Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Is quality journalism sustainable? Here are 20 media organizations that are solving this problem

This post is part of a study that identifies 20 media organizations from 16 countries and four regions  --Eastern and Central Europe, Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States-- that have developed sustainable business models for high-quality journalism. This list is by no means exclusive. The examples were chosen to present a variety of solutions to this challenge. We welcome comments on other media we could have included.

-- James Breiner

Click graphic to enlarge.

Eastern and Central Europe region

We begin with the region of Eastern and Central Europe because it has been a battleground for quality journalism in the past half-dozen years. The traditional values of Western democracies and the European Union –free speech, free press, free people, free markets, social justice, and inclusion– have faced a strong challenge from political and social leaders from Eastern and Central Europe. 

In Hungary, for example, investors and media groups favorable to the right-wing Fidesz party have bought up media properties and converted them into propaganda machines for their messaging (Mertek Media Monitor Blog, 2019). In addition, the foreign policy of the government of Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, has made recovery of influence in that region a priority. Putin viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the loss of control of countries in its bloc as a national shame. Russia’s media strategies had the cumulative effect of marginalizing and isolating media 

 organizations that align themselves with the values of the EU and western democracies (Foer, 2019). 

In countries where the public trust in the media has declined from the previous year, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, “declining trust often seems to be linked to political tension” (p. 18). In spite of this, the region has several outstanding examples of news organizations that have adapted to the new environment and are, indeed, prospering with market-driven business models.

Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland, wyborcza.pl

Founded: 1989
Journalists/total employees: 41/undetermined
Revenues: US$20 million, est.
Funding sources: metered paywall, advertising
Subscribers/members: 177,000 digital subscribers
Content: general news, with focus on local
Reach: average of 41.4 million visits a month; social media followers: 641,000 on Facebook, 736,000 on Twitter, 84,800 on Instagram 

The declining trust and the battle for the hearts and minds of the public in Poland provides the context for reviewing the sustainability of the quality journalism outlet Gazeta Wyborcza, the most popular print newspaper in Poland. 

As described in a profile by Freedom House, Gazeta Wyborcza (literally, “electoral newspaper”) was founded in 1989 by Adam Michnik, an outspoken critic of the communist government, who still runs the organization. Gazeta has continued its opposition to authoritarian rule and to the current government’s attempts to rein in freedom of expression. For this reason, according to Freedom House, it faces a “hostile political environment” that has translated into distribution problems through hundreds of  state-controlled distribution outlets (Chapman, 2017). 

Gazeta’s web page shows a staff of 41 journalists and news executives, with just over half dedicated to covering local news in 24 local websites around the country. Local news is a key part of the company’s strategy (Schmidt, 2018). The publication’s development director, Danuta Breguła, told Schmidt that users interested in local news are extremely loyal, which translates into much higher use of the website and average revenue per user. In addition, Bregula said the consumers of local news are much more interested in content that “helps in your day-to-day life. How to get from point A to B, or how to find a school for your child” rather than breaking news about crime, accidents, disasters, and so on. In other words, they look to a local news publication for help in solving the problems they face – economic, social, family. Information is more important than news.  

The internet measurement service SimilarWeb.com, which we are using to standardize comparisons among websites, shows an average of 41.4 million visits a month to Gazeta over six months. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, Gazeta was the fifth-most popular online news source in Poland, consulted weekly by 19% of internet users. Among print, radio, and television users, the print edition ranked sixth, with 22% consulting it weekly (p. 95). 

Gazeta’s financial results are rolled into those of its parent company, Agora SA, a media conglomerate that includes cinemas, radio stations, and other print and digital publications. However, some of its financial data can be gleaned and inferred from other sources. Gazeta’s print subscriptions have declined steadily in recent years, resulting in lost advertising and circulation revenue, so the company has focused its strategies on growing user revenue, mainly through paid digital subscriptions. 

The company reported 171,000 digital subscriptions at year-end 2018, an increase of 28% for the year, according to a press release. If half the subscriptions were at the basic price of US$5.20 a month and half at the premium price of US$7.81 a month, the digital subscriptions alone would be producing US$13.5 million a year (WAN-IFRA, 2019). In 2016, the daily’s subscription revenue exceeded advertising revenue for the first time. Assuming declining ad revenue at a rate of 20% a year, the rate in 2016, Gazeta would have had ad revenue of about US$6.5 million in 2018 (no figure was available from the parent company).

Chapman’s Freedom House profile of Gazeta shows it to be a defender of democratic values in a context of growing authoritarianism. This kind of international recognition has been echoed in the Reuters Institute’s measurement of trust. Gazeta ranked sixth among media in trust, this despite concerted campaigns against it by the government and state-controlled media (Digital News Report 2018, p. 95). Gazeta’s investigative stories about corruption and suppression of free expression have resulted in many lawsuits against the newspaper. In a December 2018 editorial, Jarosław Kurski, deputy editor-in-chief, wrote, “Since 2015, the governing party, PiS, and the institutions it controls, have been flooding us with lawsuits. The cases are being brought against us by politicians, administrative bodies and state-owned companies. We want to assure you that we are not going to give in to blackmail” (Kurski, 2018). 

Gazeta’s turn toward users and its digital products as the main sources of financial support seems to have been well timed and some assurance of sustainability despite attacks from the government.  

Dennik N, Slovakia, dennikn.sk 

Founded: 2014
Journalists/total employees:  66/73
Revenues: $2 million 
Funding sources: digital subscriptions, paywall, advertising
Subscribers/members: 35,000
Content: long form general news, investigative journalism
Reach: average of 12.1 million visits a month; social media followers: 139,000 on Facebook, 135,000 on Messenger, 19,300 on Twitter, 16,000 on YouTube, 34,000 on Instagram

The founders of this digital startup quit the news organization they were working for –the Slovak national newspaper Dennik SNE– when it was bought by a rival. The journalists had done investigative reporting that suggested the media company that was acquiring them had questionable ties to the government that suggested corruption. As described by Sharp in Nieman Lab, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Matus Kostolny, left and took with him his four deputy editors to launch a rival publication, Dennik N (Dennik means daily, and the N stands for Nezavislost, or independence) (Sharp, 2017).

CEO Lukas Fila told Sharp that the publication focuses on longer stories with original content rather than running shorter stories on news everyone else is publishing. These articles, especially those on the refugee crisis, tax fraud, corruption, economics, and domestic politics, are the most popular. “People are not willing to pay for things they can read elsewhere.” 

News media organizations have begun to recognize that authoritarian regimes have been replacing history books in schools that promoted European Union values of freedom of expression and inclusion of all races and religions (Slovakia entered the EU in 2004) with those promoting nationalistic ideas about the importance of protection of local culture, language, and traditions. In this context, Dennik N announced that, through crowdfunding and a grant, they were able to send 20,000 copies of a magazine about Czechoslovakia to secondary schools. Riding on its success in Slovakia, Dennik N has launched an edition in the neighboring Czech Republic which signed up an additional 10,000 paid subscribers in the first few months (Fila, 2019a). 

Similarweb also shows Dennik N with an average of 12.1 million visits a month over the previous six months. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, Dennik N was the12th-most popular online news source in Slovakia, consulted weekly by 10% of internet users. This modest ranking could be attributed in part to the fact that most of the content was behind a paywall. However, in March of 2019, Dennik N announced that it had reached 35,000 paid digital subscribers and decided to celebrate by opening up the first 35,000 articles from its archives to non-subscribers. “People who couldn't afford to buy our subscription will be able to read our older texts, award-winning reports, in-depth analyses and interviews with interesting people” (Fila, 2019b). 
Dennik N’s mobile apps grew to 27,000 users a month, an increase of 35% over the previous year. And its podcast recorded 2 million downloads in its first 12 months (Fila, 2019b). 
The team started with little knowledge of business operations but with the conviction that there was a space in the market for independent high-quality journalism. They raised US$1.2 million of private investment and another US$350,000 from advance subscription sales –in effect, monetizing their social capital as well known, trusted journalists. The daily website began publishing in January 2015 and two years later had 23,000 paid digital subscribers, its main revenue source. The company had positive cash flow by 2016.
The publication is notable, then, for countering two trends in the media industry. First, it depends mainly on users rather than advertisers for revenue. Second, it has managed to get people to pay for online content. In addition, the publication is 49% owned by the journalists on staff, most of whom moved from Dennik SME, with the other 51% belonging to private investors who have no editorial control.

Fila, the CEO, writes blog posts that update readers and the public on revenues, profits, new products, and strategic plans, with a transparency that is unusual among media companies. In January 2019, he reported that the company had recorded its first profit, US$300,000, on the strength of digital subscriptions (Fila, 2019a). 

Although he did not give a revenue figure, we can infer the main source of revenues from the lowest digital subscription price of US$5.20 monthly and 32,000 subscribers at year-end 2018: that works out to about US$2 million. Dennik N does have a daily print edition, but its circulation is limited to just a few thousand copies. 

Innovative service
The publication’s subscription platform has been enough of a success that Google has given three grants totaling US$340,000 to further develop it as an open-source tool for use by other publications. The tool helps publications identify which users are most likely to become subscribers so that they can target their marketing efforts. It also makes it much easier for journalists to interact directly with users who visit and comment on their stories. 

