Independent news outlets hold the powerful to account and provide critical information to their communities, but many struggle financially and risk going out of business.
While there are success stories and models for building viable news businesses, “there is no one-size-fits-all recipe,” for news outlets to follow, said Patricia Torres-Burd, managing director of Media Advisory Services at Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF). Her team supports media sustainability by providing technical and venture support for MDIF's global portfolio.
Any news organization that aims to sustain its work financially must develop its own business plan, tailored to its audience, she said.
That’s why ICFJ launched Elevate, which takes journalists leading independent news ventures to the next level. Through this global exchange, coaching and grant program, news leaders develop the business skills needed to grow and sustain their small- and medium-sized news outlets so they can keep producing independent, accurate news.
Now that the first cohort of participants have been chosen, Torres-Burd is interviewing each of them for a needs assessment and to suggest mentors. To help choose the cohort, Elevate called on James Breiner, an expert on global news media sustainability.
After conducting 50 interviews in total with Elevate applicants, Breiner and Torres-Burd shared their reflections on global news sustainability with ICFJ.
ICFJ: What did you notice about the newsroom leaders you interviewed?
Breiner: They have a tremendous sense of community service. That's their priority. They want to give voice to people who may be overlooked or abused by the powerful. And they want to provide information that they feel is necessary but unavailable anywhere else.
Torres-Burd: Very good work is being executed by the Elevate applicants. They provide critical information and/or tools to better inform that is vital to any community. Most of the Elevate participants are doing a lot with very little money and staff.
ICFJ: What did the experience of talking with these participants and applicants tell you about the needs of independent media and the challenges they face?
Torres-Burd: As with most media (globally), the ability to find and/or create a sustainable model is a challenge. Journalism, by definition, is quite challenging to monetize, and some of the Elevate applicants work in challenging socio-political and economic environments.
All applicants search for the models they can implement or adjust to their organization, market, and region to serve their audience and grow their impact and reach.
Some, not all, also have a large dependency on grants which makes a pivot towards new revenue verticals that much more challenging. It is not impossible but requires a very different approach and this is where Elevate will certainly make great strides.
Breiner: Of course, the big issue is financial. Many of these publications are living on the edge financially, hoping for the next grant to come in, and that makes them very vulnerable.
But the other issue is training. Many of these small organizations lack any experience in the basics of running a business, and nonprofits are businesses too in the sense that they have to generate enough revenue to pay their staff and keep the website running. They need some training in bookkeeping, accounting, financial management, administration, personnel management, as well as effective use of technology, both in the tools for maintaining their content as well as for improving distribution through the channels used by their target communities.
They need someone on their staff whose sole responsibility is revenue generation, marketing, sales. But even those who have some skill in these areas could accelerate their growth and impact with more specialized training, like the kind Elevate will offer.
Did anything surprise you? If so, how or why?
Torres-Burd: One of the areas that surprised me was [news outlets] not clearly understanding who the loyal audience is. Media tend to focus too much on the top of the funnel in terms of total visits and views rather than work on serving the loyal reader who returns to consume content over and over. Without a clear understanding of who that consumer is – it is almost impossible to properly serve them, fill their needs for information and content, and most importantly, offer other verticals that could, when executed properly, be monetized or supported by reader revenue.
Breiner: The thing that is surprising is how similar the problems are everywhere in the world. The concerns are about public health, the environment, human rights, social justice, fair elections, freedom of expression, and equality.
Also, because so many of the founders and directors have never learned basic financial controls, they have a hard time telling you whether they made money or lost money in the previous month or quarter. They could use training on evaluating the cost of their activities. Is this project over here costing us more money than it is generating? Is this new project suggested by a funder going to siphon the time and energy of our team away from our core mission while producing little financial benefit? This kind of cost-benefit analysis is an everyday activity in any business, and digital media entrepreneurs would benefit from training in the area.
Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share as you reflect on the process or on independent news media in general?
Torres-Burd: In order to remain independent, media have no choice but to find ways in which to financially support their journalism. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe. It cannot be copied from someone else and does not always include a simple option such as implementing sales. Each market capacity, CPM [digital advertising rates], value and cost of doing business varies widely, and these considerations must be taken into account when providing suggestions, recommendations and support to help media pivot and or find ways to survive in order to continue serving their communities.
Breiner: I am always impressed with the courage and commitment of the digital media entrepreneurs who face enormous threats from powerful commercial and political interests. Their belief in their mission of providing trustworthy, credible information inspires me, to be honest. They energize me.