Struggling to attract subscribers, El Espanol looks to shift tactics

Launched last October, Spain’s first crowdfunded digital-only political journal, El Español, had a mandate to remain independent despite an ambitious growth target: a paying subscriber base of 20,000 readers.

Before the official launch, the publisher was starting slow, posting just two stories a day — explainers and long-form pieces — that would run as long as 5,000 words. Now it publishes around 100 pieces a day from its newsroom of 65 journalists in Madrid, cranking out stories like an explainer of the algorithm that helped make the Facebook Live video of the woman laughing in her Chewbacca mask go viral, and a piece about a group of Spaniards who are offering to fight Islamic extremists — for a monthly fee.

“At the beginning, we promised we’d be independent,” said María Ramírez, who founded the publication with her father, Pedro Ramírez, former founder of Spain’s daily newspaper El Mundo. “So many media companies are under pressure from political parties and government funding. Our signature was that if you were reading something there, it would be relevant and done with care.”

Unlike some of Spain’s legacy print-media companies, El Español has experimented with more formats like 360-degree video, long-form and data-rich journalism. It also offers a more ad-lite experience and, as such, doesn’t have a problem with people blocking ads.

Eight months in, El Español has just over 4 million global monthly uniques, according to comScore. But its subscriber base, at just 13,000, hasn’t grown as quickly. Here are some areas where it is looking to improve.

Offer more value to subscribers
El Español has a soft paywall, making the benefit for paying subscribers hard to see immediately.

For €84 ($93.50) a year, or €10.99 ($12.25) a month, subscribers get access to El Español’s subscriber-only product La Edición, accessed online and through the El Español app. La Edición is meant to give the same experience as a newspaper, it has a beginning and an end, and is broken up into sections. Subscribers get it at 10 p.m. the day before non-subscribers; the latter set has access to 25 monthly articles for free.

Essentially, people are paying to support the cause of funding more longer-form journalism.

“We are having an ongoing debate in the newsroom about separating the content in the app to subscribers and non-subscribers, because subscribers don’t realize they are getting exclusive content,” she said.

Re-connect with its community
El Español built a strong relationship with its community early on. “They believed in our independence and felt a sense of belonging to the community,” said Ramírez. “Back then, we were replying to every message on social media, and people could appreciate that we were listening to them.”

As it has grown, this relationship has weakened, and getting individual reporters to engage with readers on social media is a focus, she said. Like other publications, El Español has found Facebook Live video a useful tool to hand over the direction of the content to viewers, like this video of its reporters interviewing football commentators while playing ping pong, its first foray into Facebook Live video.

Resist temptation of high traffic numbers
At the outset, the plan for El Español was to have a third of its revenue come from subscribers and two-thirds from advertising, but Ramírez said that ad revenue accounts for more than two-thirds of revenue. “Before, we didn’t have so much pressure to publish content,” she said. “We still publish a lot of high-quality content, but when you publish a lot, of course, the quality suffers. It’s tough to pursue growth in both ad and subscriber revenue.”

Ramírez admits it’s easy for a publisher like El Español to fall into this trap of chasing traffic, publishing pieces on celebrity gossip and short how-to articles that are more fit for tabloids. “To grow traffic rapidly, you do things that subscribers and shareholders don’t always appreciate,” she admits.

Instead, it would do well to concentrate on the data-led stories, experimental formats and longer-form pieces that it launched with. El Español’s data-led stories, like this one about the incumbent prime minister “Five graphics Mariano Rajoy doesn’t want you to see” or this on the results of the municipal elections, have had around 200,000 unique users. Elections lend themselves to data visualizations, and with Spain’s re-election due in June 26, Ramírez is focused on how it can use data to present these stories.

More 360-degree videos are also in the cards, particularly around sport and music. Previously, it has run subscriber events in 360-degree video of the Porgy and Bess opera in Madrid Opera House, using Google Cardboard.

“Sometimes you have to be more patient,” said Ramírez.

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