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How Nanook’s podcast helped Lithuanians make sense of the pandemic
This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organisations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
In a nutshell
Nanook’s NYLA podcast saw an increase in downloads and Patreon memberships as a result of focusing on expert interviews and increasing reminders to financially support its work.
What is Nanook?
Nanook is a media collective founded in 2014 by Berta Tilmantaitė and Artūras Morozovas as a way to promote multimedia journalism in Lithuania. It focuses on social and cultural issues in the country and has published stories about life in a women’s prison, Lithuanian Paralympians and the mass deportation of Lithuanians during the Second World War. The collective is made up of five core staff members and two regular contributors, who are supported by around a dozen freelance photographers, illustrators, music composers and sound engineers.
Currently, the collective’s main output is a weekly podcast called NYLA, which is billed as “looking for answers in the modern world”. Most episodes are one-on-one conversations with guests although the team also produces topic-based episodes (NYLA Feature) and recorded discussions with an audience (NYLA Live events). Each episode is published alongside a photo essay, some of which are sold online; for example, Nanook’s producer and photographer followed Lithuanian dissident poet Tomas Venclova around Edinburgh, Scotland. Although the podcast is mainly in Lithuanian, it is occasionally recorded in English or Russian, depending on the story and language of the interviewees.
Nanook is registered as a non-profit organisation in Lithuania under the name Dokumedija. In 2019 its total revenue was €75,000; one third came from podcast listeners that support via Patreon, one third came from podcast advertisers and sponsors and one third is made up of partnerships, grants and commissioned work. Over 600 Patreon members currently support Nanook’s work and, since 2017, these listener contributions have accounted for 40% of the podcast’s running costs (€46,000 in total). Nanook’s typical listenership is curious, educated and multilingual Generation Z/Millennials, some of whom live outside Lithuania.
The topics that Nanook covers on the podcast — human rights, politics and culture — means that it often collaborates with NGOs that work in the same space. For example, it partnered with the Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights to produce an episode on the new generation of Lithuanian Roma community. During Baltic Pride, episodes were partially sponsored by the Vilnius Queer Film Festival while an NYLA Live discussion about migration in Lithuania was produced in partnership with Diversity Development Group. Although these collaborations tend to be successful, the team wants to do more work supported directly by listeners.
Since Nanook was founded, media education has been a core goal of the collective. The team works with high schools across Lithuania to help students and teachers understand how journalism works, why ethics is important and what it takes to be a journalist. A recent example of their educational work is Journalism Lab (Žurnalistikos Laboratorija) for which the team is collaborating with Lithuanian Journalism Centre to run five journalism clubs across Lithuania, supported by funding from the US Embassy in the capital Vilnius.
Although Lithuania has enjoyed almost three decades of relatively free media, the future is less clear. The formation of an anti-establishment coalition government has led to greater calls for media regulation and there have also been numerous attempts by the ruling party to curtail freedom of expression and make access to information difficult for journalists, according to Reporters Beyond Borders. A recent survey also shows Lithuanians trust in the media is just 33.8%, below commercial banks and just above the government.
How did Nanook handle the COVID-19 crisis?
NYLA’s podcast during COVID-19 provided in-depth coverage that Lithuanians would otherwise be unable to access in their language. Each week, the producers organised in-depth interviews with experts to cover different aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. The first episode — at a time when there was a lot of confusion about the virus — involved speaking with two scientists working in virology. The presenters also spoke to a psychiatrist about the mental health impact of COVID-19 and, thanks to an introduction from a listener, were able to interview a doctor working on the coronavirus frontlines in a Lithuanian hospital. In another episode, they interviewed Lithuanians in 10 different countries and explored how lockdown measures were being put in place around the world.
The team’s normal process of interviewing guests face-to-face — either at their studio or in their workplaces or homes — proved to be impossible during the lockdown. Instead, they spoke to them remotely from home and communicated with sound engineers and editors via WhatsApp during editing and post-production. Social distancing restrictions meant producing a photo series for each podcast was not possible during this time. However, they did feature photos sent directly from their listeners during the pandemic.
