June 4, 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: The French digital news site launched a COVID-19 landing page to inform readers about the virus, answer their questions and bring in expert advice. It also initiated an investigative solutions-oriented journalism project to understand how local authorities in France were responding to the virus.

Like many media organizations in France, Mediacités spent the early part of 2020 preparing its coverage of upcoming local elections. But when the pandemic hit, the site — which covers four major French cities — pivoted to doing public service journalism instead.

The 10-strong team issued a callout to readers to share their questions about the lockdown and a survey for ideas about what should change after COVID-19. It received hundreds of responses and tripled its monthly visitors.

It didn’t all go to plan: COVID-19 coverage that was initially made free to read was restricted to paying members after the Mediacités team discovered that few readers were signing up. But the team’s agile and reader-led approach attracted 447 new paying readers and led 90% of existing members to say they were happy with the news organization’s COVID-19 coverage so far.

What is Mediacités?

Founded in 2016 by eight journalists, Mediacités is a membership-funded French investigative publication covering the cities of Lille, Lyon, Toulouse and Nantes. The publication’s mission is to identify and explain political, economic, environmental, cultural and social issues in order to allow readers to participate in the running of their city. Its slogan is “uncompromising investigation.”

Mediacités was born out of a gap in coverage in France. Local media devotes little resource or attention to investigative journalism while the national press — based traditionally in Paris — rarely covers regional issues. According to the Reuters Institute Digital Report 2019, media trust levels in France have fallen to just 24%, down 11% in just the last year.

Mediacités also regularly invites its readers to participate in its journalism through regular surveys, debates and public meetings. It is one of the only news organizations funded by reader revenue in the country that does this.

In April 2019, the team launched a section on its website called La Fabrique to explain to readers the behind-the-scenes of investigative work. The section shows how much it costs to run a survey, canvasses them for questions before municipality meetings or involves them in the backstory of investigations.

Mediacités is owned and published by SAS Mediacités, a private company that is majority-owned by the eight co-founders (56%). Most of the co-founders are alumni of L’Express, a French weekly news magazine headquartered in Paris. They left the newspaper when it was bought by Patrick Drahi, one of the most influential media tycoons in France, whose efforts to reduce costs damaged the magazine’s reputation.

106 individual investors own another 39% of the company while Indigo Publications and Mediapart — two independent media companies — own the remaining 5%.

Mediacités works with around 100 freelancers.

Before October 2019, Mediacités had a traditional subscription model in which readers paid to access exclusive content. But it replaced that with a membership program last year.The new program is more explicit about the organization’s mission and values.

At the time of writing, it has 3,550 members who pay a monthly membership (€7 a month), an annual membership (€60 a year) or pay extra for the Soutien membership (€120 a year), which allows people to support independent ad-free investigative journalism at a local level. All members received benefits such as open access to surveys, the ability to share story ideas with the editors and invitations to local events. Mediacités have made in-depth investigations only available to paying customers, although some content — such as short write-ups — is freely available on the site.

As a reader-funded organization, 90% of Mediacités’ revenue comes from members. The other 10% comes from partnerships it has with TV station France2 and Mediapart, a French online investigative news site.

Of the revenue from members, 80% comes from individual members while 20% is made up of business-to-business members like local government or small businesses. Non-paying registered users can sign up for five different free newsletters — Lille, Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse and a roundup newsletter for all cities.

How did Mediacités handle the COVID-19 crisis?

On March 18, it launched a dedicated landing page about the coronavirus entitled “Nos villes a l’heure du coronavirus” (“Our cities in the age of coronavirus”). Made up of two parts, it allowed people to ask practical questions about the virus and also to share their experience or expertise.

The team received over 250 questions from readers and used the most commonly asked ones to create 25 mini-articles, including “Can I go to the post office?” and “Can we reuse a face mask if we heat it?” Respectively, these stories became the second and third most-read stories on Mediacités ever.

These answers to readers’ questions increased the story count by a third during this time. Members of staff that don’t usually write, including engagement lead Pierre Leibovici, were pulled in to produce these explanatory articles.

10 days after launching the coronavirus landing page, the team was curious about how to bring back investigations while still in lockdown. They sent a survey to members asking them for feedback on their COVID-19 coverage so far and asked what else they wanted to read about. 340 members (10% of their membership at the time) responded. Out of those who responded, 90% of them said they were pleased with the COVID-19 coverage. When asked if they wanted to read solutions-oriented journalism about the coronavirus at a local level, many of them said yes.

