On July 29th we celebrated 19 years of ZdG and during this time we have had all kinds of excesses: too many threats, too many lawsuits in court, too many corruption cases to investigate, too many requests from readers, too much work, and too much instability in general. But we never had enough money. However, we did not fall, we grew. What is the main lesson and development model for the future?
During these years we had several sources of income, each with advantages, but also with its limitations.
- Subscriptions, the printed edition of ZdG — a financial guarantee
Year after year, the money received from the subscribers of the printed edition of ZdG was enough, as a rule, to cover the expenses of paper and printing. After the outbreak of the Russian war in February 2022, the price of newsprint, but also for electricity and distribution, rose sharply. For our part, we could not increase the price of subscriptions because our subscribers are people from villages with low incomes. So, at the moment we have a 20% shortfall in covering the prices of paper and printing. Even so, newspaper subscribers remain the most conscientious payers for this ZdG service: thousands of people subscribe to our newspaper and transfer the money to us, and we deliver the newspaper to them every Thursday. Of course, the money from subscriptions is not enough to pay salaries and other expenses.
- Crowdfunding: small, monthly payments from people that want to support us. Excellent, but not too much
In June 2023, according to Google Analytics, ZdG had 450,986 readers (unique users) on its website ( www.zdg.md ), this being the average figure in other months as well. Practically all the almost 451 thousand users read the ZdG content for free. Only a few of our loyal readers have decided to support us. On the Patreon page, we have 209 recurring donors, from whom we collected 1309 dollars for June, that is, on average, 111 lei from each patron. It would appear that only 0.05% of www.zdg.md readers pay for the content.
- Online advertising — only 6% of revenue and image problems
In June, ZdG placed 15 advertisements on the website, which brought us 36,087 lei. Some of these ads have been highly contested by our readers who are sensitive to acts of corruption, lack of integrity, and opacity. Some of our readers have told us that they will stop reading us, and some of our patrons have declared that they no longer support us financially. Other readers say they generally don’t like advertising. The 36 thousand lei earned from advertising would be enough to cover the rent of the editorial office for one month.
- Grants — 75% of expenses, but no financial strategy possible
Grants from foreign donors saved us all these years from all risks. But grants are not given without effort, nor without arguments and checks. To manage grants, you need additional people in the team: people to identify grants, prepare files, write project proposals, monitor project activities, and report monthly or quarterly to donors. Some of them require to approve of the topics of the articles and even approve the texts, which also affects the condition of the journalist who is in charge of writing these articles. In addition, you can never make a financial plan based on grants. For example, in June we received two approvals for two grant files submitted in March. And the actual funding of these grants will start in September. Additionally, funders’ frequently asked questions are not just about how the money will be and is spent. The trickiest thing is to answer the question: what have you done to get society to support you and why is the community not supporting you enough?
Conclusions. Imbalances and solutions
After 19 years of effort to finance an investigative journalism platform, we want to thank everyone who supported us, because the result is excellent for everyone: we have become the largest investigative journalism group, we have the most subscribed newspaper in Moldova, the web page is among the most accessed media pages, and the newsroom has grown, developing a service of up-to-the-minute news on corruption, justice, democracy, but also award-winning teams for investigations and narrative, where we publish high-impact stories on corruption and human rights.
Although we believe that all efforts have been justified, for the future we propose to make certain adjustments in our economic strategy. An investigative journalist group cannot live in permanent financial insecurity and fight the corrupt clans, who are very well supported financially.
Grants. We need predictability.
Although we cannot give up grants at this time and we will continue to seek support from the external community, at the moment, as in any year till now, we do not know when and what grant we will get, therefore we are forced to look for predictable sources of income.
Advertising. Ethics and integrity will prevail.
Although throughout the world, newspapers and mass media institutions support themselves through the sale of advertising space, advertising products, services, companies, and politicians, in Moldova the situation is different. Corrupt politicians, harmful businesses, poor quality services, and false messages – all find their way into the advertising space, damaging media consumers, but also trust in journalism and business. During the 19 years, we refused thousands of euros from political and economic entities with integrity problems. Last month, however, we accepted some advertising from a questionable company, and in addition to the several thousand lei received from this company, we had to deal with a wave of criticism from our readers. Healthy and honest businesses have their financial problems and cannot afford large advertising contracts. We plan to run a business and advertising ethics campaign.
Crowdfunding – little for little.
It is a very good form of support, but there are certain difficulties. This model assumes that you have to give your patrons something extra to what you do, give them exclusive content or additional products, so that the person understands that they are getting something extra on top of the content that they all get for free. It’s not a model to reject, but a newsroom that serves the public interest, that is suffocated by requests and makes a lot of difficult content, and does not do very well to provide additional services and content. And then, it enters the phase of asking for support and begging for money, which is not a sustainable strategy. In addition, the pool of recurring donors is quite small in Moldova, the newsrooms that have Patreon accounts do not exceed the number of 300 donors and the amount of USD 1500 per month.
THE SOLUTION: Subscribers – the most reliable source of funding.
They didn’t bring us the most money, but they brought us the most confidence that our work is necessary, useful, impactful, and of public interest. The money from the subscriptions goes to the editorial office without any other conditions, except that we deliver the newspaper on time and in good quality. Subscribers are the healthiest model, they give and receive, and the editorial office gives and receives. We’ll probably adjust the print subscription prices a bit for the next year, but we’ll also develop this subscription model for web page readers, and in the future, we’ll try this model for YouTubers and social media as well.
NEW. Web page subscriptions: half a million read, only 200 paying readers
In June, we had a total of 925 texts on the site (including 288 in Russian), mostly news, but also reports, investigations, editorials, explanatory texts, videos, opinion polls, etc.
Since 209 patrons of ZdG gave us 1309 dollars in June, it would appear that the readers of the site rewarded us with 25 lei per article, and if we take out the taxes, an article is not even equivalent to a loaf of bread. Or, if we divide per employee, it would come back to 900 lei per person, if we take out the taxes – it will suffice only for one visit to the pharmacy.
If the 450,000 information consumers who visit the ZdG website every month would pay one leu each, the editorial effort would be rewarded and the reporters would continue to work happily. But we know that not all 450 thousand readers will pay. Some may not have an extra leu per month, others would rather give up investigations and news about corruption than pay a leu, and the rest will look for free information elsewhere. We respect everyone’s right to information, but we appeal to those who understand the importance of investigative media and have a few lei available every month.
Assuming that one man out of 50 would be willing to pay, we request a monthly fee of 50 lei for site visitors. We will not shut down the site, we will continue to offer as much as we can for people to read for free. But those who want and can are asked to pay a monthly fee of 50 lei. We are launching this model around the 19th anniversary, to make sure that we can continue together what we have built so hard, but also with a lot of support – the largest journalistic investigative group in Moldova.
A subscription is a voluntary payment made by the consumer of information for the newsroom from which they get information. Honest information, lately, since we have security, ecological, health, and democracy crises, is equivalent in importance to water or health services. Without correct information, you can no longer manage in this world full of corrupt, impostors, and manipulators. Without payment for effort, journalism cannot properly respond to citizens’ information needs.