Impact: external recognition
Dennik N won four awards in the national journalism competition of 2018. It also won an award for its secondary school educational handbook, the VIA BONA Award as a fair player in the market. (Fila, 2019b). 

Dennik N’s rapid growth to profitability is remarkable in any context, but especially in a region where the democratic values it attempts to uphold are under attack, and where the development of digital revenue for news publications is something of a novelty. It has used both traditional media (books) and digital media (podcasts) to advance its impact and reach. 

Atlatszo, Hungary, atlatszo.hu

Founded: 2011
Journalists/total employees: 10/14
Revenues: US$400,000
Funding sources: 62% micro-donations and 1% tax contributions, 34% grants, 4% other
Subscribers/members: 3,000 monthly donors
Content: investigative journalism
Reach: average of 661,000 visits a month; social media followers: 98,000 on Facebook, 14,200 on Twitter, 3,900 on Instagram

Unlike the two previous examples from this region, Atlatszo (it means transparent in Hungarian) is a small non-profit, but its investigative stories and graphics of money flows have been re-published by many other media in Europe and around the globe. It exemplifies a business model whose proliferation has accelerated with the trend away from market-financed journalism to a public-service model in which journalism is, in economic terms, a public good. 

This tiny organization, with10 full-time journalists and four managers, describes itself as a watchdog and center for investigative journalism that aims “to promote transparency, accountability, and freedom of information in Hungary” (2018 Annual Report, p. 1). 

Atlatszo ranks 13th in popularity among news websites in Hungary, and 9% of internet users visit it at least weekly, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2018 (p. 85). The report notes that Hungary’s internet users rank their news media near the bottom in terms of trustworthiness (35th of 37 countries studied) with only 29% agreeing with the statement that they trust most of the news most of the time. Media outlets deemed least trustworthy included pro-government outlets. 

Atlatszo reported that its articles were referred to at least 3,500 times in 2018 by other Hungarian media outlets. SimilarWeb.com showed Atlatszo with average monthly visits of 661,000 over the previous six months.

Atlatszo’s total revenues of US$400,000 includes just over 60% from micro-donations and the 1% of income tax that payers can donate to a nonprofit, according to its annual report. The biggest single donor is the Open Society Foundations of George Soros, which donated US$48,000 (Annual Report, p. 22).

International recognition
Atlatszo reported that its investigation of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s use of a private jet was quoted widely in the international media, including by Agence France-Presse, Die Presse, Kurier, Der Standard, Der Spiegel, Jutarnijin Croatia, and the Irish Times. The publication also did an in-depth investigation of how much the Hungarian government was spending on propaganda. Its stories and infographics were quoted by the New York Times, the Financial Times, Polish channel TVN24, and the Global Investigative Journalism Network (Annual Report, p. 6).

Among its awards are: Breaking Borders Award – 2012, sponsored by Global Voices and Google; European Citizen Prize – 2014, European Parliament; Freedom of Expression Award – 2015, Index on Censorship (UK);  Theodor Heuss Medaille – 2015, Theodor-Heuss-Stiftung (DE); SozialMarie Prize – 2016, Unruhe Privatstiftung (AT); Soma Award for Investigative Journalism – 2018, Transparency International Magyarország (Annual Report, pp. 23-24). 

The impact of this small organization, in the face of strong opposition from the government, is notable. Atlatszo demonstrates that an organization with a clear focus on its mission, in this case being a corruption watchdog and advocate for freedom of expression, can have national and international impact. The fact that has managed to be part of the national and international media conversation demonstrates a model that can be imitated when certain legal, business, and technical structures are in place. Hungary has relatively high internet penetration of 81%, its banking system allows micro donations by credit card and the 1% optional donation by taxpayers, and its legal system nominally protects freedom of the press. Hungary’s membership in the European Union also creates a legal umbrella with certain benefits. 

OCCRP, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, global, occrp.org

Founded: 2006
Journalists/total employees: 23/28
Revenues: US$4.5 million (2017)
Funding sources: 51% grants, 44% USAid, 5% individual donors and services
Subscribers/members: not applicable
Content: investigative journalism, databases on millions of individuals and companies
Reach: average of 254,000 visits a month; social media followers: 43,000 on Twitter, 61,000 on Facebook, and 479 on Instagram. 

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) epitomizes one of the most important new business models for quality journalism in the digital age –collaborative investigative journalism. OCCRP was launched in 2006 by Paul Radu in Romania and Drew Sullivan in Bosnia-Herzegovina with a focus on exposing corruption in Central and Eastern Europe. “Because police do not cross borders, journalism is the only natural global enemy of corruption,” according to the group’s website.

In its 2017 annual report, the OCCRP described its “Russian Laundromat” investigation: “an immense financial fraud scheme” that allowed Russian oligarchs and business people to move $20 billion in illicit funds out of Russia to European and Western banks (p. 30). The architects of the operation, some with ties to Vladimir Putin, bribed officials and exploited the Moldovan legal system to move the money. OCCRP and the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta built a database of some 70,000 banking transactions and shared it with dozens of reporters around the world who then tracked the money locally. The investigation has since led to at least one arrest and to banks being closed down in Great Britain, one of the destination countries of the laundered money (Harding, 2018). 

The organization’s Investigative Dashboard (ID) has a research team of six that assists journalists who have specific queries about people or businesses they are investigating. The researchers are skilled in reading financials and cross-referencing names in social media to verify identities and locations. OCCRP assisted two money laundering investigations with its data tools in 2017. One in Azerbaijan analyzed some 200,000 banking records, and another in South Africa amassed thousands of documents related to the country’s most powerful business family. 

OCCRP has developed a data search engine, Investigative Dashboard Search (IDS), that covers over 100 million companies, people, and source documents that investigative journalists can access to develop their work (Annual Report, 2017, pp. 47-49). The organization lists 28 staff on its website, 23 of them with journalism roles, some of whom have full-time jobs in other media and some of whom are free-lance. 

Today OCCRP connects hundreds of journalists, 45 non-profit investigative centers, and several major regional news organizations across 34 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The organization’s objective is to expose corruption and abuse of power that robs people of their freedom and resources. 

The organization publishes its own investigations on its website as well as those of its member organizations. In 2019, it had 43,000 followers on Twitter, 61,000 on Facebook, and 479 on Instagram. Similarweb in April 2019 showed OCCRP with average monthly visits of 254,000 over the previous six months.

Investigative journalism takes time and money, and it has often been the first victim of budget cuts by media that have seen their advertising revenues plummet in recent years. In addition to being expensive, investigative reporting is risky. It exposes corruption and holds powerful people to account, which often results in attempts by the powerful to silence the journalists and their organizations, even to the point of violence and murder. Investigative journalism organizations like OCCRP spread the cost and the risk. An exposé like the Panama Papers, in which OCCRP was a key player, published simultaneously in dozens of different countries and media, cannot be suppressed or ignored. 

Of its US$4.5 million in revenues in 2017, OCCRP got US$2.3 million from foundations, with the largest share coming from Open Society Foundation grants. It received another US$2 million from the U.S. State Department (Annual Report 2017, p. 72-75). The Swiss government and Knight Foundation in the U.S. were other major donors. The Google Digital News Initiative contributed $470,000 over two years for development of tools to make data accessible to journalists. 

The organization’s annual report is filled with examples of impact of specific stories and offers this summary information from its members’ work:
  • More than 20 major sackings, including a president, a prime minister, and CEOs of major international corporations
  • Nearly $5 billion in assets frozen or seized by governments 
  • 1,400 company closures, indictments, and court decisions
  • 100 criminal investigations and government inquiries launched as a result of its investigations
Its investigations and those of its network were recognized by 14 major awards from organizations that support quality journalism, freedom of expression, and social justice. In one of them, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network was recognized for its report revealing an illicit flow of €1.2 billion in arms from Central and Eastern Europe to the Middle East. “The weapons flow was financed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey, and systematically diverted to extremist groups, including the Islamic State” (p. 56). 

OCCRP’s investigations show why it exists. Individual countries’ law enforcement and regulatory agencies have difficulty cooperating across borders, a weakness that criminals and corrupt authorities exploit. It has developed expertise in computer-assisted collection and analysis of huge quantities of data and documents, which allows it to identify patterns with a speed that would be impossible to do manually. All of these investigations are in the public interest in that they identify how public money and public resources are being diverted into the hands of people and organizations whose goal is personal profit and benefit. 

Juzne vesti, Serbia, juznevesti.com
Founded: 2009
Journalists/total employees: 8/20
Revenues: $500,000 
Funding sources: mainly grants, some advertising
Subscribers/members: none
Content: local news of Southern Serbia
Reach: average of 489,000 monthly visits; Social media followers: 145,000 on Facebook, 12,000 on Twitter

Juzne vesti (literally, “southern news”) is an online daily news site published in Serbian. Its team of 20 journalists (eight of them full-time) focuses on southern Serbia and has published investigations that revealed potential conflicts of interest and abuse of power by authorities. 

