Meeting Report

Meeting report from the World News Media Congress: Media Viability Session (Sept. 2022) organized by UNESCO, WAN-IFRA, and the Global Forum for Media Development.

This session focused on the media viability issue in the context of the many challenges it is facing now. Advertising revenues have declined for several years, making it difficult for independent media outlets, nontraditional news sources, and news publishers to survive. The COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical conflicts have further exacerbated these challenges, causing concerns about the viability and freedom of the media. Efforts have been made to address these issues, but the sessions discussed about possible solutions that address the economic and financial challenges and other obstacles that remain challenging.



Advertising revenues continue to decline year after year, holding already struggling independent media, nontraditional news outlets, and news publishers in a chokehold.1 Additional blows such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic impact of larger geopolitical conflicts have further increased the pressure on media viability as well as press freedom worldwide. In the last few years, the viability (or sustainability) of independent news media has been a burning issue on the international agenda with different initiatives launched by a variety of stakeholders. However, concrete answers to strengthen media viability remain elusive, as economic and financial gaps are not the only obstacles that need to be taken into account.

Both media and media development organisations have developed various tools and strategies ranging from indicators to measure media viability to resource diversification strategies through consulting workshops to set up long-term business plans. These initiatives vary significantly, primarily due to the very specific context in which different media operate. This also creates challenges to applying and implementing such tools and strategies in other contexts and by other actors, even when they have strong potential to help alleviate media viability issues.

Despite many actors being active in providing media support only 0.3% or 0.5% of the foreign aid goes to the media, as remarked by Guy Berger, moderator of the session. Consultations about media viability and the impact of the different approaches have taken place in a variety of platforms, but require greater involvement of independent media and news publishers, since stronger coordination between the different stakeholders is essential to address the challenges to media sustainability.

Challenges to Media Viability

“Media viability is the capacity of the media to operate under sound, political, legal, and economic conditions to flourish independently and exist long-term”

Ruth Kronenburg, Executive Director, Free Press Unlimited

Media needs to be resilient. Over the past decade, trends on media resilience and reliability indicate that the media will struggle to survive. This is particularly concerning for media in conflict areas and economically challenging parts of the world. Ruth Kronenburg, Executive Director of Free Press Unlimited, identified the following causes behind this struggle:

  • An increase in authoritarianism and the thread of media capture

  • Competitions, mainly tech companies, social media,

  • Economic growth challenges

The costs of producing news is high, and in the Global South, this adds up to other economic challenges. Joan Chirwa, the founder of the Free Press Initiative, explained how the interrelation of economic factors hindered the growth of many of the media organisations that Free Press Initiative worked with. News outlets have to pay a lot of taxes in their country, but in order to produce and distribute the news, they have to buy a number of products that can only be bought in foreign currency, and the exchange fares increase the amount of their expenses in local currency.

In addition to that, political polarisation spills down to the media sector, presenting another set of challenges for the organisations, as noted by Joan Chirwa, founder of the Free Press Initiative. As a homegrown organisation that is trying to work across the sector to support the resilience, independence and quality of the business, they have identified this polarisation as a challenge, particularly in Zambia, where the Free Press Initiative has been working with both public and private media organisations.

“There was some movement to get the media in contact with advertising agencies, but that did not last after the election. The situation is different for radio, but it is a tragedy for print. And that's why for us, another emphasis has been to try and train as many journalists as possible in investigative reporting because we feel that's the only area where the survival of good journalism will come.”

Joan Chirwa, founder of the Free Press Initiative.

Kronenburg explained that, addressing only these challenges from a business model approach might not be enough to resolve the multilayered systemic issues that the media sector faces today: On a macro level, media encounters the challenges posed by the whole economic and political spheres, in which media support and press freedom organisations have little influence. The media market is at the mezzo level, together with the regulatory framework that addresses media ownership but also internet governance.

On that level, some influence is possible via advocacy actions aimed at improving this regulatory framework by requiring better transparency, levelling the playing field on the digital information ecosystem, and reminding policymakers of the importance of press freedom for a healthy and resilient society.

On a micro level, Kronenburg referred to the challenges that can be addressed at the level of the media outlets themselves, such as audience engagement or competition/collaboration with other outlets and sectors. The micro level is key to find innovative solutions to the challenges media are facing and build resilience for the sector - and collaboration and cooperation between different media, but also with other sectors, has proven a successful tool, as both Kronenburg and Chirwa agreed..

What Does Viability Look Like?

“Maintaining credibility and professionalism so [media organisations] are taken seriously. And that’s the only way they will be able to attract advertisers” Joan Chirwa, founder of the Free Press Initiative. “We are all media organisations. And we all want to see real outstanding organisations survive and thrive.”

Joan Chirwa, founder of the Free Press Initiative.

“We are all media organisations. And we all want to see real outstanding organisations survive and thrive.”

