A year ago, at the beginning of March, EL PAÍS had zero digital subscribers. At the newspaper’s headquarters, work was ongoing to prepare one of the biggest transformations in the history of the company, a change upon which the foundations would be laid for a stable future that would guarantee the profitability of the daily, and as such a boost for independent journalism with a global reach.
It was at that point that the coronavirus pandemic was declared, one of those news stories that will leave a mark on generations. The plans to launch a digital subscription model at EL PAÍS were put on hold until May. Efforts were redirected instead to public service work and to adapting to the circumstances, given that we were forced to work from home like so many other people were. In the case of many journalists, however, that still meant working on the street or from hospitals.
Today, less than 11 months later, EL PAÍS has built a community of more than 100,000 new digital subscribers, who join the 7,918 people who receive the digital version of the newspaper via Kiosko y Más and Kindle, and the 36,657 who subscribe to the physical print edition. In total, there are now 145,000 EL PAÍS subscribers around the globe, a milestone for the Spanish press. (Note: The EL PAÍS English Edition remains free to access.)
Digital subscribers in more than 100 countries
While other sources of income fell as a consequence of Covid-19, and the sale of print copies on the newsstand tumbled due to the strict lockdown in Spain, the newspaper’s most faithful readers responded to EL PAÍS’ initiative. During March and April 2020, all audience records were broken. In the worst moment of the pandemic, 180 million people accessed the newspaper’s website, consuming more than a billion pages in the month of April. In desperate need of trustworthy and useful information, of facts and data, citizens were living their lives glued to their cellphones and computer screens, so that they could understand what was happening in the world, in their countries, and in many cases in their own families.
The permanent link that the newspaper established with its audience was unprecedented. In May, the subscription model was launched and thousands of readers signed up over the subsequent weeks. For the first time, they were paying to read online news stories, opinion columns, features and analysis, making a commitment to EL PAÍS and its project for the future. That’s how the editor-in-chief at the time, Soledad Gallego-Díaz, remembers the course of events. “When I accepted the editorship [in June 2018], we were already conscious that the future of EL PAÍS depended on its subscribers and that this project was going to have to become a reality as quickly as possible. We never had any doubts, neither in the newsroom nor in the company. What no one had expected was to have to get started in the midst of a pandemic and a vicious economic crisis. When we did so, on May 1, with major stories and new formats, we saw the wonderful reaction of the readers. We felt a huge sense of pride and, at the same time, an enormous amount of pressure to maintain these high standards.”
During the subsequent months, the number of digital subscribers has grown and grown. At the time of writing this article, the exact number was 100,475, a figure that exceeds the forecasts that were set out at the time of launch and with few precedents in terms of the rapid growth within the scope of international media outlets. “We are barely getting started with a long-term project, which goes hand-in-hand with the unstoppable process of the digital transformation of the company in all of its areas,” explains Alejandro Martínez Peón, the CEO of EL PAÍS. “The pandemic has accelerated the process and we are going to accompany society and our readers. They are our fundamental guide. The results from these months confirm that we are on the right path for a quality, global daily like EL PAÍS.”
The newspaper market has been immersed in change for 15 years now: the migration of readers from print editions to digital ones, the emergency of smartphones (Apple launched the iPhone on June 29, 2007), the birth of social networks such as Facebook (in September 2006 it was opened up to all internet users), hyperconnectivity and the disappearance of classified ads in newspapers are just some of the factors that have affected the traditional business model in the sector. Apart from a few exceptions, mostly limited to financial media outlets, information on the internet was available for free until around a decade ago. In 2011, it was The New York Times that took a step toward creating a new source of income via a subscription model for its digital content. Later The Washington Post, Le Monde and The Times of London followed suit. In today’s world, any prestigious newspaper that is still completely accessible is the exception. The fact that Google and Facebook have practically monopolized the digital market makes it nearly impossible for major newsrooms to survive solely from advertising revenue alone.
In the Spanish market, El Mundo launched its model in 2019 and on Sunday announced that it had reached 60,000 subscribers, slightly fewer than those of eldiario.es, which counts on around 63,000.
Since May of last year, EL PAÍS readers can access up to 10 articles a month for free, but after that, they must subscribe for complete access to content (with the exception of essential information about Covid-19). During the first weeks, many opted for a monthly subscription, but as renewals have progressed and the months pass, more and more people are opting for a yearly package, a sign of the confidence that readers have in the project. Of the more than 100,000 digital subscribers that the daily now has, a quarter are located outside of Spain, a reflection of EL PAÍS’ position as a global reference point for information in Spanish and a sign of its potential for growth, particularly in Latin America.
Over the last year, the newspaper has continued to work to improve its digital offering: a specific edition for Mexico, new sections covering the climate and the environment, as well as education; newsletters including an advance selection of opinion columns for subscribers and an updated edition for science section Materia; podcasts such as the one covering the so-called “Bankia case;” and projects covering infographics, data and new narratives, all of which have been foundations for the coverage of the coronavirus crisis and which have made our journalism more attractive and accessible to readers.
The current editor-in-chief of EL PAÍS, Javier Moreno, looks to the future with this reflection: “We are going to emerge from this global crisis with a better editorial proposal and a promising business model. The newspaper that we are building together for the coming years should be a witness to, and driver of, the transformation that is on its way. We have a vision for the newspaper. And, fundamentally, we have a vision for society shared with millions of people in Spain and in America.”
English version by Simon Hunter.