Editor-in-Chief Predrag Blagojević puts his faith in the value of providing local news relevant to the community and in holding powerful people accountable. However, one can’t help detect a tone of discouragement in the interview he gave recently to Santa-Wood (2019, pp. 55-61). 

Blagojevic’s discouragement is understandable. The environment for sustaining independent media became much more hostile in Serbia in the past two years, according to the Media Sustainability Index 2018, which analyzes 21 countries in Eurasia. Serbia scored a 1.46 on a 4-point scale, and had declined drastically from two years earlier. “Among the factors feeding this spiral are: media content is more polarized now than at any time in almost 20 years; an increase in fake news; editorial pressure on media; and a poor overall economic operating environment” (IREX, p. ix). The Media Sustainability Index is sponsored by USAid, a U.S. government agency, and produced by IREX, a non-profit humanitarian development organization.

In addition, Serbian citizens do not trust traditional media, according to the European Broadcasting Union’s annual survey from 2017. Serbian media rank the lowest among all 33 polled countries, both EU members and EU candidates (IREX, p. 124). Worse than distrust, the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia reported 83 incidents involving journalists, including six physical assaults, two attacks on property, 54 instances of pressure, and 21 verbal threats (IREX, p. x). 

Despite the negative environment, Juzne vesti was cited in the Sustainability Index as one of the media organizations in the country producing professional quality investigative work (IREX, p. 122). 

Blagojevic has noticed that local media outlets often report politicians’ statements or press releases without fact-checking. For example, when Aleksandar Vučić, then Serbian prime minister and now president, came to open a factory in the region, most headlines simply reported that fact. Blagojevic, however, went to the event and saw that the factory was completely empty. Juzne vesti’s headline, by contrast with other media, said, “Prime Minister opens empty factory” (Santa-Wood, p. 59). Another recent Juzne vesti investigation showed that a local mayor was planning to channel a $60 million government contract for public transportation to a particular company, an illegal conflict of interest under Serbian law. Despite the publication of the story, no action was taken against the mayor (p. 59).

Serbia has a population of 7 million. Similar Web shows Juznevesti.com with average monthly visits of 489,000 in the past six months.

Juzne vesti reports annual revenues of $500,000, much of that from grants: National Endowment for Democracy, the Partnership for Transparency Fund, European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, SIDA (Sweden), and Open Society Foundations. It also sells advertising and has received two small government grants of a type available to all media for stories of public interest. 

In an email interview with Breiner, Blagojević said Juzne vesti has received a number of awards for its work: Annual Award for professional integrity and journalistic excellence "Katarina Preradovic" ("Katarina Preradovic" foundation) - 2018; Annual journalism Award for professional courage "Stanislav Marinkovic" ("Danas" daily) - 2018; National journalism Award for ethics and courage "Dušan Bogavac" (IJAS) - 2013; Annual “Walker” award for civic activism (CSO Proactiv) - 2012; National journalism Investigative journalism award (IJAS) - 2010.

Juzne vesti would not be able to survive without outside grants and support. It is an example of the kind of public service journalism that does not necessarily have a value in the commercial information marketplace. The quality of its journalism is validated by the organizations that support it: all of them fund media that promote free speech and democratic values. Those messages are even more critical in an information environment that has become a battleground between the authoritarian traditions of the old Eastern bloc and those of the EU and the West.  

Western Europe region

The examples chosen for this section reflect five distinct media markets. Although all of them are part of the European Union and the euro zone, their market dynamics reflect differences in language, culture, history, and politics. What they share in the EU, however, is a tradition of democratic values –free speech, free people, social inclusion, social justice, and rule of law.

Our hypothesis is that news organizations are turning toward users rather than advertisers as the main subsidy for quality journalism. It is worth pointing out that some of the countries with the lowest levels of trust in the media also have low levels of payment for online news. In the Reuters Digital News Report 2018 (p. 23), the European countries with the lowest percentages of payments, from lowest to highest, were Greece, Croatia, the UK, Bulgaria, Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria. Of those, all had trust levels below 42% of respondents in the 2018 Reuters report (p. 17), except for Germany (50%). Again, media markets are very different in each country and other factors can affect the tendency to pay for online news:  the strength of public media (UK), the wealth of a country, the tradition of paying for subscriptions (Nordic countries), and the financial strength of a country’s traditional media (Germany). 

Mediapart, France, mediapart.fr

Founded: 2008
Journalists/total employees: 48/87
Revenues: US$16.2 million
Funding sources: digital subscriptions, no ads
Subscribers/members: 150,000
Content: politics, economy, investigative journalism
Reach: average of 10.4 million monthly visits; social media followers: 2.4 million on Twitter, 1.05 million on Facebook, 110,000 on Instagram

The French digital news startup Mediapart's five founders  —well known journalists from the venerable publications Le Monde and Libération— defied the conventional wisdom of the time when it launched in 2008.
The media industry graveyard was already littered with examples of failed subscription models for online news. And, what’s more, investigative journalism was seen not as a commercially viable product in itself but one that needed to be subsidized by advertisers interested in being associated with news of celebrities, sport, and entertainment. 

It turns out that the conventional wisdom was wrong on several counts. Mediapart has succeeded, and in its success are some of the elements that others have also used to establish successful business models for quality journalism. First of all, it was totally online, which reduced or eliminated most of the production and distribution costs of traditional news media. Second, it accepted no advertising in order to maintain its independence from outside interests. And third, as Wagemans et al. detailed in their article about the launch, the startup team included experienced journalists whose social capital attracted investment (2016). 

Mediapart is the 12th most popular online news source in France, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, with 7% of users visiting at least once a week. It also ranked ninth in trust with a score of 5.89 on a scale of 10 among people who have heard of it, and even higher, 7.46, among those who use it. The trust level is notable, given that French media consumers rank among the lowest in trust, 29th of 37 countries around the world (p. 79.) According to SimilarWeb.com, Mediapart averaged 10.4 million visits a month over the previous six months. 

The founders raised about US$4 million in initial capital, US$2 million of which was their own money. Two outside investors, Doxa and Ecofinance, each invested about US$700,000. Another 40 people invested between US$7,000 and US$70,000 each, for another US$700,000.

The reputations of the founders and their networks were the social capital that attracted investment. Their reputations also helped attract a team of 25 reporters willing to take the risk on a venture many predicted would fail. The subscription-only digital publication has continued to grow and prosper. It accepts no advertising. Its slogan for potential subscribers is “choose independence!”. 
Co-founder and president Edwy Plenel, in his 2018 report to the public, said Mediapart had grown to 150,000 subscribers, with 87 employees (48 journalists), US$16.2 million in revenues and US$2.3 million in profit (Plenel). An annual subscription costs US$130. Out of 212 news organizations in Europe and the U.S. studied by the Reuters Institute in its Pay Models for Online News in the U.S. and Europe: 2019 Update, Mediapart was one of just two digital-born, digital-only news organizations with a hard paywall. The other was the UK’s Independent (Simon and Graves, p. 3). 

Mediapart marked its 10th anniversary in 2018 “on the day that former President Nicolas Sarkozy was taken into custody over allegations that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had funded his 2007 election campaign. Those allegations had first been published by Mediapart six years earlier, in 2012” (Reuters 2018, p. 78).

Mediapart’s success formula has lessons for others. It investigates topics that traditional media won’t touch for fear of angering sources and advertisers, thereby reinforcing its credibility with users. It seeks to inspire trust through transparency in its detailed annual financial report to the public. Plenel emphasizes the importance of the organization’s relationship with readers in generating loyalty: “Mediapart’s originality is founded on a special relationship with its readers, who are active parties in its ecosystem, being free to write and contribute to it, managing blogs which are not filtered by our editorial team nor automatically subject to moderation” (Annual Report, 2018). In other words, it doesn’t preach to its readers but engages them in conversation. 

De Correspondent, the Netherlands, decorrespondent.nl

Founded: 2013
Journalists/total employees: 28/56
Revenues: US$5.5 million (2017) operations; US$2.6 million 2018 campaign for English edition
Funding sources: subscribers, grants
Subscribers/members: 60,000 to Dutch edition; 47,000 to English edition
Content: long-form journalism, the meaning of the news
Reach: average of 779,000 monthly visits; social media followers: 212,000 on Facebook, 184,000 on Twitter, 14,700 on LinkedIn, 17,500 on Instagram, 2,500 on YouTube, 456 on Vimeo
De Correspondent, a Dutch-language online journalism platform that offers background, analysis, and investigative reporting, launched in the fall of 2013 after raising US$1.7 million from 19,000 people in what was then a world record in crowd-funding for a media organization (Pfauth, 2015). As with Mediapart, its founders were well-known journalists. 

Their value proposition was that they would deliver in-depth reporting and news analysis unconnected to political ideology, and they would seek no advertising in order to maintain editorial independence. They would not report breaking news but what was behind the news. 

Editor Ernst-Jan Pfauth said one of the secrets for activating this network of Dutch citizens was to start a movement, not a publication. "We told our audience that we wanted to start a publication that would serve as their daily antidote to the hypes of the day. A publication that ignores what happens only today and focuses instead on the things that happen every day. We promised our readers that we’d help them understand the world around them better” (Pfauth, 2015).

