Key Quotes: Media Sustainability During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Katya Podkovyroff Lewis | 05/14/2020

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).  

Before the arrival of COVID-19, the state of the news industry was already precarious: revenues were down and news organizations were folding. Across the world, news deserts have become more commonplace.

The global health crisis has only made these issues worse, but there are bright spots and new opportunities, said three experts in media entrepreneurship and development during an ICFJ panel Wednesday. 

While news consumption has increased during the pandemic, the revenue hasn’t followed. Instead, as the global economy is gutted, news outlets around the world have laid off staff, cut salaries and furloughed workers. 

Still, newsrooms are adapting and innovating, and new sources of funding have appeared. 

“I've really seen a lot of innovation sparked by need,” said Lissa Cupp, an entrepreneur and digital marketing consultant. “Being at the forefront of it is a common theme that I've seen throughout, publishers really standing up and saying, ‘How can I get involved? How can I be present? How can I be other and visible?’ ”

Cupp joined ICFJ Knight Fellows Janine Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia and Nasr ul Hadi, co-founder of PROTO, for a discussion moderated by IJNet Manager David Maas

Here are key quotes from the conversation:

On collaboration

Comparing ideas and strategies and being mutually supportive, I think, is so key right now,” Warner said.  

On business models and diverse revenue streams

  • “If you're not overly dependent on any one revenue source, it's a lot easier to keep your independence,” Warner said. “But I think we're really seeing now that diversified revenue is also the key to sustainability in times of crisis.” 

    “Think about who your advertisers are and still serving people who are your clients and what kinds of new services they need. And think about being agile, but not necessarily starting something completely new when we're all overloaded and overworked in this industry at this time,” she said. 
  • Cupp discussed combining subscription and donor models to media sites, “but there are other opportunities to still grow ad revenue right now. Talk with the advertisers and say, ‘What are you doing with your brand to step up and be a leader right now during this crisis? We can help put you in front of our readers while they're looking for news, and they need reassurance from the brands that they trust. And this is an opportunity for you.’ ” 
  • “One of the key things right now that we're seeing with the organizations is there is a spike in viewership or readership because it's a crisis,” Hadi said. However, he noted that advertisers are also in crisis due to companies’ reduced marketing budgets. He advised news media to seek out niche advertisers. 

[View past webinars and key quotes]

On launching an online startup during a pandemic

  • While she encourages journalists to consider entrepreneurship, Warner said that starting any new business during a financial crisis is even more of a double-edged sword than usual. “If you pull it off, you have a really good chance of surviving when things get better, but it's obviously a very difficult time to start something and actually look for revenue. If you're in the financial situation that you can afford to spend some time investing in content, building your brand, starting to build an audience right now, and you don't have to rely on the revenue from that immediately to feed your family, it might be an interesting time to do that.” 

On news outlets relying on events as a source of revenue

  • Hadi pointed out that with many organizations, events that had been hosted in-house, whether they were training events or just networking opportunities, have now been moved to webinars. While some organizations have decided to charge for their virtual events, some haven’t. He suggested continuing to charge but to "give people an option to bypass it - that usually ends up turning people into registered users when [they] weren't before.” 
  • Cupp said she has seen success with the “pay what you can” model for events. “Being creative with whatever is unique to your market and creating an event around it can drive revenue right now and [also drive] loyalty, which will help you in the long run,” she said.

On the emergence of grant opportunities and emergency funds

  • “It's kind of amazing how much grant funding is out there right now and how much emergency grant funding, from little tiny grants for freelancers to multimillion dollar funds from Google, Facebook and others right now, really trying to help media survive this,” Warner said.  Journalists and smaller companies should certainly jump at these opportunities, she said. 

    At the same time, “I think it's always important to remember [that] very few media sites really survive on grants alone,” she said.” Don't expect [these new grants] to be around forever.”

On focusing your content

  • “Everyone's reporting the same headlines of statistics and so on, but what we have seen is, as long as you've figured out something that is on brand for you or some kind of an intersection between what's happening outside right now and what you have built,” Hadi said, “that specific intersection ends up being a niche, and you can figure it out how deep you want to go within that.”

On their advice for journalists and media entrepreneurs

  • “Don't start something that you won't be able to sustain once we get out of this crisis,” Hadi said. 
  • “Connect with your audience and be out there. Make it personal,” Cupp said. “This is the time to be out there with what resources you have.” She also said it is important to be creative and adapt your coverage to keep the attention of your audience.
  • “One of the favorite things that I've seen journalists do right now is starting to partner with each other more. Historically journalists are very competitive,” Warner said. "We all struggle to get our story on the front page, we all wanted to win the Pulitzer Prize. But this is really a time to come together, not just to cover news better, but also [because] funders like that.”

[View past webinars and key quotes]


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