Reader-funded journalism in a crisis: Lessons from OKO.press

Reader donations were the main revenue stream of this Polish investigative outlet. But round-the-clock coverage led to 75% more one-off contributions.

September 10, 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 mix of search-friendly articles and in-depth coverage — both written and audio — are helping this Polish investigative news outlet expand beyond its traditional audience


Across Europe, economic difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have deterred readers from financially supporting news media.

In the case of the Polish investigative nonprofit OKO.press, however, the opposite happened. A surge of organic traffic to its COVID-19 coverage and a focus on fact-checking politicians saw growth from an unlikely audience and a 75% increase in one-off donations. Regular donations also increased by 25%.

Here, Tara Kelly from the European Journalism Centre looks at what the team did to get people to dip into their pockets and what they learned from the first six months of 2020.

What is OKO.press?

Founded in June 2016, OKO.press is one of Poland’s first nonprofit investigative journalism site. Its goal is to promote democratic values, human rights and government transparency. It does so by publishing fact checks, investigations and analysis about the state of politics in Poland.

Employing 28 people, OKO.press was the 2020 recipient of Index on Censorship’s prestigious Freedom of Expression Award Fellowship for Journalism.

OKO.press staff (Courtesy: OKO.press)

In recent years, Poland’s press freedom ranking has plummeted following measures put in place by the current Law and Justice party, known as PiS. In 2016, 163 journalists from public television lost their jobs in or were forced to quit because of their critical attitude towards the government while the Polish National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television, an independent supervisory body, was abolished and replaced by a national media council, mostly staffed by PiS or its supporters.

Although independent media in Poland scores higher in public trust, according to the Reuters Institute 2020 Digital News Report, the country still fell to 62nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reports Without Borders. This is its fifth consecutive decline and the country’s lowest ever position.

OKO.press is funded by a mix of individual donations and grants. In 2019, 80% of its revenue came from individual donations. This included voluntary, regular and one-off donations. Grants, meanwhile, made up 20% of its revenue. OKO.press currently carries no ads. It offers a free membership where readers can register to receive its weekly newsletter and gain early access to articles. In 2020, OKO.press projects 85% of its funds will come from reader donations and 15% from grants.

In terms of its digital readership, 93% of OKO.press’ unique visitors are based in Poland, with the remainder coming mainly from Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Recently, the publication has started to attract more readers (54%) outside of Poland’s five biggest cities — Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Poznan and Gdansk.

In a reader survey conducted in May 2019, most respondents said they read OKO.press for quality reporting about politics, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, social and political movements, ecology and climate.

How did OKO.press handle the COVID-19 crisis?

During the initial stage of the pandemic, like many publications, the team sought to explain the impact of the virus in Poland and abroad. The team published daily COVID-19 special reports every evening for more than three months with analysis of government data and infographics. These drove a significant amount of organic search traffic; one report alone had over 400,000 pageviews. Months on, these articles continue to drive significant website traffic from search engines and provide a sideways entrance into the OKO.press site.

As an outlet with a strong focus on human rights, OKO.press’ team focused on monitoring constitutional restrictions as a result of COVID-19. For instance, it reported about how young Poles feared the government using the pandemic to curb their freedom and investigated how Polish women on maternity leave would have their allowances cut because of the pandemic.

Workers’ rights were an ongoing theme — OKO.press looked at how a quarter of employed people earned less than before COVID-19. One of the most popular articles in April and May was a leaked government report on a proposal to introduce an extended 60-hour working week. This story received over 15,000 shares on Facebook and was viewed over 550,000  times.

OKO.press also had success with several types of written articles:

The team also produced a weekly podcast looking at the future of Poland after the pandemic but also covering adjacent topics like corruption in the church and government clampdowns from nearby countries, such as Belarus. Zoom interviews where various guests were invited to talk about the upcoming Polish presidential elections were also scheduled.

The result of OKO.press’ extensive coverage was that overall traffic went up by over 200% between February (1.7 million unique visitors) and April (5.1 million). 37% of traffic between March and May 2020 came from articles about “health,” compared to just 4% between December 2019 and February 2020. OKO.press’ social media followers have also increased substantially; for example, Twitter followers rose by 92% in the period from January to June 2020 while its Facebook page saw a 37% increase, despite having a large number of followers before the pandemic started.

Financially, OKO.press saw significant gains between April and June. One-off donations increased by 75% compared to the previous quarter while new regular donors saw a 25% spike against the same period. This was surprising to the team because the only donation messaging on the website was a pop-up window and a pandemic banner.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of OKO.press?

OKO.press’ readership has changed dramatically since the pandemic. Before COVID-19 hit, according to reader surveys the team conducted, OKO.press’ typical audience type was a 40-to-50-year-old with anti-government views and an interest in news covering justice and the rule of law in Poland. Now, looking at comments on social media, OKO.press has gained a new audience, some of whom identify as pro-government supporters.

Although OKO.press will continue to try and attract readers that share its core values — pro-human rights, pro-democracy and liberal — the team also hopes that its matter-of-fact analysis and fact checks will attract a wider range of readers from across the political spectrum.

The OKO.press team will also approach remote work differently after the pandemic. At the moment, the team cannot work from the office because the office does not allow for social distancing. However, in a recent staff survey, half of staff said they wanted to return to the newsroom. A phased return means the team will work for three days from home and two days from the newsroom. Once all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the team will allow staff to continue flexible working patterns.

Given the jump in readership since COVID-19, OKO.press understands how critical it is to invest more in better IT infrastructure. Although the website has been accessible throughout the pandemic, there is a risk that surges in traffic could send it offline in the future. As a result, the team will upgrade servers, hire dedicated IT specialists and conduct a website upgrade in 2021 to support its future ambitions.

What have they learned so far?

Marek Pękalski (Courtesy: OKO.press)

“First of all, we learned that flexibility and the digital model of our organization was our advantage. An engaged team is the foundation of our organization, so we need to care about people more in the new remote mode. We learn to adapt to a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). Early risk assessment helped us to implement solutions to counter the negative effects of the pandemic and economic crisis. We have organized three fundraising campaigns to mitigate the risk of a decrease in donations and currently we focus on applying for grants to strengthen our financial situation.”

– Marek Pękalski, chief executive officer, OKO.press

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.

Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated OKO.press was Poland’s first nonprofit investigative journalism site. In fact, OKO.press is one of the first nonprofit investigative journalism sites in the country, but not the first.