Given that De Correspondent is published in Dutch, in a country with a population of 17 million, its market penetration is remarkable. Its reach is limited by language and geography. As Filloux pointed out (2017), if De Correspondent had been in the U.S., it would have circulation of 1 million, based on its market penetration. According to SimilarWeb.com, De Correspondent averaged 779,000 visits a month over six months. 

By 2017, De Correspondent had more than 60,000 members paying 60 euros for a yearly membership, plus revenue from book publishing, events, and other activities to generate an estimated US$5.65 million in annual revenue at the time to fund a staff of 46, 23 of them writers (Filloux, 2017). 

Global English edition
De Correspondent’s managers saw potential in exporting their journalism model to the world with an English language edition. The idea for The Correspondent was born. The organization launched a fund-raising campaign at the end of 2018 and received pledges of US$2.6 million from 46,000 people from over 130 countries to launch this global edition. 

De Correspondent has always prided itself on transparency and honesty about its work and ownership, but it was forced to apologize after contributors criticized the fund-raising campaign for saying the funds would establish a New York office when it was later decided to keep the English headquarters in Amsterdam. In any case, the English edition is supposed to launch in late 2019. The publication had a staff of 56 by the end of 2018 and was hiring new people.

Consumers in the Netherlands are among the most trusting in news media, ranking third among the 37 countries polled by Reuters in 2018 –59% agreed with the statement that they trusted most of the news most of the time. De Correspondent ranked 12th in trust among Dutch news organizations, with a score of 5.97 out of 10 among people who have heard of it and 6.9 among people who use it (Reuters 2018, p. 91). 

Not every aspect every of De Correspondent’s success could be imitated by other media. The Netherlands is a prosperous country with a well educated population that has the motivation and the means to pay for another source of information. At the same time, its success in building a paying audience would indicate that it has delivered on its promises and has engaged its audience with news and information that is relevant to their daily lives. That model of providing trustworthy news that is unavailable anywhere else could be imitated and refined elsewhere.

Eldiario.es, Spain, eldiario.es

Founded: 2012
Journalists/total employees: 73/98
Revenues: US$7.3 million
Funding sources: 60% advertising, 39% membership, 1% other 
Subscribers/members: 34,000
Content: investigations, politics, business, power, influence
Reach: average of 31.8 million visits a month; social media followers: 526,000 on Facebook, 984,000 on Twitter, 57,000 on YouTube

This digital news startup shares some aspects with De Correspondent and Mediapart. Like those organizations, it had a charismatic founder who was the main activator of social capital – Ignacio Escolar. He had worked in television and as the founding editor of the daily newspaper Publico. A big difference from the other two is that eldiario.es accepts advertising.

eldiario.es has specialized in investigating corruption at the highest levels of business and politics in Spain. Escolar reported that the number of socios increased by nearly 50% in one year on the strength of its investigation into the awarding of fraudulent master’s degrees to several leading members of the Partido Popular by a complicit public university. The stories ultimately led the president of the Madrid region to resign (El Pais English, 2018).

It was the fourth-most popular online news brand in Spain, with 18% of the public visiting at least once a week (Reuters Digital News Report 2018, p. 103). The websites of newspapers El Pais and El Mundo ranked 1 and 2, and another digital startup, ElConfidencial.com, ranked third. The fact that two digital startups can compete online with the top newspaper brands suggests both weakness in the traditional media in Spain and strength in the startups. Also in the Reuters report, Eldiario.es ranked fifth in trust  (6.99 out of 10 among its users) and El Confidencial ranked sixth (6.76). Again, the ratings of these startups is remarkable. Spain has a trust rating of 44% in the Reuters survey, down 7 percentage points from the previous year, and ranked in the middle of the 37 countries measured.  According to Similar Web eldiario.es averaged 31.8 million visits a month over the previous six months.

Escolar and a handful of other independent-minded journalists left Publico and launched eldiario.es in 2012 with 400,000 euros in cash (roughly US$500,000 at the time). Escolar decided to start with a small staff and grow organically as revenue increased. Eldiario.es is owned by the journalists themselves, who have been re-investing profits in growth, new hires, increased salaries, and equipment upgrades, as he described in a letter to readers (Escolar, 2019). The publication is debt-free and thus independent of banks and special interests, he said.

The publication generates a third of its revenue from its 34,000  “socios” or partners. It is free and available to everyone online, but the socios, who pay €60 a year (roughly US$70), get access to some stories a few hours ahead of everyone else as well as ad-free pages, discounts, and invitations to events. "And they allow us to remain independent," Escolar said. No advertiser generates more than the socios

The socios program is remarkable -again, they pay for a free publication- given the reputation of Spanish consumers as being reluctant to pay for news and entertainment. In the Reuters survey, 11% had paid for online news in the previous year. 

Total revenues for eldiario.es in 2018 were US$7.3 million, a 35% increase over the year before, with the socios representing about a third of that total. Although advertising brings in more than the user revenue, no single advertiser comes close to bringing in what these partners do, so none has enough leverage to influence editorial decisions, Escolar has said. 

Escolar has made transparency about ownership --70 percent of the shares are in the hands of journalists working on the publication-- and finances a selling point. This kind of transparency is a model that could be imitated by other media as a way of building trust with the public. It also inspires trust in the business acumen of the managers of the publication. Escolar has said, “Journalism is not a business; it’s a public service. But it’s a public service that has to be profitable”. 

Eldiario.es has led the news media with reporting on several important cases of corruption. It broke the story of the “tarjetas black”, or credit cards issued to some 86 board members of Caja Madrid, a savings and loan company later taken over by Bankia, that were fraudulently used for personal expenses. This banking organization eventually required a €22.4 billion taxpayer funded bailout (El Pais English, 2017). Rodrigo Rato, director of the bank at the time, is now in prison. 

The example of eldiario.es shows there is an appetite for news and information that holds the powerful accountable, and that the trust this creates for the media brand can be monetized,even in a market like Spain’s, where consumers have been shown to be reluctant to pay for news. 

Perspective Daily, Germany, perspective-daily.de

Founded: 2015
Journalists/total employees: 8/25
Revenues: US$1 million 
Funding sources: memberships, no ads
Subscribers/members: 14,000
Content: constructive journalism, science, environment
Reach: average of 113,000 visits a month; social media followers: 6,900 on Twitter, 49,400 on Facebook, 5,700 on Instagram, 826 on YouTube, 

The relative strength of Germany’s traditional media compared to other countries has made them somewhat less affected by the digital disruption. At the same time, several interesting digital media have emerged. One notable example, Perspective Daily, was founded in 2015 by two young German neuroscientists, Maren Urner and Han Langeslag, who had no journalism experience. However, they were disturbed by all the scientific articles pointing out the problems of pollution and climate change, for example, without providing solutions. They proposed solutions-oriented journalism focused on science that was aimed at solving problems (Del Peon).

Perspective Daily publishes one article a day of "constructive journalism" that acknowledges problems such as air and water pollution but provides links and explanations to studies that show how these problems can be mitigated or solved. The full-time staff is eight authors plus a network of dozens of freelance writers, designers, developers, interns, and people “who help us with anything else”, according to their website.

Given the fact that it publishes in German about scientific studies and technology, the potential audience is limited by language and subject matter. SimilarWeb.com shows that 98% of its audience comes from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The website averaged 113,000 visits a month over the previous six months. 

They got started with a grant from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy and launched a crowdfunding campaign in which they attracted 12,000 founding members who contributed about US$550,000. The publication has no advertising. The site now has more than 14,000 “members” who pay about US$71 a year, or they can buy a monthly subscription for US$8.85. Although Perspective Daily doesn’t report its revenues on its website, they can be inferred by multiplying the number of members times the lower subscription price –at least US$1 million in round numbers.
Members can share articles freely with non-members, which extends the reach. 
The publication, based in Munster, is independent, not part of any larger publishing group. 

If nothing else, Perspective Daily provoked an outpouring of debate and discussion about what constitutes science and what meets the standards of scientific inquiry, to judge by some of the 59 articles referenced in the German Wikipedia entry about the publication.

The lesson from this publication is that there are many unfilled niches in the journalism market for quality news and information, even when it is produced by non-traditional journalists on a topic that usually is treated only in academic or technical circles. 

Apache, Belgium, apache.be
Founded: 2010
Journalists/total employees: 10/13
Revenues: undisclosed
Funding sources: cooperative shareholders, subscribers, no ads
Subscribers/members: 1,000 shareholders
Content: investigative journalism
Reach: average of 155,000 visits a month; social media followers: 33,500 on Facebook, 18,800 on Twitter, 1,600 on Instagram

This small website in Antwerp, Belgium, which publishes in Dutch, began as a non-profit in 2009 but found that unsustainable. It switched to a cooperative model owned by its journalists and other investors. 

