September 24, 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.

Few publications were hit as hard by the global pandemic than the UK independent media collective gal-dem. Prior to COVID-19, 73% of its revenue came from brand partnerships and events, which disappeared immediately as advertisers called a halt to their activities. 

It forced a serious rethink. Staff were furloughed and the launch of its membership program was pulled forward by four months to try and make up the revenue gap. The Black Lives Matter protests led to a spike in members beyond its traditional audience and it is closing in on 3,000 members, far exceeding its initial goal of 2,000 by the end of the year.

Tara Kelly spoke to head of partnerships and soon-to-be CEO Mariel Richards about how the team dealt with the fallout of the pandemic and the plan to better understand gal-dem’s new, paying members.

What is gal-dem?

gal-dem is a media collective and independent magazine founded in 2015 by Liv Little, a former producer for the BBC. Its mission is to tell the stories and spotlight the creative talents of womxn (any human who identifies as a female, femme, agender, girl, lady or queen) and non-binary people of color.  “Gal-dem” is a phrase from Caribbean slang, meaning “group of girls.” 

The team is made up of 11 staff members, of which six are full-time and five are part-time. As well as producing online and print versions of the magazine, the team has curated museum takeovers for the V&A and the Tate, and guest-edited an edition of The Guardian Weekend magazine.

gal-dem’s work seeks to address the racial imbalance in British media by making underrepresented voices heard. A survey in 2016 revealed the British media landscape is 94% white and 55% are men. In 2019, it also published a collection of essays on the team’s stories about growing up as people of color.

About 60% of gal-dem’s audience is under the age of 35. The majority are women and non-binary people of color, while the remaining 30-40% of its traffic comes from cis-men. About half of its website visitors come from the UK, with a quarter from the United States, followed by Nigeria, India, Australia and Canada. 

gal-dem produces daily online content across five areas — first-person, lifestyle, culture, politics and music — as well as an annual print edition with a print circulation of around 8,000 copies. Since its launch, it has published over 2,000 pieces of content by 800 authors. gal-dem has no paywall and attracts an audience of around 330,000 unique online visitors. Up until recently, three quarters of revenue came from advertising and brand partnerships from big global brands.

How did gal-dem handle the COVID-19 crisis?

When the global pandemic hit, gal-dem took advantage of the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which allowed businesses to furlough staff and cover 80% of their salaries up to £2,500 a month. Editors of the lifestyle and politics sections continued to work to cover the important stories that came out related to these areas during the crisis. gal-dem also surveyed readers about what type of coverage they wanted to see during this period: 60% of readers wanted to read information on the pandemic and 40% wanted to read about non-pandemic content. This helped gal-dem editors shape what stories they commissioned.

During the first wave of cases, gal-dem made a point of publishing stories that readers couldn’t find anywhere else. For instance, one article looked at the phenomenon of decolonizing healthcare, while another examined how South Asian corner shop culture kept the UK running during the lockdown. It published personal stories and essays, including accounts from people who lived with chronic illnesses and who had suffered harassment during previous pandemics. gal-dem also produced a lockdown Spotify-inspired Q&A series to help occupy people while they were at home.

Financially, gal-dem was significantly affected by COVID-19. Advertising revenue plummeted in February, when clients began to cancel upcoming campaigns and cancelled future spend. It lost £60,000 — the equivalent of three months of operational costs — within a month. Branded face-to-face events — gal-dem’s largest revenue stream — also had to be immediately cancelled with no sign of when they would return. Survival became a priority. 

When statistics emerged indicating that people of color were more susceptible to COVID-19, gal-dem invested in producing more well-being and self-care content. One piece curated a list of online workouts you could do from home by women of color and another examined what it was like to be a minority receiving cancer treatment. One first-person piece looked at how office culture fails black people questioning why they should be keen to go back.

The large drop in advertising revenue meant the team had little choice but to pivot to launching its membership scheme in March 2020, rather than over the summer. 

Fortunately, plans had been in place since late 2019 and the team already had an agreed pricing model, promotional video and communication plan ready to go. The gal-dem team was aware that it was not an ideal time to launch — many readers are also in the creative industries and would be feeling the financial pinch of the pandemic — but they had no choice.

