The three CEOs ‒ Lukáš Fila (Dennik N, Slovakia), James Savage (The Local, Sweden) and Iuliia Bankova (hromadske, Ukraine) ‒ joined The Fix’s first ever media event “Business Unusual” in early May. 

We gathered some of their key insights and advice below. For more information ‒ do watch the whole webinar video. 

Info box:

  • Dennik N a Slovak media outlet founded by a group of journalists in 2014. The media company focused on digital subscriptions from the very beginning and currently has 55,000 paying subscribers. It launched a Czech edition in 2018. CEO: Lukáš Fila
  • The Local is an international media house creating English language media outlets for expat communities in 9 European countries. It relies on a mix of traditional advertising, native ads and digital subscriptions. The latter became a priority vector before the crisis, and has now grown to over 24,000. CEO: James Savage
  • hromadske was launched by a group of Ukrainian journalists amidst a deteriorating media environment prior to the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013. Primarily donor-funded, it has recently made efforts to build sustainable revenues, mostly from special projects and membership.  CEO: Iuliia Bankova

Crisis survival practices

Focus on reader revenue – it will not fail you in times of crisis

Lukáš: “Ad revenue makes us only about 15% of the total. We do a lot of public events — those were canceled. But none of these revenue streams are essential to us, because we are focused on digital subscriptions. And we’ve seen a 10% increase in subscriptions over the last 2 months.”

James: “Historically, we were focused on advertising, primarily native advertising. In 2017, we decided to make our media community-focused, essential to those people we are serving. Before we would give people general news about what’s going on in the country, and now it is very much more focused on what can convert readers to our members. So now we are much more about community building and being explainers for the countries that we are serving.

The shift to the subscription model has probably been a thing that saved us in this crisis. At the very beginning of it, there was a dramatic fall in advertising, so I don’t know where we would be now if not that move towards building a community. What we see now is that 15,000 subscribers in February became 24,000 subscribers in May.”

Iuliia: “We had 75 single donations [in January-February]. Over the last month we gained almost 500 members. More than 30% is recurring monthly payments. We try to get more information about our users, work with analytics, do surveys to learn more about our audience, to keep them.” 

On ideas to retain new readers  

James: “We hope to use this opportunity. We’ve got some people through the door.  They’ve made an initial commitment to us, everyone’s on a recurring plan – that’s the great thing about reader revenue and subscriptions, the default is a recurring plan.

To avoid churn we’re trying to understand as much about our readers as possible. We’re lucky that the readers who joined us in the past couple of months are part of our core target group.

The challenge for us is to expose them to all the things we are doing – they might have discovered us, come to us during this crisis, but we need to show them we are doing much more [than just COVID coverage]. We’re encouraging people to sign up to newsletters, and that’s going very well. We’re also using targeted advertising to showcase a broader range of content.”

Iuliia: “Our marketing team is working on our membership model. There will be some bonuses for people in exchange for their support of our activities. We are discussing partnerships with small businesses to provide our members with discounts. Readers already told us that they’d like to receive a surprise from our team if they support us. Hence, I think it will work.

We want to manage our communication with readers to make it more close and personal. Thus, we have groups where we gather our people and ask them what content they want to see on our YouTube channel and social media platforms.”

On supporting the team in times of crisis

Iuliia: Once a week we have an online meeting where I inform employees about the current situation, tell all the news, answer all the questions. It works. We also have an HR director who has become a psychologist for our employees.”

“We also have an HR director who has become a psychologist for our employees. Twice a week we have a call with him where everyone can talk about their problems and get support or an answer. I think it is important to talk about feelings.”

On market outlook and concerns going forward 

Lukáš: “I have some worries. The 2008 crisis changed media ownership. When the crisis came, many owners started to sell their media houses, and they didn’t care too much to whom they were selling media — it was whoever was offering the most. 

I’m concerned about what this crisis is going to do to the ownership structure of the market presently. It took a lot of time for the Central European market to recover from the last crisis.”

“Another thing I’m afraid of is how publishers are reacting to the situation — if they are focusing enough on innovating and making sure to come out healthy from the crisis. And if there is not too much focus on getting out of this thanks to public money.” 

“If something goes wrong, we can find ourselves on the market that is completely distorted and even more run by people with political and business ties than previously.”

James: “Whether they know it yet or not, for some [of our members] this crisis will impact their income. It might even affect their ability to stay in the country they are living in. If you’re staying in a country for a job, and you lose the job, you may need to move back to your home country.

The scale and depth of this recession that’s coming up will have massive impacts. So we’re doing everything we can to mitigate those kinds of movements. To keep as many readers engaged and so that those who drop off are replaced. 

We’re trying to counteract the fall in the advertising market as best we can. We’re getting our sales team to really mine and find the clients that are still spending – to look for sectors that are doing okay or even benefitting from the crisis.”