The organization describes itself as progressive, with the mission of playing the role of the Fourth Estate and holding the powerful accountable. The staff of 10 includes seven full-time journalists, assisted by a network of free-lancers, plus three people in sales and administration.  Apache describes itself as an independent news site that “gives a voice to people who don't have one. Our investigative journalists take the time to expose what goes wrong. At Apache you can read what everyone should know.” It specializes in investigations of real estate and land development deals involving public bodies. It shows the connections between people and organizations that might not be readily apparent. (The name was inspired by the group of artists and intellectuals that surrounded Maurice Ravel in the Paris of the Belle Epoque.)

SimilarWeb.com showed that Apache averaged 155,000 visits a month over the previous six months.

Apache’s business model, a cooperative, is unusual. The publication is ad-free; the founders wanted to maintain independence from the pressure that advertisers can have on the editorial product, co-founder Bram Souffreau told journalism.co.uk (Albeanu, 2017). The co-operative has about 1,000 shareholders and generates revenues from subscriptions as well. There are three levels of co-owner, according to the company website:
  • US$59 euros buys one share, a 20% discount on a subscription, and one vote at the annual meeting to appoint the board of directors
  • A “win-win loan” of US$5,900 gets all the above plus a return of 1.5% annually
  • A “win-win loan” of US$11,800 gets all the above plus a return of 1.7% annually
Members (subscribers) pay from US$94 to US$127 a year, depending on whether they commit for a year, a quarter or a month. Members can read all the articles and archives, share them with friends, and receive discounts on events and e-books. A lifetime membership costs US$2,950.

Apache revealed a connection between a real estate developer and Bart De Wever, leader of Flanders’ largest party, the centre-right NVAA. The developer sued for slander, but journalists and academics strongly reacted against what they saw as an intimidation attempt. Mr De Wever called Apache ‘a slanderous medium’ (Reuters Digital News Report 2017, p. 58).

Apache has survived for 10 years and has managed to stay true to its mission of public service with this cooperative model, and it has done so without advertising or government contributions. It is a model that might work for organizations in countries with the right legal and regulatory structures.  

Latin American region

There are 20 countries in Latin America, counting Brazil, spread over a vast, difficult geography from Mexico in the north to the tip of Cape Horn in the south. While these countries share some heritage in culture, language, history, and politics, they also have developed distinct characteristics in their legal and political systems that affect how news media operate. 

All of them have felt the impact of their powerful neighbor to the north, the United States, especially since the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. Latin America became a battleground between the US, which favored business-friendly governments that permitted capitalist investment, and the Soviet Union, which promoted left-leaning socialist governments. The conflict was often violent. The U.S. backed right-wing paramilitary groups and military takeovers of leftist governments, while the Soviets encouraged leftist rebels and revolutionary groups to rise up against right-wing dictators. 

It has been difficult to develop quality journalism in Latin America. In general, traditional news media throughout the region have tended to be concentrated in the hands of powerful families and political groups that mutually reinforce and promote each other. Governments use advertising as a way to reward friendly media and punish the opposition. With few potential advertisers willing to support journalism that holds the powerful to account, quality journalism lives a precarious existence, as detailed by Marquez-Ramirez and Guerrero (2017, pp. 43-58). In this environment, most major media are “captured”, that is they serve political and business interests rather than the public at large. 

In response to this suffocating media environment, the past decade has seen a flourishing of new independent media born on the internet. Inflection Point, a 2017 study of 100 digital media startups in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, depicted media founders who shared a desire to be independent of the powers that be and to produce news and information that might improve the quality of life in their communities. These media showed that even a small, determined group of journalists, using free or inexpensive digital tools, could produce content that set the news agenda, attracted national and international attention, and provoked change in society. It also found that most of them had weak business models that made their survival precarious. Meanwhile, their revelations of corruption in government and business made them subject to threats, cyberattacks, and violence, including dozens of murders of crusading journalists (Warner and Iastrebner, 2017, pp. 6-11). 

Several of the best examples of digital media startups follow what is technically a for-profit model, although they all receive assistance from foundations, NGOs, and agencies of foreign governments. They could not survive without grants.

El Faro, El Salvador, elfaro.net
Founded: 1998
Journalists/total employees: 22/30
Revenues: $1.1 million (2018)
Funding sources: grants 63%, ads and sponsors 18%, events and workshops 12%, other 7% 
Subscribers/members: 900 crowdfunding donors  
Content: investigative, long-form, podcasts, videos
Reach: average of 233,000 monthly visits; social media followers: 419,00 on Twitter, 401,000 on Facebook, 14,200 on YouTube

The oldest digital pure player in Latin America that is still publishing is El Faro (literally, “the lighthouse”). Journalist Carlos Dada and businessman Jorge Siman launched the publication online in 1998 because they didn’t have enough money to publish in print (Breiner, 2009). Their goal was to produce independent journalism that they did not see being produced in their country. For the first five years, they invested a total of $25,000 for equipment and digital services, but no one took a salary. All the journalists and editors were volunteers. In 2005, they had advertising revenue of $10,000. By 2008 that figure had grown to $65,000 on total revenues of $200,000, with most of the rest coming from foreign NGOs and foundations.

Its current director, Jose Luis Sanz, told Nafria (2018a, p. 24) that the organization currently has 22 journalists, 30 employees overall. The organization has expanded its offerings into an online TV channel and online radio. It also created an online database of each of the members of congress, with information about each member’s income, wealth, and votes on key issues.

In a country with a population of only 6.4 million, El Faro has extremely high penetration. It has 419,00 followers on Twitter, 401,000 on Facebook, and 14,200 on its YouTube channel. SimilarWeb shows El Faro with an average of 233,000 visits a month over the previous six months.

According to the organization’s website, 63% of its revenues come from foreign NGOs (they list three: Open Society Foundations, Hivos of the Netherlands, and Heinrich Boll Stiftung of Germany), 18% from advertising and sponsorships, 12% from events and workshops, and the rest from crowdfunding, sale of content to other media, and royalties from books and documentary films. 

Sanz said the organization’s 2018 budget was US$1.1 million, up 16% from the previous year. In 2015, El Faro launched a crowdfunding campaign in which they asked readers anywhere in the world for small economic contributions to help sustain the project. In its first two years, nearly 900 people contributed US$57,000, which has been used to produce more than 50 journalistic projects (Nafria, 2018a, pp. 25-26)

Meanwhile, they regularly produced groundbreaking investigations. In 2010, Dada tracked down and interviewed one of the anti-communist military men who participated in the gunning down of the archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Anulfo Romero, while he was saying mass. For more than 30 years, mystery had surrounded the guilty parties of the assassination of the archbishop, a human rights activist opposed to the right-wing government. Dada’s article, “This is how we killed Monsignor Romero”, generated 1 million page views for El Faro in March that year (Breiner, 2010). Pope Francis canonized Romero as a martyr and saint in 2018.

El Faro became a beacon for independent journalism internationally as well. In 2016, its journalists collaborated with the New York Times on an investigation of the gangs of El Salvador, which The Times ran on its front page (Nafria, 2018a, p.22). In 2017, it worked with the Spanish language television network Univision to produce a bilingual four-part multimedia report on Central American migrants (Nafria, 2018a, p. 23). 

El Faro’s ability to produce impactful journalism on the international stage, and to innovate with data and multimedia platforms and distribution, make it attractive to international donors. Its longevity of two decades suggests that its managers understand how to navigate the rather capricious world of funding from grants and donations. While it is getting most of its revenue from non-commercial sources, it appears likely to continue being sustainable, at least on some level.

La Silla Vacia, Colombia, lasillavacia.com

Founded: 2009
Journalists/total employees: 20/22
Revenues: US$639,000 (2018)
Funding sources: content sales 16.5%, sponsorships 21.5%, events and workshops 13%, advertising 7%, crowdfunding 7%, grants 35%
Subscribers/members: 900 Super Amigos
Content: investigative, in-depth, data visualization
Reach: average of 891,000 monthly visits; social media followers: 1.2 million on Twitter, 254,000 on Facebook, 24,900 on YouTube

Juanita Leon had a distinguished career as an investigative journalist and a Harvard Nieman Fellowship under her belt by the time she founded the news website La Silla Vacia in 2009. From the beginning, her idea was to track how political and economic power were exercised in Colombia. Ten years later, it is one of the most influential publications in the country. It has developed a business model that many others are trying to imitate.

La Silla Vacia has a staff of 20 journalists with two people in administration and sales. Over the years, the organization has added local coverage of five regions of the country. Among Latin American startups, it is a leader in the use of data to create informational maps and graphics to track the connections among the powerful and the flow of money to political parties and institutions. 
Rather than just give opinions and promote ideology, they seek to “ask questions”, investigate deeply, and reflect “the version closest to the truth” in their reporting, according to their website.

SimilarWeb, the internet measurement service, shows LaSillaVacia.com had a six-month average of 891,000 monthly visitors. It also had 1.2 million followers on Twitter, 254,000 followers on Facebook, and 24,900 subscribers to their YouTube channel. 

Juanita Leon owns 53.5% of La Silla Vacia, her parents own 28.5%, an uncle owns 11%, and two key employees own the other 7%. Leon has tested many types of revenue generation over the years to arrive at the current model which involves a complex mix of advertising, sponsorships, foundation and NGO funding, and crowdfunding. 

