In recent years, we have become accustomed to living historical moments more often than usual. Alerts, news shocks and events that no one remembered seeing before. In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic broke out that paralyzed the world, a few days after EL PAÍS announced that it would launch its subscription model. Since then, there has been a long list of these events, ranging from a war in Europe to the eruption of the volcano of La Palma, changes of government in countries such as Chile and Brazil or the death of Isabel II. All of them have been widely covered by the newspaper, not only with journalists on the ground, but with analysis, graphics, videos, podcasts and opinions to help understand their consequences.
With each of these events, the newspaper's subscriber community has grown. On Monday, May 29, after the municipal and regional elections in Spain and coinciding with the announcement of an electoral advance, the newspaper exceeded the figure of 300,000. Of these, more than 264,000 are digital exclusives, 32,000 correspond to the printed edition (which also gives access to the digital option) and about 6,000 to the PDF version of the paper copy.
"What's most exciting is the pace at which subscriber numbers are growing. Not long ago we celebrated 250,000 and today we are at 300,000, which confirms our outstanding leadership in Spain. It's encouraging for quality journalism," says Pepa Bueno. The director of EL PAÍS highlights the importance of independent journalism in the face of the proliferation of hoaxes and disinformation: "It is a very serious problem that infects the entire communication ecosystem. But when it comes to paying, you don't pay massively for propaganda. You have to wonder why so much garbage we receive, supposedly informative, is free. In times of uncertainty, and now we are on the verge of a decisive general election in Spain and in Europe, the 300,000 subscribers tell us that we do useful, committed and plural journalism. No prejudices or obsessions."
For years in the world of media there has been the conviction that the only way to maintain quality and independent journalism is to rely on a community of subscribers. The fall in sales of paper newspapers in newsstands, the emergence of digital platforms and the volatility of advertising revenues do not make possible another model for large-scale newsrooms with a global vocation. The large international newspapers have years of advantage over the Spanish ones, which mostly adopted the payment model around the turn of the decade. Among them, the figure of EL PAÍS stands out, an outstanding leader in a sector that is beginning to notice some stagnation, also due to the economic uncertainty of recent months.
"The consensus is that this year the focus will be on retaining existing subscribers rather than adding new ones," said Nic Newman, author of the Reuters Institute of Journalism (Oxford) report on trends in the media industry for 2023. However, EL PAÍS continues to grow at a pace that accelerated in January 2022 with the change to a freemium model, with a large number of articles that can only be read by subscribers and others that remain open.
Carlos Núñez, president and CEO of EL PAÍS, notes this sustained growth: "Subscription is the central axis of our strategy and EL PAÍS has transferred its incontestable leadership on paper to the digital environment. We are the leading global newspaper in Spanish: we have the highest net subscriber growth by far and with that, we have the largest global base. And we have achieved this in just three years and without yet structurally attacking our American markets. But we are not satisfied. We want to continue learning with and from our readers, better understand what kind of product they demand from EL PAÍS and adapt our offer to their interests, their reading habits and the time they have to inform themselves".
Demanding and engaged readers
The change in model has also changed the role of readers and the community. On the rare occasions that Berna González Harbour is absent from her daily appointment with the readers of the El País morning newsletter—mainly for travel—the newspaper receives a handful of messages asking if she is okay or something is wrong with her. It is a clear symptom of how the historical unidirectionality of the headers towards their readers, who want to be informed, but also to be part of a community that shares and defends values, has been definitively broken. Many times, subscribing is an act of support for major investigations that require investing time and efforts, such as the one that EL PAÍS has been carrying out since 2018 on pedophilia in the Church. The diary of a pedophile priest, which recounts the abuse of minors by the Spanish Jesuit Alfonso Pedrajas in Bolivia, is the article that has generated the most direct subscriptions since the change of model.
Telling what others do not want to be known – investigating and publishing exclusive information – continues to be the main mission of a media like EL PAÍS, which has several delegations in Spain and is expanding its presence in America. But, at a time when part of society accuses the so-called "information fatigue" due to the overabundance of information, especially negative, newspapers have the obligation to help understand the world, to expand their thematic margins and accompany readers in the most everyday aspects. Pepa Bueno defines this breadth of interests and themes as follows: "The general community of readers interested in our global and local issues of politics and economics grows. In the climate crisis or in the advances and setbacks in equality and civil rights. And, at the same time, we see how other small communities are created around specific contents of the newspaper, from science to reading; from education to cooking".
Some of the newspaper's most recent bets respond to these needs, such as the launch of the Health and Wellness or EL PAÍS Gastro sections or the commitment to audiovisual formats, with the podcast Hoy en EL PAÍSat the head. Also the offer of 50 editorial bulletins that cover interests from geopolitics to chess and that are one of the most appreciated products by the community of subscribers: half are signed up for a newsletter and each of them receives an average of four. Subscribers are also looking for a place to go to discover cultural trends and prescription, like those who, year after year, wait for Babelia's list of the best books.
"EL PAÍS has focused on the reader since its foundation. Proof of this is that it was endowed with a Style Book with the intention of being more transparent with the public. With the possibilities of technology, that relationship with the reader, now a subscriber, has been refined to be more direct, "says Soledad Alcaide, Reader Advocate. She receives daily messages (and also complaints) from a community that grows around the world: 20% of the 300,000 subscribers are outside Spain, mainly in America. "They are more critical of the form than the substance. They tend to complain more about errors or errata and access problems, than about the journalism we practice. And yes, the complaint abounds more than the congratulations, although there are also these. We have very demanding readers."