NYLA’s listeners became connectors to potential interviewees during COVID-19. With an active Facebook page, listeners would suggest suitable people for podcast segments and then introduce these potential sources over Facebook or email. Listeners would tell potential interviewees that the NYLA podcast crew could be trusted and help set up the introduction for an interview. This happened in a very organic way and was crucial for NYLA, which had few contacts in the medical world prior to the pandemic. The team feels like they grew closer to their listeners over the last few months.
Due to the financial uncertainty caused by COVID-19, at the end of March, the Nanook team began to increase the number of messages asking readers to support their work. This was mostly via their personal social media profiles although there was a call-to-action at the end of the podcast too. The producer of the podcast wrote on Facebook: “For independent creators and non-profit organisations, such as ours, the current time is a time of uncertainty. That is why it’s beautiful to see that your support for our Patreon campaign didn’t stop and it even got bigger. That’s a true reward for our team.”
Message on Nanook’s Facebook page.
The number of Patreon contributors to the NYLA podcast increased by 18% during the last three months from 443 in January 2020 to 525 in May 2020. The amount of money collected on Patreon before payment processing and platform fees increased by 17% during this period to €2035.77 ($2,295). Nanook has always thanked new Patreon members on its Facebook and Instagram pages and the team have continued this tradition during the last few months.
The comment section of Nanook’s Facebook page.
As well as financial supporters, NYLA also saw a significant boost in the number of listeners since COVID-19 hit. It received a record number of downloads in March — 46,252 — and followed that up with 26,797 in April and 33,734 in May, both far above its average. Between March and May, there has been a 31.8% increase in the number of total downloads compared to the previous three months (December-February). The team hopes this new audience can be convinced to become patrons over the coming months.
How has COVID-19 changed the future of Nanook?
There has been an increase in the number of people supporting community initiatives in Lithuania since COVID-19 struck; for instance, donation drives were organised for essential workers like nurses and teachers. Nanook attributes the boost in Patreon members to this newfound sentiment of goodwill. The team will continue to encourage listeners to join their campaign because they believe that having direct financing from the audience is the best way to stay independent.
Nanook also believes one of the reasons why Patreon memberships grew is that listeners whose cards expired were contacted about updating their information. Podcast host and producer Karolis Vyšniauskas did this personally via Facebook, resulting in 40 newly paying Patreon members. Karolis’ personal outreach was appreciated by listeners, some of whom increased their monthly contribution to make up for months of declined payments.
NYLA has attracted no new sponsors or advertisers since COVID-19 hit. One company decided to pause its advertising during this period, as it seemed irrelevant during the quarantine. One long term sponsor — MailerLite, a Lithuanian email newsletter company — recently came back after a short break in sponsoring the podcast. Nanook reported that advertisers are not necessarily concerned about the number of listeners but want to be associated with the Nanook brand during this time.
The team at Nanook is concerned about the future of education partnerships given schools have been shut since 16 March. While it has a number of ongoing NGO partnerships, it is looking for additional funding to continue this work. For now, finances are less of a concern following the award of a €25,000 grant by the European Journalism COVID-19 Support Fund. This emergency contribution has helped soften the economic blow of the pandemic.
What have they learned?
Image: Karolis Pilypas Liutkevicius
“We were surprised by the generosity people showed by donating to our Patreon account. We know how important it is to have new material ready to go and put that out continually to update our audience. We were reminded of how critical it is to serve your community and understand their needs — especially during a time of such uncertainty. By examining what the gaps are in general media coverage, we sensed in Lithuania that there was a lot of reporting on the virus, but people were still unsure about what was happening — especially at the beginning of the pandemic when there was a lot of uncertainty with an overload of information. We tried to see what was lacking and report on that.”