The financial reports on its website are a model of transparency. For 2018, it had revenues of US$639,000 and a net of  US$28,000. Of that, 65% came from commercial operations: 16.5% from the sale of its content, 15% from sponsorship of its network of expert contributors, 13% from events and workshops, 7% from advertising, 7% from its “Super Amigos” crowdfunding campaign, and 6.5% from universities that post information about their research. The sponsorships allow organizations to become part of the conversation about politics and power and are a creative way to bring in money that conventional advertising could not. 

The other 35% of revenue came from international foundations and NGOs: 14.5% from Open Society Foundations, 9.5% from the British Embassy, 4% from the Ford Foundation, 4% from the National Endowment for Democracy, 1% from the Natural Resource Governance Institute (U.S. and U.K.), 1% from USAid, and 1% from the Prince Claus Foundation (Netherlands, a prize). 

When asked where they get their national news, 5,000 opinion leaders in Colombia mentioned La Silla Vacia third-most often among all online news sources. When asked where they get their news about Bogota, La Silla Vacia topped the list of digital media, mentioned by 20% of respondents. This is the 10th year of the poll by an opinion research firm, and La Silla Vacia’s ranking has been rising steadily (Cifras y Conceptos, 2018, p. 54). 

La Silla Vacía has received numerous national and international awards for its work, including two from the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation for New Journalism, one in 2016 for their coverage of government peace negotiations with the FARC rebel group, and in 2013 for their multimedia coverage of victims of the Civil War. 

Animal Politico, Mexico, animalpolitico.com

Founded: 2009
Journalists/total employees: 26/27
Revenues: undisclosed
Funding sources: ads 45%, grants 25%, training 15%, consulting 10%, reader donations 5%
Content: investigative, long-form, fact-checking
Reach: average of 2.8 million visits monthly; social media followers: 2 million on Twitter, 1.3 million on Facebook, 34,000 on YouTube, 54,000 on Instagram

This digital media startup launched on Twitter in 2009 and existed only on the social media platform for a year while its founders tested the concept of a serious news product aimed at young people. Its co-founder, Daniel Eilemberg, said that the goal was to test ideas, language, tone, and topics to see what kind of product would resonate with this demographic group, which paid no attention to traditional media (Breiner, 2014). After a year of testing, they launched online, and now Animal Politico is the leading digital news startup in Mexico in terms of audience.  

It specializes in investigative stories about corruption in the country’s political class.
As part of its “Master Fraud” project, Animal Politico published its findings in a comic book format with graphics and charts to make the information easier to understand. In addition to its investigative stories, Animal Politico does fact-checking of public statements by politicians and others in its Sabueso (“bloodhound”) section. 

According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2018, Animal Politico is the fifth most popular online brand in Mexico, with 22% of internet users consulting it at least once a week (p. 122). (It is a measure of the strength of digital media in Mexico that another independent news outlet that specializes in investigative journalism, Aristegui Noticias, shares the top ranking with the daily newspaper El Universal, with 37% of users consulting it once a week.)
Animal Politico had an average of 2.8 million visits a month over six months; it has 2 million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million on Facebook.

According to its website, Animal Politico generates 45% percent of its revenues from advertising, 25% from grants, 15% from training media and civil society groups, 10% from consulting, and 5% from reader donations. In 2017 it received a grant of US$80,000 from the Open Society Foundations, US$90,000 from the Ford Foundation, and US$85,000 from the Kellogg Foundation (Flannery, 2019, p. 110).

The publication has never turned a profit. Part of the problem, according to co-founder and editor-in-chief Daniel Moreno, is that advertisers do not like their messages to be associated with news of corruption and influence peddling. “It’s been hard to convince the private sector to buy ads in digital media, especially political media”, Moreno has said (Flannery, 2019, p. 110). One solution was to create a separate food and dining website, Animal Gourmet, to attract advertisers who otherwise wouldn’t have come to the publication. 

In 2018, Animal Politico became part of Grupo Editorial Criterio, which publishes the magazine Newsweek en Español and operates several newspapers in the country. The terms of this merger were not disclosed. “The objective is to take advantage of the commercial strength of a well-positioned traditional media outlet and at the same time to take advantage of new channels to disseminate content” (Lopez Linares, 2018, p. 73).

One of the major projects undertaken by Animal Politico involved using a database of hundreds of companies doing business with the state of Veracruz. Their investigation, done in collaboration with Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity, resulted in the 2017 publication “The Master Fraud”, which showed how the governor and dozens of associates used a network of fictitious companies, public universities, and other government entities to divert $400 million to themselves. Javier Duarte, the governor at the time, has since been imprisoned (Animal Politico, 2017). That investigation won Spain’s prestigious Ortega y Gasset journalism award in 2018 for best investigative story of the year. 

JOTA, Brazil, jota.info

Founded: 2014
Journalists/total employees: 25/38
Revenues: $2 million (2018)
Funding sources: metered paywall, mainly subscriptions, no ads, a few grants
Subscribers/members: 4,000 individuals, 200 companies
Content: niche content on the justice system, taxes, congress, health agencies, mergers and acquisitions
Reach: average of 980,000 monthly visits; social media followers: 189,000 on Twitter, 156,000 on Facebook, 29,700 on LinkedIn, 28,800 on Instagram

In 2014, two prominent Brazilian journalists, Felipe Seligman and Felipe Recondo, recognized that many lawyers and others working in the legal arena wanted more information than they could get from mainstream media outlets. So they tested their ideas for a time on Twitter, raised about US$200,000 from family and friends, and launched JOTA, a website designed to fill that niche. They started with five journalists (Nafria, 2017, p.2).

JOTA’s website says its mission is “to make Brazilian institutions more predictable”. (“Jota” is the letter J in Portuguese and was chosen to stand for “justicia”, or justice, and “jornalismo”, journalism). It declares itself to be “guided by the public interest, a commitment to ethics and impartiality” with the goal of being “the most useful, relevant, influential, and trustworthy source of information about power in Brazil”. 

This website is aimed especially at lawyers, business people, government officials, and others who are affected by Brazil’s complex justice system. It is an example of a highly targeted niche publication that produces information unavailable anywhere else. The business model is almost entirely funded by users and includes no traditional advertising.

Although JOTA has a paywall, some of its content is free for all internet users. The audience for the non-paywall part of its website includes many lawyers, law students, and journalists. The site averages 980,000 monthly visits; social media followers: 189,000 on Twitter, 156,000 on Facebook, 29,700 on LinkedIn, and 28,800 on Instagram. 

The site has a paywall and the main revenue source is subscriptions to all the site’s content or to specific verticals. The first vertical to launch dealt with taxes. Now the site has verticals dealing with mergers and acquisitions, government health-care agencies, and votes in the congress. The site became profitable in 2015.

Subscriptions cost from 200 to 200,000 reals a year (about US$50 to US$50,000) depending on whether they are for individuals or companies. In late 2018 the site had about 4,000 individual and 200 company subscriptions, including 30 banks. JOTA expected to have revenue of about $2 million for 2018 (Schiffrin, 2019, p. 145).

The publication also received money from Google to produce one article each week related to freedom of information, and the Open Society Foundations paid them for coverage of the UN Millennium Development Goal on justice. (Schiffrin, 2019, p. 145).

Seligman described the impact of JOTA this way: “We focus on our mission which is bringing transparency and predictability to help people make wiser decisions than if we were not there . . . if people pay for the news it means it’s having an impact. “If people say, ‘we need your service and we need your information,’ then that’s impact” (p. 146). 

Chequeado, Argentina, chequeado.com 

Founded: 2010
Journalists/total employees: 21/26
Revenues: $1 million (est. 2019)
Funding sources: grants 37%, sponsorships from businesses 39%, training 19%, individual donations 5%
Crowdfunding: about 350 individual donors
Content: fact-checking, algorithm-driven monitoring of public discourse, multimedia training in media literacy, gamification
Reach: average of 645,000 monthly visits; social media followers: 229,000 on Twitter, 74,000 on Facebook, 481 subscribers on YouTube

The quantity of misinformation and disinformation available to internet users in Argentina troubled three professionals –Jose Alberto Bekinschtein, an economist, Julio Aranovich, a physicist, and Roberto Lugo, a chemist. 

In 2011, they decided to do something about it and launched the Public Voice Foundation for the Verification of Public Discourse/Chequeado, a non-profit, non-partisan organization. According to its website, the mission of the foundation, whose main project is the fact-checking site Chequeado, is to improve the quality of public debate and strengthen democracy in Argentina and the world. “Our vision is that public debate be based more in data and facts than opinions, prejudices, and biases.” Among their objectives are to “raise the cost of lying”, promote citizen participation in the production of contents and monitoring of public discourse, and to develop innovative use of new technologies in journalistic coverage.

Chequeado has experimented with many different forms of media literacy training, including games, videos, animated GIFs, and interactive public events. One of their innovations is an algorithm-driven fact-checking robot they call Chequeabot that each day scans about 30 media outlets for comments about particular public issues that people are debating. Once a week the staff chooses one of these issues that perhaps has not been covered and investigates it. In this way, they automate a process that would take a person a great deal of time (Nafria, 2018b, p. 18). 

