Editorial sustainability: on ownership and media capture

Participants explored the relationship between editorial independence, ownership models, media capture and financial sustainability.

For Saša Vučinić (Co-founder, North Base Media VC), media owners will always be in a position of relative influence. Organisations need to ensure that their ownership and decision-making structures allow for independent editorial policy.

“The only way to protect independent editorial policy in any media company is to have independent ownership and invest in it.” - Sasa Vucinic, North Base Media VC

While much of the discussion tended to centre around funding for independent media in the United States, Vučinić added that “the future of independent media is directly proportional to the amount of money that we can raise to make investments in independent media” at an international scale.

Sustainable, predictable financing for independent media can allow small organisations in particular, to focus on improving the quality of their journalism, instead of constantly worrying about their bottom line. This, in turn, serves to build and strengthen relations of trust with donors and the wider public in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

One participant, however, observed that there has been a “roll back” in the promises of donors with regard to supporting community media, as such donors tend not to be “embedded in communities” and don’t necessarily have privileged access to them -- nor their trust (Tracie Powell, The Pivot Fund).

The article How Creative Ownership Structures Can Help Local News Publishers Stay Local (Knight Foundation) presents strategies by local news publishers in the US to avoid buyouts from extractive hedge fund owners and ensure that they remain truly local businesses commited to the communities that they serve.

Fighting media capture

Media capture poses a real threat to independent media organisations, and it is essential to protect the integrity of their ownership structures so that journalists can carry out their work in line with professional standards.

The case of Orban’s Hungary is particularly problematic, but similar trends can be observed elsewhere in Europe, said Harlan Mandel, CEO of the Media Development Investment Fund. In non-democratic contexts or weak or fragile democracies, private investors can actually intervene to prevent media capture by state-backed cronies, he continued.

Drawing inspiration from the world of impact investment, the MDIF developed Pluralis, a fund specifically designed to “intervene when a company is under threat of capture”. The aim is to support independent media organisations committed to editorial independence and to prevent them from being bought out by, or rather folded into, state-backed conglomerates.

“It’s a combination of philanthropy, high quality West European media companies, and impact investors coming together... and they all have different strengths. So having the media companies involved brings tremendous access to know-how and knowledge transfer. Having philanthropy involved, they're able to provide a layer of what's called risk mitigation so they can take on more risk and reduce the risk for more commercial investors.” - Harlan Mandel, MDIF

Tapping into the power of innovative finance. Established in 1995 with seed grants from the Swedish development agency and private foundations, the MDIF has pioneered a unique blended finance model to fund independent media operating in often difficult sociopolitical environments.

Media companies are selected according to a set of rigourous criteria. They must take steps to ensure the independence of their ownership structures, while commiting to political pluralism in their editorial policies and to "fostering democratic practices and institutions" (Convergence, 2019).

Since 2019, the non-profit has supported over a hundred independent media organisations across 40 countries. More information on the MDIF is available here.

Attention to local context

Participants stressed the importance of taking into consideration different national contexts and diverse media cultures.

“It's really important to understand that different countries have different problems and different profiles of need” - Branko Brkic, The Daily Maverick

Brkic added that in developed markets, investments need to be directed toward information deserts that tend to be small and localised. However, in fragile democracies where “entire countries are news deserts'', he said, it is important to invest in media that can reach large audiences.

Sasa Vucinic pointed out that while the media business is struggling in many countries including the US, the situation elsewhere, for instance in Asia, is quite different. “In Asia, the last seven years is the best time to start a media company,” said Vucinic, mentioning that Asian media organisations are actively seeking out talent.

Anya Schiffrin (Columbia University) pointed to one example of a structural, large-scale solution in Australia’s efforts to compel tech companies, through the News Media Bargaining Code, to redirect funds toward public interest journalism. As a result, a number of media organisations have even been able to grow their staff.

Two African media companies,The Namibian (Namibia) and The Daily Maverick (Zambia) presented their story of strugling to achive sustanability in their local context.

Both have managed to maintain relative financial health while protecting editorial independence and producing quality journalism that serves diverse ethnolinguistic audiences, in several languages, and across different platforms.

Launched in 1985 thanks to financial support from the European Union, it took at least a decade for the Namibian to become the profitable, sustainable business that it is today. Zoe Titus (Namibia Media Trust) described the newspaper as “legacy media in the best sense of the word” and “part of the DNA of the country, of the liberation movement of the country”.

Serving audiences South Africa, the Daily Maverick also represents one of the few media organisations that, according to its editor-in-chief Branko Brkick, are truly rooted in civil society, forming part of the national fabric.

The quality of its editorial work and news coverage remains something of a beacon for other African media.

However, Titus and Brkic noted that independent media in developing countries have suffered much over the past decade, owing to various developments, from the digital transition to the general financial crisis in the media, adding to new challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the question of sustainability, Titus stressed the need to support independent media organisations through these transitions from legacy media to new business models so as to guarantee their long-term health.

“What does sustainability really mean for the group going forward?” - Zoe Titus, Namibia Media Trust

Last updated