June 2, 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: A non-coronavirus news section and a virtual trade union event helped the independent Hungarian media organization boost website traffic and sustain its donations from readers.

Independent media has never been more necessary in a country like Hungary, where 90% of the media is controlled by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his allies. Journalists face countless hurdles to publish their stories, especially those critical of the government.

That’s especially the case for an outlet like Mérce. The left-leaning digital publication operates on a shoestring monthly budget of around 3.1 million HUF (€9,000) but attracts between one and two million readers every month. The pandemic hasn’t rocked the organization financially — 90% of funding comes from reader donations — but the 17-strong team still faced a question: how do we best translate this global story for our audience?

What is Mérce?

Mérce is a reader-financed left-leaning online news portal based in Budapest, Hungary. The site provides openly oppositional, progressive coverage on issues of social justice, inequality, solidarity and labor rights both in Hungarian and international politics.

The site started in 2008 as a one-person political blog called Kettős Mérce, meaning “double standard.” By 2014, the site had found a significant audience, mainly via Facebook, and developed into a website with a focus on social issues not commonly covered in the Hungarian media. It quickly became well-known for its coverage of live protests, press conferences and other events.

Its current name — Mérce — simply means “standard.”

Since October 2017, Mérce grew from 10 to 17 editorial staff members and over 100 volunteers. These people contribute one or two articles per year, or more regularly if they have time, while others help livestream demonstrations and protests — particularly those in rural parts of Hungary that are difficult to reach — via Mérce’s Facebook’s page. They also have translators and a lawyer who all work on a pro bono basis. Mérce would not be able to function without the work of these volunteers.

Mérce’s main source of revenue — around 80-90% of its income — is reader donations. Some 1,200 monthly donors pay 1,000-1,400 HUF (€3-4 per month). Other readers donate once or twice a year; the average donation for this group is between 2,000-3,400 HUF (€6-10 per person) although it can be as high as 35,000 HUF (€100).

The organization has always been wary of pursuing an ad-based revenue model given its volatility and the fact that advertising in Hungary can make organizations vulnerable to government interference. Although Mérce displays digital ads on its website, they are free and reserved for not-for-profit organizations.

In 2018, Mérce conducted a survey of over 1,500 donors to understand more about them. It found that readers support their work financially because they find their journalism to be independent and credible and that they share the same progressive worldview. The survey also showed that 40% of their donors had a university degree, while 60% had an average or below-average monthly income. 46% lived in Budapest, 47% from the countryside and around 7% lived abroad. 57% of the respondents were male and 44% were women.

Press freedom has become a major issue in Hungary over the past decade — some 90% of all media is government-controlled in some form. This means that serving government ministers no longer give interviews to independent media and instead focus on state broadcasters and pro-government media. At present, Hungary is ranked 89 in the annual Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 56 in 2013.

On March 30, the Hungarian government passed new legislation that reporters say is being used to deny journalists access to information and could see them jailed for up to five years if convicted. The amount of time to process Freedom of Information requests has also been pushed back from 30 to 90 days while the government’s daily COVID-19 press conference has moved online, making it difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or hold the government to account.

How did Mérce handle the COVID-19 crisis?

Mérce sought to provide practical, useful and necessary information about COVID-19.

It started a daily roundup article summarizing virus developments in Hungary, including key numbers about the death toll, infection rate and testing. The article also includes a short update on any press conferences or government announcements about the lockdown for people that missed them. The roundup summaries have received 100,000 page views per month, which represents 5% of Mèrce’s monthly traffic. So far, the team has written 77 of these summaries.

Mérce’s reporting on the crisis has focused on important everyday issues, such as work, housing, food and mental health. The team published a list of community initiatives in Hungary that people can join to receive support and wrote analysis pieces about how unemployed Hungarians were seeking out food delivery jobs to survive and how shopping communities can be solutions to the breakdown of global supply chains.

