Since September 2016, El Diario has been working on a new system for funding journalism, aimed at identifying and reaching out to individual readers or groups of people who could provide financial support for particular stories or areas of coverage.

The project was a recipient of the first round of Google’s Digital News Initiative (DNI) and El Diario has been using the funds to invest in both technology and research to “improve the way we understand our readers so we can offer them better stories and better reasons to fund us”, said deputy editor Juan Luis Sánchez.

The digital-only news outlet was founded in 2012, and currently has more than 70 employees and over 20,000 members or ‘socios‘ who pay €60 (£50) a year to support El Diario’s free journalism. They receive benefits such as a print quarterly magazine, an ad-free version of the website, and access to events and debates with journalists and fellow members.

The reason for applying for a grant to create a new funding platform was that the team “realised we were jeopardising that model” because they lacked the technology required to manage all aspects of the membership system, Sánchez explained.

The first step has been to develop the core of the project, a specialised customer relationship management (CRM) software that connects all the dots involved in getting communities to support El Diario’s coverage through donations or subscriptions.

For example, most of El Diario’s seven million unique users per month are strongly interested in politics, but some of them also come to the website because they care about environmental issues or LGBTQ rights. The aim of the software is to identify who those people are, why they are reading eldiario.es, and provide them with more choices to fund stories related to the ones they are interested in.

“We are using the CRM to do that hidden but very needed job for a system like ours, which is membership and subscription-based.

“The software allows us to manage things like registrations and information about our users and members in order to know them better, trigger campaigns and offer better stories to fund.

“For instance, at the beginning of the project, we lost a lot of money because we didn’t know when the credit cards of our members were going to expire or when they lost them, so there are a lot of tiny things that are very time consuming and not very journalistic, but very important to fund journalism.”

Sánchez said they found there are other CRMs on the market but they are mostly aimed at big companies with businesses based on commercial transactions, as opposed to being media and membership-specific. The data El Diario’s software has about readers is used to understand if an individual is interested in a particular topic, based on how they consume news on the website, the app or through the newsletter.

The system won’t send notifications or messages to readers about each story published on the site, focusing instead on creating communities of interest around certain topics before letting people know they can support El Diario by becoming a member.

“We only do that with people we’ve learned are interested in receiving that message, which can be very specialised to the content they are reading or more general about the independence of El Diario.”

Memberships currently make up 40 per cent of the outlet’s revenue, while the rest is derived from advertising and events. While El Diario cannot afford to “say no to ads”, Sánchez believes the organisation is in a “good position” to experiment with the membership model going forward.

He said people choose to subscribe because El Diario is not affiliated with any of the political powers in Spain, and also because of its commitment to transparency: like other member-supported news outlets, such as De Correspondent, El Diario publishes a breakdown of its revenues twice a year, outlining how much they’ve made and how much they’ve spent on operating costs and salaries. “That transparency is helping to build trust.”

The project is scheduled to be completed in September 2017, and Sánchez said El Diario is hoping to share the technology and findings with other independent media outlets in Spain.

“Since the beginning of El Diario, we knew our main message was about independence and not any content in particular. Our priority with the tool is more about understanding the audience and trying to get them to join in with our mission.”

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