Chequeado provides a detailed list of all its contributors each year on its website and had a budget of 46 million Argentine pesos for 2019, or just over $1 million. It has four main sources of income: grants 37%, sponsorships from businesses 39%, training 19%, individual donations 5%. It has about 350 individual donors. 

Laura Zommer, a journalist and lawyer, joined Chequeado in 2012 as executive director and editor. She began immediately to develop her young team in the discipline of verification of information and transparency in their methodology (Nafria, 2018b, p. 17.) 

In 2015, Chequeado became the first media organization in the world to offer live fact-checking during a political debate. “With a team of trusted experts on hand, and reams of research on each candidate’s platform, the small team at Chequeado verified all the candidates’ statements in real time” (Warner & Iastrebner, 2017, p. 21). Soon after, The Guardian in the U.K. and PolitiFact in the U.S. replicated their model. “Chequeado also broke the story about President Macri’s failure to report assets from eight of his businesses on required financial disclosure documents”, and other national media followed up on the story, according to their website. Chequeado has also multiplied its impact by training the personnel of 20 organizations in 15 countries throughout the region.

Chequeado has won more than a dozen national and international awards for its work. It won the Innovation in Journalism award from the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation for New Journalism, and three times it has won the Investigative Journalism Award from the Argentine Journalism Forum. Fact-checking falls squarely in the category of public service journalism, which makes it difficult to monetize as a commercial product. 

United States

This is by far the world’s largest media market by revenues, and its business model has been more driven by the market than by public service. Partly for this reason, the news industry in the U.S. was thrown into turmoil earlier by the digital disruption than in other countries. 

In just over a decade after the digital disruption began in 2006, U.S. newsrooms lost 27,000 jobs, or nearly a quarter of the total, mainly at newspapers, which tend to be the biggest producers of local news, according to Pew Research (Grieco, 2018). 
In that same period, 2006-2017, newspaper advertising revenue fell from its peak of $49 billion to $16 billion, a decline of 67%, a sign to even the most optimistic publishers that their business model was broken.

Meanwhile, daily newspaper circulation dropped 40% to 31 million as newspapers increased subscription prices to offset the loss of ad revenue and readers turned increasingly to free online content (Pew Research, Newspapers Fact Sheet 2018). All these tendencies demonstrate how the news industry in the U.S. followed the market model rather than the public service model for financing its operations. 

The Wall Street Journal took an in-depth look at the industry and produced a series of interactive graphics that demonstrated some trends and relevant statistics. 
  • Google and Facebook suck up 77% of the digital advertising revenue in local markets
  • 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018; 200 counties have no newspaper 
  • Paywalls cited as successes convert small percentages of readers to paying subscribers: Wall Street Journal converts 4.5%, New York Times 3.6%, Boston Globe just over 2%, and Washington Post just under 2%
  • From 2010 to 2015, foundations gave $80.1 million to local nonprofit news outlets, less than one one-hundredth of the $8.3 billion in revenue that newspapers lost during that time. (Hagey et al., 2019)

The decline in the quantity and quality of local news has alarmed citizens and institutions alike who are worried about its implications for democratic participation and oversight of local authorities. In reporting on a $300 million commitment by the Knight Foundation to improving local news in the U.S., Nieman Lab provided an extensive list of foundations, industry organizations, and wealthy individuals who have joined to reverse this worrying trend (Hazard Owen, 2019).
Much has been written about the successes of three general interest newspapers with global brands –the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian in the U.K.– in shifting their business models from print to digital revenue, and from advertising to predominantly user revenue. While these global brands can show us a lot about how organizations with hundreds of journalists and significant financial resources can make the digital transition, not all of the lessons learned can be applied to small, local news organizations.

The Wall Street Journal’s analysis included stories of paywalls and digital transition failing at the Dallas Morning News, the Reading (Pa.) Eagle, Seattle Times, and the local newspapers bought by financial guru Warren Buffett starting in 2011 (Hagey et al., 2019). It could have mentioned many more.

The future of quality journalism in the U.S. will depend on the news media industry’s ability to shift from a market-driven model to one that blends with a public service model. The examples we have chosen for this section demonstrate tactics and strategies that could be adopted by others. 

Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, berkshireeagle.com 

Founded: 1892
Journalists/total employees: 60/190
Revenues: undisclosed
Funding sources: ads, print and digital subscriptions
Subscribers/members: 15,000 print daily, 4,000 digital only
Content: general local, tourism app, podcasts
Reach: 506,000 average monthly visits; social media followers: 42,000 on Facebook, 18,200 on Twitter

In 2016, a group of four civic minded people in largely rural Western Massachusetts put their considerable resources together and bought their local newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, from a corporate group that had cut staff and coverage in the name of profit. Newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor saw it as part of a small but growing trend of newspapers being sold to “private, wealthy, and often sheltering hands” who intended to restore strong local news coverage. He mentioned examples in Salt Lake City, Utah, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. Indeed, the community-spirited new owners of the Eagle were talking about restoring jobs that had been outsourced to the corporate owner, Digital First Media (Doctor, 2016).

Frederic D. Rutberg, the president of the new ownership group, said in a message to readers that the business plan was to improve the quality and quantity of the content, to increase subscriptions, and ensure the future of the publications. The Eagle is the largest paper in a group of four, including three in Vermont, that were part of the purchase – two dailies, the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner, and the weekly Manchester Journal. The area is in the Berkshire Mountains, beyond the reach of media in Boston to the east or Albany, capital of New York state, to the west. 

The focus remains local news. The paper has increased its coverage of elections, culture, and local sports. It has also added a podcast that covers the stories of immigrants to the area. 

In a May 2019 email interview with Breiner, Rutberg said the paper had nearly 4,000 digital-only subscribers in addition to the 15,000 daily print subscribers. The newspaper, based in Pittsfield, Mass., has the advantage of including in its circulation area the town of Stockbridge, where many wealthy New Englanders and New Yorkers have summer homes. These people could afford a digital subscription and might want one to stay informed when not vacationing in the Berkshires.

Almost two years after the purchase, Shan Wang of Nieman Lab, who grew up in the area, took a look at how the new owners were doing (2018). Her research question was, can a local newspaper be revived by replacing a chain owner and becoming truly local again? She found that the new owners and managers had added back staff and were up to 40 journalists, 60 when the three Vermont papers were included. It had added a metered paywall that allowed a user to read three articles before having to pay for a digital edition, $13 a month, which includes the Sunday print edition. 

The newspaper has bulked up its reporting staff and now has an investigative team. They did a series of articles on the mistreatment of residents at a local nursing home, which has led to the suspension of the home’s license. The paper attracted national attention with its extensive coverage of the controversy over the local Berkshire Museum’s plan to finance its renovation by selling off some artworks, including some by the famed local painter Norman Rockwell. This coverage won an award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, which recognizes the best work of newspapers regardless of size. Their investigative report on “the costly, steady ruin of bridges in Berkshire County” also was recognized by the Press Association.

The newspaper group’s board members and executives have done extensive grassroots marketing at meetings throughout the circulation area. Although the Eagle’s board does not release financial results, Rutberg said via email that the investors remain “very patient.” If elements of their model prove commercially successful, the Eagle could be an example to other communities in the U.S. that have seen local coverage decline under corporate owners. 

Talking Points Memo, Washington and New York, talkingpointsmemo.com

Founded: 2003
Journalists/total employees: 15/22
Revenues: $2.6 million est. (2018) 
Funding sources: subscriptions 50%, advertising, events
Subscribers/members: freemium model, 26,000 at $50 a year
Content: politics, lobbying, influence, crowd-sourced investigations
Reach: 7.9 million average monthly visits; social media followers: 278,000 on Twitter, 381,000 on Facebook, 6,800 on Instagram
Josh Marshall, the founder and now editor and publisher, was a journalist for the progressive magazine American Prospect for several years before launching a blog in 2000 and then the website, Talking Points Memo, in 2003. 
Talking Points Memo, with a base in New York and a bureau in Washington, is known for its investigations of the kinds of insider deals and negotiations that take place in the political and economic power centers of the U.S. On their website they describe themselves as “the pioneer of iterative journalism, which draws on readers’ knowledge to break stories”. It was “the first web-native news organization to win the George Polk Award for Journalism in 2007 for coverage of the U.S. Attorney Firing Scandal”.
Talking Points Memo has experimented with other products and formats that didn’t work out, according to Marshall. Many of the recent fads aimed at generating revenue, such as creating videos and content specifically for Facebook, end up delivering little to publishers and more to Facebook. For a time, TPM offered long-form journalism, but other media were better at it and had more resources to do it, Marshall said in a podcast interview with Digiday Editor Brian Morrissey (Sangal, 2018b). In the end, they decided to offer a premium product that went deeper into what they already covering –the story behind the story.

