Investing in independent media to strengthen democracy

Participants underscored the importance of independent media, including local radio, community newspapers, and television stations, in strengthening or defending democracy in various contexts.

“It is important that we are not looking at the media to make it more profitable but more impactful.” - Joanna Krawczyk, Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation

Over the past few years, democracy worldwide has been under pressure from multiple directions – disinformation, media capture, censorship, populism. Media in general – and small, independent newsrooms in particular – have been on the frontlines. But independent journalism has faced numerous financial and political challenges, reinforced by the pandemic and new actors including the web giants that have sucked up revenues from professional media.

For Branko Brkic, editor-in-chief of the Daily Maverick, “supporting quality, independent media is the cheapest investment in democracy”. He called on donors as well as larger, more established media organisations to invest in independent or alternative journalism committed to social transformation.

“The best investment will be in media companies that can call (countries) together and bring about change.” - Branko Brkic, Daily Maverick

“We believe that every investment in any media company that informs communities is an impact investment” - Sasa Vucinic, North Base Media

For Zoe Titus, director of the Namibia Media Trust, supporting independent journalism is not just an economic question. There's a need to look at the overall enabling environment for independent media organisations:

We find all over shrinking civic space even as media support organisations are falling apart. So we need to look at the broader environment in which those media organisations are operating. - Zoe Titus, Namibia Media Trust

She added that even media that are doing well financially can get shut down by authoritarian governments. Donors need to help ensure that small media organisations can operate in a healthy democratic environment and have the resources they need to thrive.

Serving underrepresented communities and combatting disinformation

Participants highlighted the potential of independent media to combat disinformation and enrich the public debate in diverse contexts, from North America and Asia to Eastern Europe and Southern Africa.

Tracie Powell, from the Pivot Fund, a venture philanthropy based in Georgia, spoke about rebuilding trust between media and diverse, often multilingual, communities. She pointed to the spread of disinformation among minorities who are targeted on social media:

“I think when it comes to communities of colour in particular, they are being bombarded with disinformation. They are highly targeted. And so it's important to invest in people and journalists and news outlets that are already engaged with their communities.” -Tracie Powell, Founder, Pivot Fund

Powell added that it’s important to invest in journalists rooted in their communities and their role in addressing racial tensions and identity-based conflicts in America:

“We're not investing in superstar journalists, we're investing in the people who are providing the information that their communities need, healing the divisions, and trying to equip informed communities so that they can better navigate their lives.”

Supporting media for diversity and equity. The impact investment firm New Media Ventures has been supporting independent, non-profit newsrooms including Prism Reports, dedicated to coverage of social justice issues, and Luz Media, which covers the Latin American community in the United States. Learn more from this report by the Ford Foundation.

Gerald Pambo-Awich, Investment officer at the Ford Foundation pointed to the reality of gatekeeping in newsrooms where women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented. A reality that perhaps hinders effective storytelling and the full potential of independent media.

“We are thinking about the power of storytelling in various forms, to really shape the perceptions of society, our values, our systems of belief, and deepen our understanding of the world. And when we look at who's shaping that and the gatekeepers, there's a real unfairness to it in terms of who are the gatekeepers, and therefore, which stories are valued, and which stories get out there. - Gerald Pambo-Awich, the Ford Foundation

A number of participants also emphasised the importance of local media, especially those informing underserved or marginalised communities.

Local journalism is on the frontlines of defending democracy in the United States, said Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, from the National Trust for Local Media. The Trust is investing in local, mostly family-owned media businesses that produce news for local communities and seeks to support community news organizations across the United States by catalyzing capital, promoting new ownership structures and encouraging business transformation.

“Part of what we are trying to do in states around the country is pilot a conservancy model for acquiring small legacy titles, converting them to non-profits where that makes sense, or other mission-aligned structures, and really treating them as the public assets that they are and protecting them from both financial capture, as we’ve seen plenty of in the U.S., and also political capture,” - Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, National Trust for Local Media.

This recent study on public broadcasting in the US underscores the surprising resilience of local radio and the importance of non-profit and public sector financing in fostering collaboration between news organisations across the public media ecosystem, while ensuring the financial sustainability of small, local newsrooms.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), for example, "has been particularly important as a source of investment in building collaborative news capacity across the public media system." PRX is another non-profit company that has been supporting innovation in audio journalism and podcasting.

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