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Retaining Independence and Fighting Lawsuits with a Membership Model

On the money trail: a still from an interactive graphic by DOSSIER, the Austrian nonprofit newsroom. Image: Screenshot

One of the toughest challenges facing independent media outlets today is figuring out how to survive financially — especially when you investigate the powerful.

Earlier this year, Austria-based DOSSIER, a member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (and GIJN), faced serious financial challenges as it battled a lawsuit by OMV, the country’s largest oil and gas company, after reporting on a controversial billion-dollar deal with a major shareholder.

“OMV grabbed the hammer right away,” says Florian Skrabal, editor-in-chief of DOSSIER. “They could have written us a letter about what they perceived as mistakes in our reporting, but they never did that. We kept reporting on them and OMV kept suing us.”

DOSSIER’s legal team characterized OMV’s actions as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” otherwise known as SLAPPs, an increasingly common tactic used by powerful people and corporations to intimidate, silence, and potentially crush journalists and activists. “The amount OMV was seeking was €130,000 ($145,000 USD),” says Skrabal. “The intent was clearly to shut us down, as DOSSIER had a small team of six and a budget of €300,000 at the time.”

As unwelcome as the lawsuits were, they happened to coincide with the launch of DOSSIER’s first membership campaign, where it used email and social media to ask readers for donations over several weeks. In the second week of the campaign, DOSSIER told readers about the OMV lawsuits and the threat they posed.

The response was impressive: 3,000 new DOSSIER members signed up in just 18 days, and the campaign also helped to put public pressure on OMV, which dropped the lawsuits in April of this year.

DOSSIER Editor-in-Chief Florian Skrabal. Image: Screenshot

“The reputational damage to OMV was greater for filing the lawsuits in the first place, regardless of the outcome of the court case,” says Skrabal.

The OMV lawsuits have been just one of multiple financial threats felt by DOSSIER, which also lost a well-paying contract with Austria’s public broadcasting corporation this year after a TV show was unexpectedly canceled.

But thanks to its new membership model, Skrabal believes the independent outlet is now partially immune from the pressure facing other Austrian media outlets — pressure that in many cases has come from the state.

Austria’s independent media landscape has shrunk dramatically in recent years since the popular government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz came to power in 2018.

Once in office, Kurz declared that he would no longer meet directly with the press and dissolved the Federal Press Service, a hundred-year-old organization that acted as the main liaison between the media and the chancellery.

But, mirroring steps taken in Hungary and Poland, the Austrian government has most effectively starved independent media outlets via advertising revenue.

[Update: Kurz resigned in October amid a corruption scandal, but his departure is not expected to change the challenging media landscape in the country.]

How Government Influences Media With Ads

Many media outlets in Austria — especially those in print — rely on government advertising to survive. Skrabal told OCCRP that state-funded ads have become a key tool for the government to influence the media landscape. The decline in private ad revenues serves the government, Skrabal points out, because it can relay its ads and messages without competing points of view. [Update: DOSSIER is now running an investigative series that details the flow of government advertising to media outlets and how that may affect political coverage.]

According to an International Press Institute (IPI) report, the Austrian government’s direct ad spending in 2018 was roughly three times the amount of public subsidies to the press. Moreover, the IPI report suggests that outlets with a track record of favorably covering the government receive more ad dollars.

Accepting advertising was never an option for DOSSIER. To remain independent and solvent, Skrabal and his team started experimenting with a hybrid membership model in 2018, with the launch of a paid magazine running alongside their online content.
“When we started the organization in 2012, our goal was to publish everything online for free because our work is important for everyone to read,” remembers Skrabal.

The October 2021 issue of DOSSIER magazine — the first ad-free investigative magazine in Austria which focuses on “one topic per issue, thoroughly researched, grippingly told.” Image: Screenshot

But a few years ago, they began charging for content in DOSSIER magazine, the first ad-free investigative magazine in Austria that focuses on “one topic per issue, thoroughly researched, grippingly told.” All magazine articles are behind a paywall, while all other DOSSIER content is published on the website, free for all to read. People who donate to the membership program can read all articles, including from the magazine. “Our membership program really took off only after we instituted the paywall,” Skrabal says.

With the lawsuits firmly behind them, a robust, growing membership program launched, and plans to publish DOSSIER magazine four times a year, the end of 2021 looks very different from how the year began.

“We have a foundation for the future and are very encouraged that in a country where there is very little tradition of people paying for news, enough people are willing to fund honest, truthful journalism,” Skrabal says.

This article was originally published by GIJN member OCCRP on Medium. It is republished here with permission. Updates to the text were provided by OCCRP’s strategic communications officer, Lauren Jackman.

Additional Resources

Considering a Membership Model for Your Newsroom? There’s a Guide for That

SLAPP Fight: How Journalists Are Pushing Back on Nuisance Lawsuits

How Membership Saved Chile’s Investigative Newsroom CIPER

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project is an investigative reporting platform for a worldwide network of independent media centers and journalists, reinventing investigative journalism as a public good. OCCRP provides media outlets and journalists with a range of critical resources and tools including digital and physical security.

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