joint stories. Going forward this will become much more common around big topics such as the reopening of borders and international travel.

The Local is planning to make a video featuring all of its journalists to explain to readers who they are, where they are based and why they work for publication. The team believes it is a good way to build its community of members and to make sure readers know that editors can be approached with ideas and questions.

What have they learned so far?

Ben McPartland, managing editor of The Local Europe (Courtesy)

“It’s important to constantly be thinking about how you can tweak things depending on any given situation. We are a small team, stretched as it is, so making major changes is hard. We believe we can have a big impact by constantly reflecting on the small changes. Even if it’s messaging, engaging with readers more, writing the articles they need or working together on stories and changing the times the journalists work. It can all help. We now have the big challenge on our hands to persuade our new and old members to stay with us. To achieve that we’ll constantly need to look at what small changes and tweaks we can make.”

– Ben McPartland, managing editor, The Local 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.

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