When renowned Spanish journalist and director of the news website eldiario.es Ignacio Escolar published an open letter in early March this year, he gave his readers an honest, heartfelt and bleak prognosis of what was on the horizon.
The letter was first sent to employees and then published on the website. It announced that reporters would retreat from their newsrooms and work from home. Here, he underlined not just deep concerns about the imminent threat of the virus but also the future of the Spanish media.
His worries about an outbreak of misinformation were matched by the economic toll the newspaper was bracing itself for. Escolar then turned to his readers, asking them to consider taking up memberships to support the news organisation through the almost-certain turmoil ahead.
Despite the crisis, this call became a success story. The newspaper saw 20,000 new members come on board between March and April 2020, mostly signing up for a whole year.
New members were not put off by the €20-a-year price increase, although there was an option to retain the previous price if readers could not afford to pay more. Members have not just overwhelmingly accepted the increase but they could also opt to pay more than the new €80 annual or €8 monthly subscription fee if they wanted to - and some 5,000 patrons did just that.
This membership boom, coupled with reporters taking salary cuts, ensured that eldiario.es managed to avoid laying off journalists during the coronavirus pandemic to date.
She noted that the newspaper has built a reputation for high-profile investigations and scoops. One of the most prominent stories was the ‘Cifuentes master case’ in 2018 that exposed corruption around former Spanish politician Cristina Cifuentes’ master’s degree.
Its readers therefore understand how integral eldiario.es' journalism is to Spanish public affairs. But more than, the publication has developed a close relationship with its audience through its public service journalism and a fresh newsletter Ramírez spearheaded, which became a way for readers to submit their urgent questions about the virus. Those questions quickly got emotional and intricate.
"Even in the most rudimentary of ways, just listen to your readers and be humble," she says, adding that was often up until late at night responding to as many queries as possible during this period, pulling in experts and getting the best information possible from the most reputable sources.
They say hard work pays off. Although Escolar had initially said in the open letter that existing budgets would not be sufficient to run the newspaper, Ramírez is now confident that it has enough stability to weather whatever else 2020 throws at us.
"The pandemic is not going away and it is going to be tough in the autumn campaign, but we now know that eldiario.es is going to finish [the year strong]."
Reader revenue accounts for more than half of total revenue (in excess of €6m). It is a real shift compared to March when advertising was around two-thirds of its total revenue source. But even now with around 56k active members, the churn rate is just around one per cent.
Beyond the membership, the newspaper pulls in 34m monthly readers, 17m recurring readers, 800k loyal readers, and 150k registered readers.
What does this mean for the future? While Ramírez wants to keep memberships operating at half of total revenue in the long term, a mixed business model will be essential as the market recovers.
"It is good to have a mix because digital advertising is still big in Spain [at normal times]," she explains.
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