So on April 29, Mediacités launched a new community-driven and solutions-oriented investigation called #DansMaVille (#InMyTown). With a grant of $5,000 from the Solutions Journalism Network, the aim was to get readers’ insights about local responses to the global problems raised during the coronavirus outbreak. Readers were given up until May 11 to respond to a survey and to choose between five different community initiatives they thought should remain after the lockdown: consumption and local activities, housing, nature in the city, solidarity, and transport.

Mediacités received 175 submissions. These were whittled down to 28 potential stories before a final list of 12 was selected. To date, the team has published six solutions-based investigations with several to be published in the coming weeks. The stories covered solutions to the pandemic, initiatives that offer food to the homeless and the difficulties facing independent cinemas. They also reported on solutions to problems: a temporary boarding school to host children exposed to violence at home during the lockdown, methods of closing the digital divide for students and new ways for doctors to virtually see patients with mental health issues.

Like many news sites, Mediacités made all coronavirus coverage free and experienced a significant bump in traffic.

Before COVID-19 struck, it received on average 140,000 unique monthly visitors, which increased to 375,000 unique visitors in March 2020 (a record) with a further 367,000 in April. However, these new visitors weren’t staying long on the site and weren’t signing up as paying members. Subsequently, COVID-19 investigative stories were made accessible to members only. The team also decided to retarget those new visitors with dedicated email campaigns.

A screenshot from Mediacités’ email campaign

As a result, Mediacités’ membership numbers have increased by 447 since the lockdown in France. In total, it now has 3,550 members. Of the new members, the proportion of memberships stayed roughly the same: 81% are annual members (Soutien and Annuel) and 19% of monthly members (Mensuel).

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Mediacités?

While Mediacités saw a correlation between the number of stories published and the growth of its audience, it did not see a correlation with the number of stories published and the number of new members.

This raises important questions about how journalists should spend their time — will producing a smaller piece fact-checking a local politician bring in more members than an investigation that has taken several weeks?

The team has limited data about how the site’s paywall drives paying members. However, when a member signs up, they are asked several questions about why they have chosen to support Mediacités. The majority do so because of the organization’s independence rather than to access exclusive investigations. The team has considered both closing more stories to non-members and opening more investigations to the wider public as a way of better understanding the effect content has on member acquisition.

Mediacités is new to solutions-oriented journalism. Prior to this, it was more interested in exposing wrongdoing and holding power to account, rather than highlighting potential solutions to problems. The #DansMaVille work was a test case for solutions-orientated investigations and it remains to be seen how Mediacités’ audience will respond to the stories (some of which will be published later in the year).

On the back of the COVID-19 coverage, the team is planning an audience listening program in July or September (depending on lockdown restrictions) to better assess the needs of new readers. Through focus groups and online forms, they also hope to understand how the engaged journalism initiatives (#DansMaVille and La Fabrique) are being received by their audience as well as to canvas opinion about potential topics of future Mediacités investigations.

Mediacités is in a relatively strong position financially given that reader membership fees make up 90% of its revenue. However, it is concerned about the cancellation risk of 20% of business-to-business members who are likely to be struggling financially as a result of the pandemic. The team plans to invest more time and resources into making it clear to readers how important their membership is.

On June 2, Mediacités launched a targeted email campaign to prospective members with a special offer for the entire month of June. The deal allows new members to pay €1 for 3 months, and then €7 a month after that. The campaign includes a series of emails and stories on La Fabrique that answer the common questions new readers have asked — such as “Are you a profitable news organization?” and  “What are your ties with the national investigative outlet Mediapart?” The main objective is to get a surge in memberships before the summer period by explaining Mediacités’ mission to create a resilient, independent network of local news organizations.

A screenshot of Mediacités’ targeted campaign

What have they learned so far?

“The coronavirus was an opportunity for us to explain to our members why we are here, the value we add and how we are trying to make the local world more meaningful. It was also a chance to share good feedback from our readers with the team. The messages of support from our audience have also helped re-energize and reassure the team that the work we do matters. This experience has also been a lesson in how our team can pivot and adapt to unprecedented circumstances. Launching the “Nos villes a l’heure du coronavirus” was the first time we built an editorial concept with a design and landing page in less than two days without overthinking it. I’m happy the coronavirus didn’t break our capacity for innovation. I hope we can learn from this and apply that same agility for future editorial projects.”

– Pierre Leibovici, Engagement Lead, Mediacités

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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