“These are not easy stories to decide to publish. The people who appear in the leaks are quite powerful people, with powerful connections,” Juan Luis Sánchez, deputy editor of Eldiario.es, said. “But we published the stories. It allows us to vow for our independence. Obviously, this caused a very strong reaction. But the reaction from our own community has also been very powerful.”Now among the most popular news sites in Spain, Eldiario.es — which hit over six million unique visitors in December — is a free online publication with a progressive bent whose coverage is focused heavily on politics with reporting on human rights, cultural issues, and the environment. No sports, no celebrity gossip. In addition to daily stories, Eldiario.es has been able to push out multi-platform projects, such as this year-long investigation into migrant deaths on the Moroccan-Spain border and the larger human rights issues highlighted through the incident. There’s room, too, for fun interactives.
Advertising makes up 60 percent of the site’s revenue stream, but another significant portion — around 40 percent — now comes from socios: Partners/members of the site who pay five euros a month (about USD $67.31 per year) for perks such as early preview of stories the night before publication, a special newsletter, access to Eldiario.es reporters, and an ad-free version of the site. (A tiny percentage of the company’s revenue comes from sales of its print quarterly, which is also goes out to paying members.) But the 18,000 or so socios who are part of the Eldiario.es community are primarily paying to support the mission of independent journalism, Sánchez said. And high-profile coverage, such as of the Panama Papers leaks, led to a great uptick of member support.
“In Spain, we’re coming out of a deep economic and media crisis. I came from a newspaper that closed because of the crisis. Maybe an outlet could survive one month after another with money from a person or institutions, but this money was not free money. It is an exchange for some kind of coverage or some kind of silence,” Andrés Gil, the Eldiario.es politics editor who previously worked at a number of traditional publications, said. “The main thing here is that, unlike traditional media companies in Spain that are owned by banks and important companies, we are owned by ourselves and our members. It’s a wall. It’s something that makes you free from these other pressures.”
There were some concerns that the buzz around the site’s founding, in September 2012, would wear off, but the community of paid members has grown steadily each year. Still, Sánchez said, “we have a potential of six million readers. You may not convince all six million people to be your socios, but if you learn more about their interests in public affairs and their thoughts on and reactions to issues in Spain today, you can get closer.”
“This is not about learning about their commercial profiles to sell to advertisers,” he added.
The site has always been profitable, according to founder and director Ignacio Escolar (members get detailed company financial reports twice a year), though the small early team (about a dozen at launch) had to make “many sacrifices.” Eldiario.es now has a staff of more than 50 in its main Madrid newsroom, and has been able to give its journalists steady pay raises. With some funding this year from Google’s Digital News Initiative, it will ramp up its outreach efforts and deepen its coverage in hopes of inching toward those potential millions of paying members.
Eldiario.es is far from the only notable presence in the Spanish digital news space. There’s El Confidencial, which has been around since February of 2001. There’s El Español, which burst onto the scene with an enormous pre-launch crowdfunding push and a famous director. El Español co-founder María Ramírez recently told Journalism.co.uk that the site has seen three times as much traffic as it expected, but has found it more challenging to grow its paying subscriber base (it started with 10,000 subscribers and has 12,000 seven months later). “People in Spain are not used to paying for news, especially online,” she said, “and those who are subscribing are doing so because they associate it with belonging to a community.”
A growing “community” of supporters is precisely what Eldiario.es is banking on for growth. It also maintains a politics-focused channel on chat app Telegram that has about 10,000 subscribers, which allows it to address readers more intimately. It sends out several topical newsletters — on culture and technology, on human rights, on the economy — and asks for subscriber input on coverage areas. Big investigations and scoops are opportunities to launch marketing campaigns to encourage more readers to sign up as socios.
“We try to work in more than one speed: if there’s breaking news, we cover it, we try to be the fastest. Afterwards, we do the context, the analysis, the op-eds. And then there’s part of our newsroom that’s working on tomorrow’s stories, for our members,” Gil said.
“You gain a lot of community by being the fastest, and you gain a lot of different community by trying to be the best in the slower rhythm. We do all the rhythms. We publish daily, but we also have a print monograph,” Sánchez said. “All of that creates community for us. What we don’t do are all those things that a lot of mainstream media end up doing to gain a non-quality audience, just to raise their traffic rankings.”
The majority of the Eldiario.es paying community is from Spain, but through an exclusive agreement with the Guardian starting this past January, it’s been translating and publishing Guardian stories in the site’s new international section. The section comes with a weekly newsletter that so far boasts a few thousand subscribers.
“We are impacting Latin American readers more than we were six months ago, thanks to the agreement,” Sánchez said. “But it’s one thing for someone to be aware of us, and another for them to be willing to pay to support us.”
The site also features plenty of local coverage, thanks to multiple content partnerships with smaller regional outlets. At the very top of the site is a navigation bar with the various regions of Spain — Catalunya, Andalucia, Catabria — that takes readers to these local portals. The content comes from 13 partner sources (who publish directly into the Eldiario.es CMS), such as local news blogs started by journalists who left or were laid off from traditional newspapers. Other content sharing-agreements, including one with a separate podcast team that also shares the Eldiario.es offices, help broaden its scope of coverage.
“I think in Spain now we are the digital newspaper that has the biggest presence across the entire country, and that’s due to cooperation with these different projects,” Sánchez said. “What we do on a national level, they do on a regional or thematic level. It’s a lot of people who are trying to find a new angle, who’ve talked to us and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we share resources?’ Otherwise, it’s a lot of little journalistic projects fighting for survival.”