Exploring new funding models: thinking brave and bold

In light of the multiple, overlapping crises affecting the financial sustainability of media organisations, big and small, independent media need to think creatively and reimagine their long-term business strategies.

The need to think big was one theme to emerge clearly from the discussion. In the face of disinformation and democratic backsliding in various countries, there is in fact an opportunity for independent media to make a solid case for international donors and private investors.

“We need to start thinking brave and bold … I'm personally really tired of having to go granular when the problem is global … We need between five and $10 billion a year to fund the free media which can actually fight this incredible disinformation storm which is now engulfing the whole planet. You know, it's a lot of money, but (in comparison to) how much we lose, and how many trillions are lost every year to that. It's nothing.” - Branko Brkic, Daily Maverick

Independent media organisations, however, are generally reluctant to consider the "business" side of things from a long-term perspective, commented Sharon Moshavi, President of the International Centre for Journalists, adding that “any capacity building that we do in terms of getting news organisations to become and to work towards financial sustainability has to look at those things in tandem.”

Harlan Mendel (Media Development Investment Fund) shared that the pandemic was something of an opportunity for media organisations that were able to expand their membership, with some even switching to subscription-based models.

Other participants, however, cautioned that while audience membership models may be applicable to larger media organisations, for small newsrooms in low-income countries such schemes are unlikely to work.

Participants agreed on the need for bold thinking: around alternative funding models and reforming the media sector to create a more favourable economic environment for independent media (Leon Willems, Free Press Unlimited).

The public sector, as well as private sector actors that have invested in independent media in recent years are likely to be part of the solution. The latter include foundations and impact investors involved in venture philanthropy.

Philanthropy and private capital have a role to play in catalysing funding in support of equitable and diverse media. A recent report by the Ford Foundation, Investing in Equitable News and Media Projects offers a blueprint for those in the field seeking to take actionable steps to supporting local news and diverse, sustainable media ecosystems.

Carlos Barrionuevo (Director, Public Media Company) said that various, sustainable business models for the media have in fact existed for quite some time.

“We've talked a lot about newspapers as an industry, newspapers themselves are a business -- a sustainable model that's been going on for many years. Public media is also another sustainable model that's been going for many years, we need to continue to look at these different business models and how they can work with each other.” - Carlos Barrionuevo, Public Media Company

Barrionuevo reflected on the future of small legacy newsrooms in terms of succession of ownership of these local, often family-owned ventures. There is a need, he said, to explore new ownership structures and partnership models between the private, non-profit, and public sectors. The key question is to figure out how they might work in tandem.

Tracie Powell, (The Pivot Fund) also challenged donors and the philanthropic community in the United States to learn to “share power” and look beyond their closed circles.

“We talk so much about news deserts; there are oases in these news deserts that (we will find if) look a little more closely.” - Tracie Powell, The Pivot Fund

Long-term and predictable financing

Sharon Moshavi, ICFJ, encouraged donors to explore opportunities to collaborate with each other and simplify procedures to alleviate the administrative burden on organisations applying for funding.

Joanna Krawczyk, President of the Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation which has been supporting Ukrainian media outlets shared that, from her experience, what local media organisations ask for is not another training workshop on “how to do journalism”; instead they need long-term, predictable financing, seed funding and technology transfers adapted to their needs.

Ukrainian media representatives would often ask: "Please promise us that you won't come here in six months with another workshop on how to do impactful journalism. I believe we already know how to do that. Could you come with seed money? Could you come with technologies that we can actually use and with people who would stay with us for over half a year to make this transformation real?” - Joanna Krawczyk, Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation

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