Mèrce also sought to cover the pandemic’s impact on labor rights and the economy in general; including how slow the government has been to process benefit payments for unemployed Hungarians and how Hungary has one of the lowest unemployment payments in the OECD.

In mid-March, Mèrce created a dedicated section on its website for non-coronavirus news. The idea was to provide a space for readers who might be becoming fed up from the overabundance of COVID-19 news. In this new section, the team covered stories about world events, the national news agenda, including issues like housing and the environment, and Hungary’s governmental affairs.

Since it was launched, stories in the non-coronavirus news section got the same amount of pageviews as the COVID-related news. The team also received a handful of emails from readers who said that they visited Mérce’s website solely to check the non-COVID news.

Although social distancing in Hungary has meant that there have been no protests or demonstrations, Mèrce decided to create its own online event: a virtual Labor Day on May 1. In cooperation with the three biggest trade union federations in Hungary, the team ran a daylong online program, including three webinars, a documentary screening, trade union presentations and even children’s sessions featuring authors and a puppeteer. All discussions and webinars ran either on Facebook or YouTube. The livestreamed webinars had 10,000 views on average.

Mérce also published an eight-article series called Solidarity in Crisis with the Solidarity Action Group that sought to explore the epidemic through system-critical glasses and present opportunities for community action. The series included content from the group’s not-for-profit members — including The City for Everyone, Extinction Rebellion Hungary, Women for Each Other Movement, Free Budapest and others — and was supported by a small grant from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Since COVID-19 hit, Mérce has seen an increase in both pageviews and visitors — from 1.3 million pageviews in January and February to 1.7 million pageviews in March and 2 million in April. April was, in fact, the second-highest month for unique visitors since the team launched the new site in October 2017. This demonstrates the demand for practical, independent information about issues related to COVID-19.

However, this increase in readers has not yet translated into more reader donations. The team suspect the economic impact of COVID-19 on their readers might be the reason for this. Regular donations have remained stable during March and April — 2.4 million HUF per month (€6,900) from regular small donors and 802,118 HUF (€2,300) from one-off contributions.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Mérce?

The team plans to scale up virtual discussions in addition to the online events they’ve held during the crisis with Hungary’s civil society organizations. Prior to COVID-19, events tended to drive more readers to donate to Mérce. The hope is that online events will encourage their readers to do the same. The team also believes these video discussions are a way to strengthen Mérce’s brand as a public service media outlet.

Despite the government lifting Budapest’s stay at home orders in mid-May, the team has decided most of them will continue to work remotely, with a maximum of five people in the office on any given day. A spreadsheet is shared amongst the team and they have to check if there is space to come into the office. They’ve also started virtual lunches and other group activities to help colleagues handle the impact of self-isolation. Remote working is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

While no registered media organizations in the country have yet to be sanctioned as a result of the new fake news regulation, Mérce has had to be extra careful with fact-checking before publishing anything related to COVID-19. Several fake news sites have been taken down for spreading false information while over 80 private citizens have had investigations brought against them by the government for “scaremongering” posts published on Facebook.

With 90% of their funds coming via donations from readers, Mérce is not reliant on any advertising to sustain itself. However, the volatility of Hungary’s job market as a result of COVID-19 could potentially have an impact on the organization’s finances and operations in the future. It will continue to crowdfund to sustain its operations.

What have they learned so far?

Pap Szilárd István, the deputy editor-in-chief at Mérce (European Journalism Centre)

“We have learned how important trust and community is during this pandemic. As we are fully funded by crowdsourcing, our readers are the lifeblood of our publication. In Hungary, the ad market is very much politically controlled. If the government decides that you are not getting more ads, they can just kill you in a matter of weeks. And that’s why we’ve been relying on this donor model. Our readers aren’t just buying information, they are emotionally attached to our brand and are becoming part of our community. Building a community is very important for media organizations because your readers can not only sustain you, but they can also protect you in many respects.”

– Pap Szilárd István, Deputy Editor In Chief at Mérce

Related Reading

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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