Amid the 2020 crackdown on free media in Hungary, journalists ask readers for help — in a few weeks a new start-up Telex raised US$1 million and its peer 444 raised US$320,000.
Since 2010, the Hungarian government dismantled press freedoms, took over most of the media outlets, and turned into propaganda machines.
In 2020, a pro-government oligarch fired the chief editor of Index.hu, one of the last large independent news sites. More than 70 journalists resigned and after a few months launched a new site — Telex. By December, it had 2 million monthly users in a 9.7 million country (per DKT/Gemius), or more than half of what Index enjoyed in the past.
The history of 444.hu is intertwined with Index; it was co-founded by the people who had left Index a few years back. In December 2020, 444 reached 2 million monthly users, too.
Hungarian news sites were funded mostly by digital advertising, Gábor Kardos of 444 explained to me. But as government and oligarchs’ grip over advertising spend increased, this revenue model proved toxic.
Price of the free press: Crowdfunding proved to be a successful model for new media outlets in the past decade. UK’s Press-Gazette reported that the top 30 single-biggest campaigns in journalism raised more than US$20 million since 2012, with the largest one attributed to El Español in Spain (US$3.9 million in 2015).
For Hungarians though, the crowdfunding was more than a way to break into a busy market or a customer engagement tactic. It was the matter of life and death.
In their campaigns, both Telex and 444 mobilised Hungarians who cared about democracy and the free press without offering any hard benefits.
Publishers claimed the donations would help them ensure independence of the newsrooms and fund journeys to future revenue models, its technology, and product.
Crowdfunding let the publishers build databases of prospect members — responsive to their marketing and willing to pay — and study their needs. Donors were asked to advise on the contents, features, and benefits. 444 even called its programm “The Circle” to underscore the exclusivity and influence the donors were getting, Gábor Kardos said.
The main marketing channels for both were e-mail and social media platforms.
Money and communities: The Hungarian campaigns mobilised thousands. By the end of 2020, Telex announced it attracted 42,000 individual supporters and raised US$1 million in total. Donors could choose an amount: the largest single donation reached US$8,500 and the average was US$23.
444 asked for donations fixed at the amount of US$34. It attracted 9,500 members of the Circle by the end of 2020 and, by my estimates, raised US$320,000. 444 did crowdfund in the past; this was by far the largest amount collected.
Most of the money was raised in the first weeks of each campaign. 444 though returned to its Circle donors and asked for more money in December, promising to onboard them to the final membership programme to be launched later this spring.
According to Nic Newman of Oxford’s Reuters Institute, between 1% to 3% news consumers across the United States, Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and the UK donated to a news organisation in 2018, but on average a quarter would consider donating in a future. Donors tend to be younger than 45. The key messages that resonated with audiences were promises to defend journalism and improve society.