Talha Ahad’s team at The Centrum Media, Pakistan’s first digital news network, has produced exclusive visual storytelling on Guantanamo Bay prisoners, drone-attack survivors, transgender activists and more since it launched in 2017. The news organization quickly grew its audience to millions with in-depth, independent video news coverage, in a country dominated by traditional media.
But TCM wanted to find a way to more effectively grow its revenue, reach and engagement – and now, through an ICFJ program helping independent news organizations thrive, it has. TCM was able to grow its overall revenue by 25% and its audience reach by 33%. Along with that, TCM’s team grew confidence in making informed decisions based on analytics and feedback.
In 2022, TCM was one of 18 organizations around the world to participate in Elevate’s mentorship phase and one of five selected organizations to receive a $20,000 grant. Through ICFJ’s Elevate program, TCM further refined its business strategy and saw significant results.
Focused on C-level journalists running small and medium-sized media outlets, Elevate, ICFJ’s news business hub, develops business skills that promote sustainable growth in the newsroom. Participating organizations are supported through four tracks: business strategy, operations and finance, technology and new media and lastly, communications and marketing.
A Focus on Branded Content, Social Media
TCM worked directly with a mentor provided by ICFJ to understand analytics and perform audience testing across multiple platforms. Ahad attributes the overall revenue growth to increasing branded content and social media ad revenue. Through content optimization that included SEO and thumbnail testing, TCM grew its ad revenue on Facebook and YouTube by 30 percent, he said.
The team also used grant funds to expand audience testing and focus on finding new audiences from previously collected data. Advertising on YouTube and Facebook not only drove audience engagement and views, but helped the outlet gather more data in order to make future strategic decisions, Ahad said.
“We started creating more content that was working well after analyzing it with our mentor,” Ahad said. “As we optimized all platforms, we have seen growth across social platforms.”
Improved Decision-Making Based on Feedback & Analysis
Before Elevate, Ahad said it was difficult to find mentors who could provide specific advice for digital independent outlets like TCM.
“The biggest problem was that the Pakistani digital news ecosystem has not been developed a lot,” he said. “Because there is no ecosystem, there was no mentorship as well.”
Ahad felt the greatest support from the ICFJ mentorship phase. Mentor Adriana Peña Johansson, a media business strategy consultant, worked with them on audience analytics, specifically on YouTube, to test what content was effective and what wasn’t.
Through Johansson’s guidance on analytics, TCM was able to develop a “north star” strategy, Ahad said. This strategy could guide them in producing and testing future content that would reach more audiences and produce more revenue.
“I believe that TCM's biggest achievement was to walk the fine line of keeping true to their dream of producing high quality videos inspired in film schools and documental journalism and refining their mission to align to their audience needs, and a robust business plan,” Johansson said. “They evolved into a more audience-centric organization in alignment with a clear business strategy.”
Along with mentorship, Elevate also gave TCM the opportunity to connect with other startups in the program. They discussed issues they faced as digital media organizations, which Ahad said made them feel less alone in their struggles.
“We were on the right track,” Ahad said. “But the validation from a mentor and other startups is important.”
Overall, participation in the Elevate program brought valuable changes to TCM’s business strategy.
“We can make informed decisions now rather than just doing everything and not knowing what's working and what's not working,” Ahad said.
TCM’s growth through the program shows the difference that mentorship, training and funding can make, despite the significant challenges that news media face on the path to sustainability.
“Fact-based journalism, civic journalism, and independent journalism should be protected,” Johansson said. “Unfortunately, challenges to news media viability are so complex that it takes a village to help news organizations reach and maintain long-term sustainability.”
Elevate is supported by ICFJ's It Takes a Journalist campaign, which was designed to help journalists meet the most urgent challenges of today. ICFJ is grateful to the dozens of individual donors who have contributed to the campaign fund to date, allowing the organization to flexibly deploy resources where they are most needed.