The gal-dem membership program — launched with support from Steady — has six options: 

  • Gal-dem sugar is the base tier membership package for £4.99 per month. Members receive the weekly reflections newsletter, a discount code for one of gal-dem’s partners, ability to purchase tickets to gal-dem events 24 hours before the general public as well as exclusive content like wellness tips. 
  • The next tier is Gal-dem sugar + PAY IT FORWARD for £9.98 per month. Members receive all the perks as a gal-dem sugar plus they will be paying it forward for a member of the community who isn’t able to purchase a membership.
  •  Gal-dem spice membership is £9.99 per month and includes all of the perks listed in the gal-dem sugar membership tier, an advance copy of gal-dem’s annual print issue, access to the members only broadcast WhatsApp group for events, jobs and more. Wellness tips and tricks are also included in this tier.
  • Gal-dem nice membership is £14.99 per month and includes all of the perks from gal-dem sugar and spice membership tiers. It also offers 2x limited edition pieces of merchandise, access to a total of 4x gal-dem’s members and gal-dem hosted events throughout the course of the year. Wellness tips and tricks are also included in this tier.
  • Gal-dem spice + pay it forward is £19.98 per month. Members receive the same perks as a gal-dem spice, but will be paying it forward for a member of the community who isn’t able to purchase a membership.
  • The top tier is gal-dem nice + pay it forward. Members get the same perks as a gal-dem nice + they will be paying it forward for a member of the community who isn’t able to purchase a membership.

In May, gal-dem had what they describe as a bittersweet moment when the death of George Floyd and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement led to an influx of financial support. Nine hundred people became members in May, following 300 in March and around 500 in April. By the end of June, gal-dem had over 2,000 members, outstripping its membership goal for the entire year.

As many of the team and its readers are Black, this period was very traumatic for the gal-dem community, especially as the team had been talking about these issues since 2015. They commissioned and published pieces on what Black British activism looks like in 2020, what we should do with videos of police brutality and alternative forms of protest for people who can’t physically gather due to COVID-19. Readers rallied around gal-dem’s editorial coverage of the protests and expressed support via social media about the way it reported on the Black Lives Matter movement. Many said gal-dem spoke to them in a way that mainstream media did not, and this feedback helped the gal-dem editors and writers continue to do their work during this difficult period.

gal-dem saw a shift in the demographic of its membership base on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests. It found more white people were signing up, compared to early members, who were mainly women of color. The team believes that this was because people understood how important it is to see and read different voices from different backgrounds in the UK media.

Like many small newsrooms, most of gal-dem’s team are currently working from home. The plan is to eventually move back to an office when things return to normal, but for now, the team will remain remote using Slack and Zoom to communicate with each other. 

How has gal-dem changed the future of COVID-19?

Personal essays were some of gal-dem’s strongest performing pieces over the last six months and helped attract new members. As a result of this insight, the team took the decision to increase the hours of the personal essays and opinion editor to drive this content and ensure it continues to serve its members and the wider community. 

COVID-19 forced gal-dem to look carefully at the ways that it generates revenue and led directly to the launch of its membership program. It initially had a goal of 2,000 members by the end of 2020, but the team has reached that goal and is already closing in on 3,000 members. The fact that most members subscribed on an annual basis means that May 2021 — when most members will be invited to renew — will be an important moment. The team will also regularly survey these members to understand their challenges and needs and to create concepts for events and relevant editorial coverage. 

The pandemic meant that gal-dem has had no choice but to move to digital-only events in recent months. One format that has been tested is gal-dem group chats; an intimate facilitated Zoom session with a maximum of 30 people. The first one was held in May with author Tobi Kyeremateng on colourism and misogynoir and it will continue to explore digital-only experiences as an alternative to face-to-face events.

What have they learned? 

“Although Gal-dem’s revenue varies month to month, generally, it gets 73% of its funds from brand partnerships and advertising, 25% from membership, and 2% from consultancy and talks from management,” said Mariel Richards, head of partnerships for gal-dem. “It is aiming to move away from advertising in the long term and instead focus on membership. We are now looking at extending our cash runway out to ensure that we are fully future-proofed for future recessions. We are now looking at bringing on certain roles at full-time hours to allow for a more streamlined editorial team and one that can better cope with furloughed roles. We are also examining how we can better understand and support our audiences based on the information we have gathered from our 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.

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