Jason Lambert, Senior Director of Media Business, Internews

The challenge of economic survival is a threat faced by many media outlets, and especially those dependent on private funding are especially worried with the possibility of donors stopping the flux of income.

Viability is not only about survival, but actually about running a successful business. Internews, similar to Free Press Unlimited, is an organisation supporting media in the Global South to make media financially viable, resilient and robust, and for that, creating a strong business model is one of the core pillars of their work. To do that, Internews has launched two innovative solutions: Ads for News, and more recently, the Media Viability Accelerator.

The Media Viability Accelerator is a data platform that will enable media organisations to understand which monetisation strategies suit different types of market, different types of media, at different stages of their development. It will offer benchmarks that inform ambitious, but achievable targets, and make it easier to evaluate business performance with stakeholders.

Over the past years, many of the big brands have taken away their advertisement from media outlets, negatively impacting their revenues. Ads for News, which has already proved its success, wants to bring back that money by addressing programmatic advertising, which is the automatic placement of ads on digital platforms (social media, apps, websites). Ads for News has generated a growing list of trusted, local media and with cooperation of the World Economic Forum they have managed to make advertisers use those lists, and send a percentage of their money to these trusted media.

However, viability or sustainability mean different things to different publishers: “for some it may be the ability to deliver their journalistic mission by any means, for others it is

about meeting financial targets or profitability” noted Lisa MacLeod, Publishing Lead at the Financial Times consultancy division, FT Strategies. FT Strategies conducted a study among 450 publishers across 90 countries, with the objective to define and measure sustainability in publishing. Also, to look at the examples of success among those publishers and identify what makes one publisher more successful than another. The final aim of this industry-wide study is to create a Diagnostic tool that helps publishers succeed.

“Sustainability for news publishers is the ability to fulfil the journalistic mission over the long term, reach financial resilience and stability, allowing them to continue investing in quality journalism, and adapt and grow as the markets evolve.”

Lisa MacLeod, Publishing Lead at the Financial Times consultancy division, FT Strategies.

The data from the study showed that as soon as there is economic pressure on newsrooms, the editorial capacity is the first thing that it’s negatively impacted. Overall, the study looked at the four pillars of a newsroom: financial resilience, product and audience development, monetisation and foundation. Technology and skills are part of the foundational aspects of journalism organisations, so is the ability to do the journalistic profession properly according to the environment where the work is conducted. Relating to this, MacLeod remarked that many journalism organisations have fundamental challenges in these pillars, especially relating to foundational ones.

Collaboration: new routes to media viability

“By cooperating and collaborating with other media, we aim to maintain the credibility and professionalism of this sector.”

Joan Chirwa, Founder, Free Press Initiative

“Keeping the community alive, engaged, and active distinguishes our most resilient media partners”

Ruth Kronenburg, Executive Director, Free Press Unlimited

Fixing complex issues in the media sector will require a lot of collaboration. Although currently, there has been a rise of resources and options available for media development, the question is if the media know how to use these resources in the most successful and proficient way. Joanna Krawcyk, Head of News Partnerships at Gazeta Wyborcza, stressed the importance of having conversations between different stakeholders involved and interested in media support and media development. We have seen how partnerships between media and other sectors, such as advertisers, and business consultancies have already proven successful. But, what about collaboration between media organisations in different regions?

One could think of the media in Moldova, Belarus, Nicaragua, and El Salvador as being “lonely warriors” facing those challenges on their own. At first glance, one would say that these regions have nothing in common, circumstances might seem different, and so are their languages. But in reality, the media in these countries face similar challenges. That's why experience sharing and networking are essential. Thanks to organisations like the Free Press Unlimited or the Free Press Initiative, media in different regions learn from each other’s strategies, for example in how to approach Big Tech companies creating technical solutions for digital audience engagement. In a situation of exile, journalists can also share their experiences with other colleagues. In order to enable those forums of exchange and learning, trust must be established and a neutral third party must facilitate it.

Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation is also helping other media outlets provide services they need but which they do not have capabilities for. From past experiences and exchanges also with other media support organisations, Krawcyk noted how essential it is to exchange information between media and media support organisations on how projects are developed, how the money invested is spent, and what the capabilities are for the beneficiaries of the money to implement the projects and report on their projects. Sometimes newsrooms lack the knowledge on how to invest efficiently the money that is invested in their projects, how to produce a donor report, and even sometimes how to apply for these grants or how to effectively participate in such collaborative projects.

Sustainable journalism in a broader context

Among the participants of the session, Lars Tallert, Head of Development at Fojo (Linnaeus University), raised the importance of looking at the sustainability of journalism from a broader perspective. In order to address the question of how journalism affects the sustainability of our societies in their interrelated economic, social and environmental aspects, they build a community for journalists, media and sustainability researchers and entrepreneurs to develop knowledge and practice based on the relation between journalism, sustainability and transformation. The recently constructed community already has more than 200 members from 63 different countries.

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