Can a subscription-only city newspaper survive?

Seven years in business, the Dublin Inquirer has picked up a European Press Prize

When asked what her newspaper, the Dublin Inquirer, brings in per month, co-founder and editor Lois Kapila answers swiftly: “€14,000.″ When a question like that is answered without recourse to spreadsheets or financial fudging, you know every cent is needed and accounted for.

The 40-page, tabloid-size publication is an unusual thing – a newspaper that doesn’t take any advertising. Income is from subscriptions – both digital and print – though it hasn’t always been that way. When Kapila and her husband, Sam Tranum (whose day job is in book publishing), set up the Dublin Inquirer having just moved to Ireland seven years ago – she’s British, he’s American – they took advertising for the first few years but found the battle with advertisers looking to use ad-spend leverage to get favourable coverage or advertorials draining and in the end simply not worth it.

So, in a move that puts the Dublin Inquirer firmly in the outlier lane, they opted for a monthly subscription model, currently €3, €6 or €9 – with the lowest figure for a student digital subscription, the highest for home delivery of the print edition. Doing the maths on that €14,000 to tease out subscriber numbers doesn’t work; the €3 rate isn’t just for students, “if that’s what someone feels they can pay, that’s okay”, says Kapila, and some people pay more than €9 a month “to support independent journalism”, she says. The numbers are small – the monthly print-run varies but most recently is 1,200 and May’s online readership figures totalled 50,000 visitors and 75,000 page views. “So we’re still relatively small. But that kind of hides how much our stories get picked up elsewhere, so doesn’t illustrate complete readership.”

Independent journalism

Supporting independent journalists in a media start-up motivates most of the subscribers. “It’s trite to say it, but there is so much goodwill,” she says. I’m a subscriber, but to goodwill I’d add the pleasure of getting a print newspaper in the post and articles that regularly answer questions about the city I’d been idly wondering about. This month that included the tangled history of an eyesore derelict site in Temple Bar.

The main focus of the editorial is central Dublin, “specifically the area covered by Dublin City Council”. And what drives Kapila and the editorial direction is policy, seeing how the city works, or doesn’t, and how decisions are made (whether that is in housing or infrastructure) that impact the daily lives of citizens. Every month there’s comprehensive coverage of council meetings in “Council Watch” and the latest issue’s wide-ranging articles include ones on Traveller accommodation, the lack of a 24-hour bus service in the city, a greening project in Finglas and the response by a group of students to Aramark winning the catering contract at the National Gallery. There’s some arts coverage and food-related articles – most interestingly the story behind a restaurant on Parnell Street that specialises in Indian breakfasts. You might read about some or all of the above in other publications, but likely not in the full-page detail the Inquirer can give.

Earlier this month, it was among the winners of a European Press Prize for its part in a project examining the financialisation of the housing market across Europe.

Cities for Rent: Investigating Corporate Landlords across Europe won the Innovation Award for finding new ways to engage with audiences. In 2019, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Prize for Journalism – not bad for a newspaper run out of a one-room office in Crumlin. To help find out what readers want, Kapila has held workshops in north-inner-city pubs, cafes and community centres – “housing affordability, planning issues, council upkeep of properties” are regular requests. And subscribers have been asked what they’d like to read – more arts and food, hence the recent recruitment of a regular freelancer to cover that beat.

More staff

If the paper had more staff – “five reporters ideally”, she says, “there’s much more we could do”. She cites climate change and the city – and policing, though she stresses she doesn’t mean crime reports but a look at “policing policy and community safety issues”. The team is made up of Kapila, two staff reporters, a part-time deputy editor and part-time administration person. Tranum helps after work and on weekends and a lawyer is working for them pro bono at the moment.

For coverage to grow, the level of subscribers must too. That’s a difficult task for any media organisation, particularly at a belt-tightening time that’s been pithily characterised as “Netflix and bills”, where consumers who happily signed up for monthly subscriptions to a range of entertainment and media companies, particularly during Covid lockdowns, are now combing through bank statements looking for regular outgoings to cull. “Now is a more worrying time [than the pandemic, in business terms],” she says.

Kapila juggles her role as editor with that of business development – though she knows it would be better if there was funding for a designated business role – and says the paper has finally broken even (it was started with the aid of small private loans). She’s exploring other funding options, including from investors, as well as grants from media and philanthropic organisations. She doesn’t rule out taking advertising at some point in the future, thought realistically for the sort of major advertisers that might spend enough to make a difference, subscriber numbers would probably have to be more attractive. The paper has recently joined Reference, a network of reader-funded and not-for-profit similar-minded publications across Europe. “We are never going to be massive,” says Kapila. “Though we can be a bit bigger.”