When Szabolcs Dull was fired from his position as editor-in-chief at Index, Hungary’s leading independent news Web site, it changed the future of journalism for the country.
Dull had publicly sounded the alarm over political interference in the news company’s operations, and his termination in July 2020 triggered a mass resignation. One day later, more than 80 reporters, editors, photographers, developers, and more all resigned in protest of the growing political influence on their news outlet.
Veronika Munk, who had spent 20 years at the Index, was among those who resigned. She had worked her way through the ranks from an intern to a deputy editor-in-chief position and said that when Dull was fired, “we knew that our independent journalistic operation was no longer possible.”
But the determined ranks used the opportunity to build a new operation, one that launched just nine weeks later. During the INMA Media Subscription Summit on Tuesday, Munk — who now is founding editor-in-chief and head of content development at Telex — explained how they used reader support to crowdfund the new venture.
Munk explained they turned to crowdfunding because “we did not want to deal with oligarchs or any rich people with different kind of unclear agendas. This is a circumstance [where we] believed that there would be enough people who would like to support independent journalism. And we were right.”
The firing and ensuing resignations struck a nerve around the world, gaining global media coverage and prompting protests, with thousands of people marching in the streets of Budapest calling for freedom of the press. On the same day of the resignation, the newsroom launched a Facebook page called Outgoing Index Staff and had 200,000 followers within three days.
“We created a communication campaign with very, very simple messages and the content roadmap,” Munk said. “So we had very fragmented, at least twice a day, communication with our audience. We demonstrated our strengths by being a team who said no together to the political power.”
While they worked on building a new site, Munk said they relied heavily on the Facebook page.
“This Facebook page became the most important line of communication with … this couple of hundred thousand of people who were basically on our side, but we did not only use it for that. We also reported personal stories from our journalists and editors, and we wrote news pieces until we could get Telex up and running.”
That led to setting up a company framework along with a user-friendly donation site. They gradually and deliberately leaked information about a new Web site, while constantly communicating their values of press freedom and fact-based, quality journalism. One month after launching, Telex had received Є1 million from its readers.
As word of their efforts spread, the journalists became the story. Both nationally and internationally, publications wanted to learn more about their efforts, and Munk and her colleagues found themselves being interviewed instead of asking the questions.
“I remember one time I was biking to the school for my kids, and I gave an interview on the bicycle,” she said. “And we had very clear values and we explained the importance of freedom of press really in detail.”
It was critical for them to make readers understand why those journalistic principles are so important for Hungarian democracy. It also was important for them to establish a company that would be as transparent financially as it was impartial and fair in its reporting.
“We laid down our journalistic values and rules of conduct in our code of ethics, and we are keeping our ourselves to it,” Munk said. “And we have also published this document, of course, to maintain accountability. And this is quite unusual in the Hungarian media, and what is also unusual is that we are transparent about how much money we have and what we spend on it.”
The open, honest approach has been an unequivocal success. Some 50,000 people have supported Telex and, just one year after launching, it has become one of Hungary’s largest news portals, with 500,000 to 600,000 readers a day. It operates around the clock and has an editorial office of 70 editors and journalists.
A survey found that 91% of Telex donors support it both on the strength of the editorial team and because they recognise the importance of freedom of the press, Munk said:
“Basically, they donate, they support [us] because they would like to consume quality journalism. And because our team said no in a country that usually people do not say no to the power.”