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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
A non-coronavirus news section and a virtual trade union event helped the independent Hungarian media organisation boost website traffic and sustain its donations from readers.
What is Mérce?
Mérce is a reader-financed left-leaning online news portal based in Budapest, Hungary. The site provides openly oppositional, progressive coverage on issues of social justice, inequality, solidarity, and labour rights both in Hungarian and international politics.
The site started in 2008 as a one-person political blog called Kettős Mérce, meaning “double standard”. By 2014, the site had found a significant audience, mainly via Facebook, and developed into a website with a focus on social issues not commonly covered in the Hungarian media. Its name — Mérce — means “standard”. It quickly became well-known for its coverage of live protests, press conferences and other events.
Since October 2017, Mérce has run as a news organisation that has grown from 10 to 17 editorial staff members and over 100 volunteers. These people contribute one or two articles per year, or more regularly if they have time, while others help live-stream demonstrations and protests — particularly those in rural parts of Hungary that are difficult to reach — via Mérce’s Facebook’s page. They also have translators and a lawyer who all work on a pro bono basis. Mérce would not be able to function without the work of these volunteers.
Mérce’s main source of revenue — around 80–90% of its income — is reader donations. Some 1200 monthly donors pay 1000–1400 HUF (€3–4 per month). Other readers donate once or twice a year; the average donation for this group is between 2000–3400 HUF (€6–10 per person) although it can be as high as 35,000 HUF (€100 euros). The organisation has always been wary of pursuing an ad-based revenue model given its volatility and the fact that advertising in Hungary can make organisations vulnerable to government interference. Although Mérce displays digital ads on its website, they are free and reserved for not-for-profit organisations.
In 2018, Mérce conducted a survey of over 1500 donors to understand more about them. It found that readers support their work financially because they find their journalism to be independent and credible and that they share the same progressive worldview. The survey also showed that 40% of their donors had a university degree, while 60% had an average or below-average monthly income. 46% lived in Budapest, 47% from the countryside, and around 7% living abroad. 57% of the respondents were male and 44% were women.
Press freedom has become a major issue in Hungary over the past decade — some 90% of all media is government-controlled in some form. This means that serving government ministers no longer give interviews to independent media and instead focus on state broadcasters and pro-government media. At present, Hungary is ranked 89 in the annual Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 56 in 2013.
On March 30, the Hungarian government passed new legislation that reporters say is being used to deny journalists access to information and could see them jailed for up to five years if convicted. The amount of time to process Freedom of Information (FOI) requests has also been pushed back from 30 to 90 days while the government’s daily COVID-19 press conference has moved online, making it difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or hold the government to account.
How did Mérce handle the COVID-19 crisis?
Mérce sought to provide practical, useful and necessary information about COVID-19. It started a daily roundup article summarising virus developments in Hungary and including key numbers about the death toll, infection rate and testing. The article also includes a short update on any press conferences or government announcements about the lockdown for people that missed them. The roundup summaries have received 100,000 page views per month, which represents 5% of Mèrce’s monthly traffic. So far, the team has written 77 of these summaries.
Its reporting on the crisis has focused on important everyday issues, such as work, housing, food and mental health. The team published a list of community initiatives in Hungary that people can join to receive support and wrote analysis pieces about how unemployed Hungarians were seeking out food delivery jobs to survive and how shopping communities can be solutions to the breakdown of global supply chains. Mèrce also sought to cover the pandemic’s impact on labour rights and the economy in general; including how slow the government has been to process benefit payments for unemployed Hungarians and how Hungary has one of the lowest unemployment payments in the OECD.
In mid-March, Mèrce created a dedicated section on its website for non-coronavirus news. The idea was to provide a space for readers who might be becoming fed up from the overabundance of COVID-19 news. In this new section, the team covered stories about world events, the national news agenda, including issues like housing and the environment, and Hungary’s governmental affairs. Since it was launched, stories in the non-coronavirus news section got the same amount of clicks as the COVID-related news. The team also received a handful of emails from readers who said that they visited Mérce’s website solely to check the non-COVID news.
Non-coronavirus news section on their website.
Although social distancing in Hungary has meant that there have been no protests or demonstrations, Mèrce decided to create their own online event: a virtual Labour Day on 1 May. In cooperation with the three biggest trade union federations in Hungary, the team ran a day-long online programme including three webinars, a documentary screening, trade union presentations and even children’s sessions, featuring authors and a puppeteer. All discussions and webinars ran either on Facebook or YouTube. The live-streamed webinars had 10,000 views on average, according to analytics.
Mérce’s Facebook event on press freedom.
Mérce also published an eight-article series called Solidarity in Crisis with the Solidarity Action Group which sought to explore the epidemic through system-critical glasses and present opportunities for community action. The series included content from the group’s not-for-profit members — including The City for Everyone, Extinction Rebellion Hungary, Women for Each Other Movement, Free Budapest and others — and was supported by a small grant from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
Since COVID-19 hit, Mérce has seen an increase in both page views and visitors — from 1.3 million page views in January and February to 1.7 million page views in March and 2 million in April. April was, in fact, the second-highest month for unique visitors since the team launched the new site in October 2017. This demonstrates the demand for practical, independent information about issues related to COVID-19.
However, this increase in readers has not yet translated into more reader donations. The team suspect the economic impact of COVID-19 on their readers might be the reason for this. Regular donations have remained stable during March and April — 2.4 million HUF per month (€6900) from regular small donors and 802,118 HUF (€2300) from one-off contributions.
How has COVID-19 changed the future of Mérce?
The team plans to scale up virtual discussions in addition to the online events they’ve held during the crisis with Hungary’s civil society organisations. Prior to COVID-19 events tended to drive more readers to donate to Merce. The hope is that online events will encourage their readers to do the same. The team also believes these video discussions are a way to strengthen Mèrce’s brand as a public service media outlet.
Despite the government lifting Budapest’s stay at home orders in mid-May, the team has decided most of them will continue to work remotely, with a maximum of five people in the office on any given day. A spreadsheet is shared amongst the team and they have to check if there is space to come into the office. They’ve also started virtual lunches and other group activities to help colleagues handle the impact of self-isolation. Remote working is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
While no registered media organisations in the country have yet to be sanctioned as a result of the new fake news regulation, Mérce has had to be extra careful with fact-checking before publishing anything related to COVID-19. Several fake news sites have been taken down for spreading false information while over 80 private citizens have had investigations brought against them for “scaremongering” posts published on Facebook.
With 90% of their funds coming via donations from readers, Mérce is not reliant on any advertising to sustain itself. However, the volatility of Hungary’s job market as a result of COVID-19 could potentially have an impact on the organisation’s finances and operations in the future. It will continue to crowdfund to sustain its operations.
What have they learned?
“We have learned how important trust and community is during this pandemic. As we are fully funded by crowdsourcing, our readers are the lifeblood of our publication. In Hungary, the ad market is very much politically controlled. If the government decides that you are not getting more ads, they can just kill you in a matter of weeks. And that’s why we’ve been relying on this donor model. Our readers aren’t just buying information, they are emotionally attached to our brand and are becoming part of our community. Building a community is very important for media organisations because your readers can not only sustain you, but they can also protect you in many respects.”