The site is popular. It draws 7.9 million average monthly visits and has big followings on Twitter (278,000) and Facebook (381,000). Marshall believes the key to sustainability is not going for scale but rather building a strong relationship with the audience. Talking Points Memo makes a point of building its reporting on reader tips and suggestions. That relationship can then be monetized. He told Morrissey that many of those paying for the premium product do so to support the publication’s mission of independent journalism that draws on readers’ knowledge to break stories.
The site has a commercial model that has transitioned from mainly advertising to mainly premium subscriptions. Marshall said the publication has some friends and family investors but he maintains complete editorial control. The operation is profitable: “It’s independent, so it has to be,” he said. (Sangal, 2018b).
Subscriptions have grown gradually in an organic process over six years. The premium product has 26,000 subscribers who are paying $50 a year, which represents just over half the revenue of the publication. Doing the math, that represents about $1.3 million in revenue. 
Talking Points Memo’s notable impact was in 2007, when its investigative stories led to the resignation of George W. Bush’s attorney general. Since then it has competed successfully in an extremely crowded market for political news and information in the U.S. and has managed to develop enough user loyalty and credibility to monetize an audience with independent journalism. 

Texas Tribune, Austin, Texas, texastribune.org 
Founded: 2009
Journalists/total employees: 40/68
Revenues: $9.1 million
Funding sources: 25% foundations, 24% individuals, 19% website sponsorship, 18% events, 10% membership, 5% earned
Subscribers/members: 6,053
Content: public policy, politics, government and statewide issues
Reach: average of 1.9 million monthly visits; social media followers: 121,000 on Facebook, 193,000 on Twitter. 

The Texas Tribune is based in the state capital of Austin, Texas, which is also the home of the University of Texas, a public university with 52,000 students. Texas is one of the largest states in the U.S. in terms of area, population, and economy. 

The Tribune, now in its 10th year, grew out of conversations between investor John Thornton, who was concerned about the decline of quantity and quality of local news coverage, and Evan Smith, a magazine publisher and editor, who shared that concern. Thornton got the Tribune started with a $1 million grant that helped attract other funding. Smith, CEO of the Tribune, has directed the online publication’s steady growth in staff size, revenues, product offerings, and impact (Batsell, 2015).

The publication does in-depth reporting, supplemented by databases, graphics, and maps, on issues such as the public water supply, the quality of public schools, state employee salaries, the justice system, state prisons and prisoners, oil and gas wells, and many other topics. 

According to SimilarWeb.com, the Tribune averaged 1.9 million visits a month over six months, counting desktop and mobile devices. It also shared its content in 2018 with some 60 other national and local media organizations, including Time Magazine, ProPublica, Nexstar, the Huffington Post’s Highline, NBC and MSNBC, NPR’s 1A, Community Impact, KXAN, and the Austin American-Statesman (Annual Report 2018, p. 6).

The Tribune’s 2018 revenues totaled $9.1 million, up 18% from a year earlier. Its annual Texas Tribune Festival and other events have generated revenues of $1.6 million. The membership revenue grew by a third and the number of members grew to 6,000 in 2018. The breakdown of revenues from all sources was: 25% from foundations, 24% from individuals, 19% from website sponsorship, 18% from events, 10% from members, and 5% from various services.
The Tribune is widely discussed and held out as a model of how nonprofit, nonpartisan public service journalism can be made sustainable with multiple revenue sources. Smith is a tireless marketer who has figured out how to monetize the social capital created by a publication that serves the public interest. Batsell (2015) has described the origin and growth of the publication well. It is a story of developing news products and services that respond to the issues on the minds of Texas citizens. 

The Tribune connects with its audience and finds out what’s on their minds by holding more than 60 town-hall style meetings and debates around the state in partnership with community organizations. These events are free, but businesses and organizations can pay to have visibility at the events as sponsors. 
The Tribune has won dozens of awards in its short life. Its 2018 report singled out some notable projects: a months-long investigation revealed that the number of women dying during or after pregnancy was increasing in Texas; its affordable housing investigation showed how powerful state lawmakers, city officials and neighborhood activists have made housing harder to find for the poorest Texans; and an investigation into an unprecedented oil drilling boom that was great for business was transforming West Texas with air and water pollution (pp. 8-9). The investigation and publication were done in collaboration with Public Integrity, the Associated Press, and Newsy. 

ProPublica, New York and Washington, propublica.org

Founded: 2008
Journalists/total employees: 75/120
Revenues: $26.5 million (2018)
Funding sources: mainly grants, 11,000 individual donors
Subscribers/members: 140,000 free email subscribers
Content: investigative journalism in the public interest 
Reach: averages 3.7 million monthly visits; social media followers: 790,000 on Twitter, 427,000 on Facebook, 22,000 on YouTube

Paul Steiger was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal when some friends of his, Herb and Marion Sandler, the owners of a successful savings and loan company, told him they wanted to make a contribution to investigative journalism, which they saw as a big need, given newsroom cutbacks around the country. They asked Steiger's advice about how to do it. Steiger literally did a "back of the envelope" estimate on one of his wife’s envelopes of what it would take to organize an investigative journalism team. The Sandlers were impressed and asked him if he would launch it. Steiger said yes, if they could wait a year for him to hit mandatory retirement age from the Wall Street Journal (Breiner, 2016). So began ProPublica in 2008. The Sandlers made a long-term pledge to donate $30 million, $10 million a year over three years.

ProPublica’s goal then and now has been “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform”.

In a Report to Stakeholders (2019, pp. 6-9), ProPublica gave 16 specific examples of articles and projects that “spurred a host of real-world changes, including the reversal of President Donald Trump’s migrant family separation policy; the first federal legislation in decades addressing maternal deaths; the end of a Facebook practice that facilitated discrimination; and the resignation of leaders from a troubled children’s charity operating in Liberia”.
It has expanded its data analysis team that processes huge databases to detect patterns of abusive law enforcement. For example, ProPublica Illinois and radio station WBEZ in Chicago produced a series of stories examining 54 million parking tickets issued since 1996 and how selective enforcement led to punitive collection measures in black neighborhoods. The project led to reforms to the city’s ticketing system. 
ProPublica has been expanding its impact across the country by partnering with other news organizations. In 2018, they worked with 28, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR News, Frontline, Time, Univision, Atlantic, Newsday, Quartz, and Reveal (Annual Report, 2018, p. 23).

The organization reported 2018 revenues of $26.5 million, nearly all of that from grants and 29,000 individual donations. 
Since 2008, ProPublica has received five Pulitzer Prizes, seven George Polk Awards, four Peabody Awards, an Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award, two Emmy Awards, four Online Journalism Awards for General Excellence and a National Magazine Award. 

It is perhaps the most outstanding example of how a well-funded nonprofit news organization, with a team of experienced, skilled journalists, can use new technology to bring about positive change in society. The continued support of foundations and individuals is critical because investigative journalism has social value but is not always a commercially viable product. 

The Skimm, New York, theskimm.com
Founded: 2012
Journalists/total employees: 35 est. / 75
Revenues: undisclosed operating revenues; $28 million in angel and venture capital investment
Funding sources: advertising 60%, events, app subscriptions
Subscribers/members: 7 million free email subscribers
Content: news, lifestyle, podcasts, video, calendar aimed at young professional women
Reach: 839,000 average monthly visits; social media followers: 1.16 million on Facebook, 640,000 on Instagram, 247,000 on Twitter 
The Skimm’s main news product is a free daily email newsletter that has more than 7 million subscribers, the vast majority of them women aged roughly 20 to 35. And while the product has been criticized by some as frivolous in its treatment of news, The Skimm also drove a campaign to get 100,000 people to pledge to vote in the 2018 mid-term elections (Sangal, 2018a). The Skimm’s email has the ability to create a direct, unmediated personal connection with its users and develop loyalty that can be monetized in various ways. 
The founders, two former television news producers, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, wanted to create a product that would help women like themselves –young, career-oriented, well educated– start their day informed about the most important news as well as the topics people would be talking about at work. They saw it as a substitute for morning TV news. They have since branched out into podcasts, videos, and a calendar app that helps their users organize their personal and professional lives. 

The Skimm’s audience was built organically in the beginning. The founders distributed fliers on university campuses and at women’s events around New York City. The Skimm’s combination of news aggregation presented with commentary in a conversational, often humorous style caught on immediately with young women. The founders also engaged their early audience members to recruit other users and rewarded them with gifts and recognition as Skimm’bassadors (Sangal, 2018a). Since then, they have used some of the early investment money to market the newsletter.
The Skimm’s loyal, engaged audience and revenue growth have attracted several rounds of investors, who have put $28 million into the company. Investors include Google Ventures and 21st Century Fox (Kafka, 2018). The Skimm’s founders place a high value on their users’ trust and loyalty. Rather than accepting programmatic advertising through ad networks over which they had no control, they promised their sponsors that their message would not appear next to racist, sexist, or other objectionable content. They also promised sponsors to integrate their messages with the publication’s values of trust and credibility (Sangal, 2018a). 
The Skimm’s number of email subscribers indicates that their product resonates with young people who might otherwise tune out the news. They take on serious topics such as the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan with in-depth reports in addition to their quick overview of the news of the day. And their “no excuses” campaign to get 100,000 people to pledge to vote shows how it can be a tool to improve democratic participation.


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