Media & Makers

Roads to a subscription-based model: El País.

The pandemic did not find El País unprepared: the invesment and commitment to data and science journalism paid off, and paved the way to the success of its subscription model.

El País, by the numbers. 

  • El País (Media Group PRISA) is the most read and the most internationally recognized Spanish newspaper.
  • A global outlet, readers and subscribers come from all continents, with a strong footprint in Mexico, Colombia but also Brasil and all other South American countries.
  • With around 3,5 Mio registered users, El País introduced a metered paywall on the 1st May 2020. After the first wave of the pandemic and less than a year, it amassed 90.000 paying subscribers, more than double of the print subscribers. The monthly subscription in Spain costs 10 EUR a month, and it is half of that price

Borja Echevarría, the managing editor of El País, described their road to develop a subscription-based model in a recent webinar hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (17th Feb 2021): you find the recording embedded at the end of this post.

The long road that took to installing a paywall.

The pandemic was unexpected, but it found a road already paved for that in the previous 18 months. El País spent the last two years investing in a registration paywall: launching editorial content and services to get subscribers, like a rich newsletter portfolio. The original plan was to launch the paywall at the begin of 2020, but then the pandemic happened.

Given the circumstances, the decision was to keep all information free for at least a couple of months and help new and old visitors to develop habits. March and April 2020 were the months when El Pais hit its highest traffic ever: over 180 unique browsers a month.

“We thought we could spend those months showing the importance of the journalism we do and I think instead of a traditional marketing campaign the Covid became our best communications and marketing campaign.”, 

Borja Echevarría

The launch of the paywall on the 1st of May was the endpoint of a path where the newspapers launched new services and focused on both science journalism and data-driven, DataViz and scientific journalism.Data journalism and science journalism are not fields where you can improvise.

The pandemic is -by definition- a story that requires data storytelling, visualization and scientific knowledge. In those fields, El País already invested for a long time:

  • 12 science journalists
  • a new data journalist desk launched in the 2H 2019,
  • led by a data designer hired from the WSJ and preparing the ground for an overall shift of El Pais toward data journalism

That investment and commitment – despite the economic crisis of 2008-2012 – paid off in 2020, when people around the world had a thirst for knowledge and understanding, delivered in a comprehensible, compelling way. Now, one year later, we all feel overwhelmed by the data and try to avoid them, but in 2020, 14 of the top 20 most visited pieces by El Pais were data visualizations.

Two of the most popular pieces, syndicated in multiple languages, explained how “Super-spreaders” are responsible for the most infections:

What made the data journalism of El Pais so popular in 2020, is that the newspaper climbed rapidly the learning curve of “pandemic journalism”: as for all media around the world, the very beginning was mostly about crude data, bar charts, daily numbers and new concepts to learn, as the T0 factor. El País coverage evolved – as did also, to mention a couple of brilliant examples, die Zeit in Germany and the Washington Post in the USA – into a format where data where put into a context and made meaningful (note: after all, data journalism is about: data + context = meaning). The format adopted more and more illustrations to explain things that cannot fully be understood if only represented with numbers.

The current challenges.

  • Beyond the organizational silos. It is common to say that, to implement a subscription-based model, you need to break organizational silos to let editorial, tech, product and design working together. But in a newsroom reorganized to work from home, as in all industries, this easier to say that to do. Redesigning the organization and the way to work in a distributed environment is the El País challenge for 2021.
  • Analytics. This is one of the most critical shifts: after years spent to focus on some metrics, you need to define new KPIs, elect new “North Star” metrics, and let all departments embrace them. This involves, beyond mindset and change management, also technical choices to do ref. what analytics tools to adopt.
  • Newsletters. After having developed organically, chance by chance, a rich portfolio of newsletters, now El Pais is hiring a dedicated Newsletter Manager to orient strategically the newsletter development, with the path from newsletter subscriber to paying customers, as the primary compass to decide what and how to launch, and for whom.

Priorities for 2021.

  • REVAMP AND TAKE FORWARD. Redeveloping the El Pais experience with a subscriber-centred approach and a conversion-oriented design.
  • FROM QUANTITY TO QUALITY. Shift away from quantity: that means also removing too many sub-brands and focus solely on the core El Pais brand.
  • EDITORIAL STRATEGY Put in place a dedicated Editorial Strategy Team (3 FTE) whose job is “to stop and think beyond the day-by-day”: dive deep into the audience and content analytics, conduct research, monitor the landscape where El Pais lives and provide a compass.
  • YOUNGER AUDIENCE. Evolve the subscriber base. The first wave of digital subscribers reflected the print subscribers: mostly male, urban, global, however slightly younger than the print cohort. The real long-term challenge is to attract a younger audience. For that, you also need a younger newsroom.

The mission of El País and why it matters for a subscription-based model.

The mission that El Pais pursues is to fight against polarisation and make it the core value proposition to sell to subscribers: to deliver fact-based journalism, not to sell opinions. The world is too much opinionated. For that fact-based proposition, data play a crucial role: data journalism stays at the core of what El Pais produces for its readers. And it fits the global audience the newspaper talks to. The revamp planned for 2021 is one project to stick to your agendas.

Here the webinar video recording: