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: eldiario.es’ long history of listening to readers and its public interest, data-led COVID-19 reporting meant members responded positively when their annual fees were increased by 30%.
Spain has been one of the European countries hardest hit by the coronavirus. Like many publications in the country, eldiario.es — an independent digital news publication founded in 2012 — has felt the full effects of plummeting advertising revenues.
But the publication didn’t wait around to see what happened next. Along with salary cuts for top staff, eldiario.es announced it was raising membership fees and issued a pledge for new members and donations. The response was phenomenal — 97% of members agreed to the voluntary hike and its membership base has doubled in just two months.
What is eldiario.es?
eldiario.es is a popular and progressive Spanish digital publication that is heavily focused on politics, human rights, culture and the environment. Founded in 2012, it specializes in investigative journalism and steers clear of covering sports or celebrity news.
The news organization employs around 100 staff spread across offices in Madrid, Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela in the country’s northwest.
As of May 2020, eldiario.es has 55,000 paying members. Prior to the pandemic, membership accounted for one-third of their revenue, with most coming from advertising.
Paying readers receive perks that include invitations to special events, the ability to comment on articles and an ad-free online experience. They also have access to stories a few hours earlier than the rest of readers and receive a quarterly monograph magazine — dubbed Cuadernos (or notebooks in English) — which is delivered directly to their homes. eldiario.es’ model inspired The Guardian’s membership program when it was launched in 2014.
As one of Spain’s most-read news sites, eldiario.es has a significant online reach. According to ComScore, the publication is ranked the third-largest digital newspaper in the country, and eighth overall, when factoring in print-digital media. It attracted over 15 million unique visitors in March — over double February’s number — and grew to more than 16 million unique users in April, a sign of the effectiveness of what the organization calls its “public service news.”
Across Spain, national legacy news organizations have been slow to adopt reader revenue models like eldiario.es’, although a number have recently launched subscription programs. The two biggest newspapers, El Mundo and El País, launched schemes in October 2019 and this month respectively. Other outlets are expected to follow suit in the next few months.
eldiario.es’ parent company, Diario de Prensa Digital, has a stake in 10 regional and two hyperlocal news sites across Spain and believes that local coverage can differentiate them from other news providers. They provide the smaller newsrooms with technology support in return for a share of content and advertising revenues.
Listening to its members is part of the fabric of eldiario.es. Journalists, including editor-in-chief Ignacio Escolar, meet members at events and through informal member discussions in the newsroom during which staff outline the publication’s strategy. Readers are also encouraged to send corrections or additional information about articles published online.
Unlike many news organizations, eldiario.es discloses its financial accounts on its website.
How did eldiario.es handle the COVID-19 crisis?
When COVID-19 hit Spain, eldiario.es created a mailbox for readers to send in questions about the virus. As in other European countries, health misinformation has been a serious issue in Spain, and this was a way for the newsroom to help curb the spread of dangerous information. Each day, the team received dozens of COVID-19-related questions and ideas from readers, which they answer one-by-one with resources and general feedback.
The team also launched a pop-up coronavirus newsletter, including original data reporting on the virus as well as links to related articles from other reputable sites. The newsletter currently has more than 17,000 subscribers and an open rate of over 30%.
The newsroom made an attempt to produce regionally specific stories to ensure reporting was representative of the entire country. In Madrid, for example, eldiario.es paid particular attention to COVID-19’s effects on vulnerable groups such as low-income elders, migrants and homeless people, who are traditionally left out of reporting. The team in Barcelona also made a concerted effort to cover the crisis in small towns outside the city while, in Galicia, a number of stories centered around the crisis of local textile producers.
The data team produced a number of in-depth pieces, including an analysis of the pandemic across Spain in comparison with the rest of the world and an explainer on the rise in mortality compared to historical records. There has also been a number of regionally relevant stories, including an overview of the crisis in Madrid by socio-economic background and an analysis of COVID-19 data in the Basque region.
Like many publications, COVID-19 instantly hit the eldiario.es’s advertising revenues, causing an estimated €500K hole in their 2020 budget. Salary cuts of 10-30% were subsequently put in place for top paid members of staff.
While they knew it was not the best time to ask readers to pay more, the team also knew their journalists were needed more than ever by the Spanish public. The only option for the organization was to raise membership fees, the first time it had done so since launching in 2012.
On March 24, editor-in-chief Ignacio Escolar announced annual fees would rise from €60 to €80 and monthly membership would go up by one euro to €8. Readers were also asked to pay €100 instead of €80 if they were able to, although it was also possible for members to stay on their current package if they couldn’t afford to upgrade. During this time, registered users were also sent marketing emails encouraging them to become paying members.
To the team’s surprise, 97% of eldiario.es’ members accepted the new membership prices. On top of that, a further 18,056 members joined in just two months, taking the publication’s membership total to over 55,000 as of the end of May.
A further option to donate money to the newsroom generated an additional €80,000 in revenue. eldiario.es puts this response down to the close relationship it had with readers even before the pandemic hit.
How has COVID-19 changed the future of eldiario.es?
The eldiario.es team plans to continue its focus on analytical reporting and fact-checking as a way of combating misinformation about coronavirus and to distinguish itself from other competitors in Spain. The team is hiring for another data journalist and plans to guide readers through the health, economic and political elements of the crisis using data-informed storytelling.
Before the crisis, eldiario.es’ revenue was made up of 65% advertising and 35% membership. As of May, the organization is now making considerably more revenue from members than advertising and has forecasted that this will continue, even if advertising begins to return. To help retain their new members, eldiario.es will strengthen its customer support team and add additional resources to the marketing team in charge of retention strategies.
Like many news sites, eldiario.es’ typical readers are middle-aged men with an interest in hard news. However, since the COVID-19 crisis, the site has attracted a younger and more female audience — the overall ratio of female members has grown from 30 to 36%. The team suspects this is because health issues historically tend to attract a greater proportion of women.
Over the next few months, the team will work out how to serve this growing audience.
What have they learned so far?
“We have learned engagement with our readers is absolutely fundamental. Not only will we have a 50/50 split of revenues coming from advertising and membership, but it will change the way we work. For us, members have always been very, very important. And our engagement with them has been always very strong, but now it is stronger than ever. And it will stay like that. And that means hiring more newsroom staff to manage our audience engagement with members. And that is very important for us. It is so important to do quality to have more members to pay for what you do. Avoiding dependence on advertising and instead engaging your readers is crucial for the survival of media”
– Rosalía Lloret, CEO of eldiario.es
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated 28,000 new members joined eldiario.es after the pandemic. The correct number is in fact 18,000 new members.
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.