Credit: Telegram's newsroom in Zagreb, Croatia

Telegram - not to be confused with the messaging service - is an investigative outlet based in Croatia, created in 2015. It quickly found its niche in investigating corruption in the country and publishing long-form reads, but it waited until last year to ask readers to pay for its journalism.

Soon after its launch, the publication attracted prominent investigative journalists like Drago Hedl, who is internationally recognised for his reporting on war crimes during the Croatian War of Independence. It was one of Hedl’s stories that helped Telegram gain notoriety: when interviewing a well-known politician via phone call about a corruption scandal, he was offered a bribe to kill the story. He declined and published the recording, which led to a nationwide scandal and established Telegram as a go-to publication for hard-hitting investigative reporting.

The outlet grew, both in size and prominence, but struggled to find enough money to go on. Advertisers were not rushing in - with the Croatian economy largely dominated by public businesses, access to advertising revenue was difficult. Even with around 1.2m unique monthly users, reader donations could only take them so far. So, eight months ago, the time came to experiment with a subscription model that would add a much-needed sustainable revenue stream.

It took the founder and CEO of Telegram, Miran Pavić, a couple of years to put together a subscription programme that he and his team were happy to roll out. Looking at examples like Slovakia’s Dennik N, or South Africa’s Daily Maverick, they wanted to adapt tried-and-tested tools and methods to the Croatian market — which was not easy. With some four million inhabitants and a language that is not spoken in any other country, the market is very small. Croatians are also reluctant to pay for online news - according to the latest Reuters Institute report, only seven per cent do so.

Given the small number of stories Telegram publishes, it decided to put all of its journalism behind a metered paywall - or paygate, as some prefer to call it since it is not meant to keep readers out but let them in when they subscribe. The logic was simple - if the publication only monetised some of the stories, there would not be enough content to pay for.

Since the launch of the programme Telegram found that, like the Daily Maverick’s results, big corruption stories are huge drivers of new subscriptions — and the Croatian public is willing to support them. But like many other news outlets in the country, the publisher is now facing a growing number of intimidation lawsuits.

Paying the courts

The practice of 'strategic lawsuits against public participation' (SLAPP) is widespread in Croatia, and it has gotten worse recently. According to the Croatian journalists’ association, there were at least 924 lawsuits initiated against journalists and media outlets in the country last year. Often the outlet and individual journalist are both sued, which doubles the costs of the proceedings and fines issued after lost cases. This puts news organisations in a difficult position and makes independent journalists’ life and work extremely hard, according to Pavić.

Initially, Telegram was reluctant to comment on these lawsuits, as it did not want to appear to be interfering with the courts. Financial pressure eventually led it to open up about the threats it is facing, and candidly talk about the issue to its audience. The topic even became the pillar of one of its appeals for donations, and it was encouraging for Telegram to see the public chip in to help the outlet stay afloat. Although Pavić does not keep tabs on the exact cost of the lawsuits, he said they run to tens of thousands of euros annually.

Despite the threat from the courts, Telegram’s team have not encountered serious threats to their safety online or offline, although they are routinely subject to abuse, especially after big investigations are published.

Print and multimedia

Telegram is a digital native news outlet which also experiments with print to generate revenue. Last year, it successfully published a hardcover book about architecture and urban planning, which was popular with subscribers who benefited from a special offer. The team is also looking to explore long-form video and documentaries but is more sceptical about audio because of the small market size.

"If you bring enough value, something no one else does, you stand a chance," says Pavić, adding that the publication’s "no clickbait, no shortcuts" approach is paying off despite its difficulties.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).