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PRIMED learning questions

Note: The learning questions will be adapted and the descriptions will evolve as the project progresses. (Last updated: 12 March 2021)
This note outlines the principal questions which PRIMED expects to answer over its lifetime. It plans to answer these questions with clear, actionable insights capable of guiding future international and media development spending and strategy.
The learning questions have been identified collaboratively across the Consortium based on:
A) the principal programmatic focus of PRIMED
B) the questions which media development practitioners and donors are most looking for insight into and
C) the practical feasibility of answering them clearly.
This document summarises each question, why it has been identified as a priority, what kinds of learning are designed to be generated and how that will be crystallised and communicated.

Learning Questions:

Learning Questions Summaries

Q1. What have we learned from different types of interventions in supporting improved media ecosystems? What are the lessons from Iraq and Zambia? What other evidence do we have from NGOs working in other countries? How can this be applied in the PRIMED context?

This question is focused on understanding when and how media support and reform strategies in one context are (and are not) relevant or applicable to others. Media support practitioners have been accused in the past of adopting a “template” approach to media support and ignoring the distinct political economy and other contextual factors at work in different countries. While these criticisms are more muted thanks to increased investment over recent years in research and political economy analysis by media support actors, there remains a lack of granular, case study based analysis of which kinds of approaches are transferable from one context to another and which are not.
The PRIMED “learning countries” are Zambia and Iraq which could hardly be more different from each other on multiple levels. Their political and media cultures, their economic basis, the trajectory of media reform and the relationship between media and power and in terms of their history of media development. Iraq has been the subject of huge investments in media support, much of it acknowledged as having been provided under poorly thought out strategic frameworks and with a few exceptions, doubtful and even counterproductive results. Zambia has benefited from significant but far less support much of it (in contrast to Iraq) focused on a local level and community media.
BBC Media Action has long and intensive experiences in both countries (as well as the PRIMED countries) and its strategic approaches are very different. The briefing will both document this diversity, explore where there are commonalities and common principles, and provide practical guidance for policy-makers and donors about how to approach media support in diverse settings beyond the obvious recommendations that context-specific strategies are important.

Q2. What strategies and solutions in areas such as revenue generation, audience development, organisational management and digital development are effective in supporting the financial viability of independent media in fragile contexts? Which innovations show the most promise?

The last decade has witnessed an explosion of innovation among media organisations worldwide in seeking to find fresh models of revenue generation. That innovation has intensified as the pressures on media business models have grown as advertising has migrated to online platforms, as political co-option and the costs of journalism have increased and, over the last year, the economic impact on media of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified.
Most (but by no means all) innovation has been driven in the Global North in settings where alternative revenue models (like membership and subscription schemes, podcasts, growing online audiences, events and identifying specific niche online communities) can tap into widespread societal wealth. This question is designed to clearly and precisely identify strategies that hold the most promise in the settings typified by PRIMED and, just as important, those that do not.
The different organisations in PRIMED have strong and diverse skillsets and experiences to bring to bear on this question. They also have different, and potentially differing, perspectives, on how much real potential different strategies have in this area in terms of constituting truly viable business models in low income and fragile settings. Answering this question will involve examining the different revenue generations strategies available to PRIMED and other similar settings and assess which provide credible avenues for meaningful paths to sustainability in the future. Project monitoring and data from the media monitoring system will generate data to support learning. It will summarise both optimistic and more critical arguments for their exploitation in the future. It will also reference some of the specific constraints and characteristics to revenue generation including an inability to pay, potential information inequality and the degree of power of those with money to undercut commercial revenue generation through political cooption of media.
This question will be led by the Media Development Investment Fund which is the world’s leading organisation in advising and investing in independent media with the aim of making them sustainable and profitable. Given its expertise, MDIF will disseminate practical learnings to facilitate uptake of good practices and share know-how from hands-on-work with media organisations.

Q3. What types of intervention are effective in supporting the viability of public interest media in fragile contexts? What impact do they have on outlets in areas such as revenues, engagement, reach and business processes? What have we learnt from these interventions?

Similar in scope to the above question and based on learning from MDIF’s and BBC Media Action’s experience of working with several media partners in Ethiopia. MDIF will collect detailed data on the progress of several partners in Ethiopia over a period of three years and against agreed metrics and collect relevant learnings from workshops in all three countries (1 event /year/country). BBC Media Action will work with media practitioners to collect data on their reflections and audience data on partners content over time to complement this work.
Legal and regulatory reform issues have formed a core component of media support efforts for decades. The development and sustaining of a free and independent media is all but impossible if the legal and regulatory structure is hostile to the existence of such media. However, a common experience is that even when developed, the existence of an apparently enabling legal and regulatory conditions for media has rarely been sufficient to guarantee either media freedom or media plurality and viability. Political or private powers have routinely proved adept at bypassing or reversing [MOU1] legal and regulatory frameworks. The judiciary institutions or the regulatory authorities may lack effective independence and/or capacity to enforce existing laws. Media, journalists and civil society actors may also lack knowledge and/or capacity to make use of, and rely on, existing legal frameworks.
Significant work under PRIMED will be focused on legal and regulatory reform efforts but this will differ substantially across the three countries. The Political Economy Analysis [MOU2] and baseline surveys currently being commissioned and developed will be particularly instrumental in guiding efforts and the degree of priority that is likely to be placed on these efforts. In essence, we face a choice of what realistically is possible and likely to prove productive if the political will is either absent or hostile to media reform and viability efforts. A set of recommendations by A19 will be published early on in the programme implementation to help shape strategies based on lessons learnt in other fragile and resource-poor contexts.
By the end of the programme, it is expected that the programme will be able to provide experience-based guidance on what strategies should be prioritised under which political conditions. It will seek to combine legal regulatory expertise with political economy considerations and the felt needs of media institutions and practitioners on the ground.
This work will be led by ARTICLE 19, arguably the foremost specialist in the world on legal and regulatory media reform, in partnership with Free Press Unlimited which has additional extensive on the ground experience especially in fragile and authoritarian states.

Q5. Under what conditions and to what extent does an improved understanding of audiences and a pro-active pursuit of engagement with the audience translate into improved prospects for media viability?

The backbone of any effective media support strategy focused on improving financial viability is understanding, building a relationship and serving audiences. Some approaches, like the development of membership models, seek to take this relationship to a level where target audiences feel a significant degree of ownership and identify with the media institution. Some of the most promising commercial approaches to revenue generation focus on identifying specific niche audiences who can be super served by high-quality journalism in such a way that the audience is prepared to pay a premium for the journalism on offer. Almost all advertising based strategies depend on tracking audience data to convince advertisers to continue to invest in the media outlet. Many sustainability strategies are focused on improving the understanding of audiences an approach that cuts across all models of media. Many community media organisations depend directly on financial support from their communities (with those communities often constituting both the principal audience and the main generators of media content) with some models ensuring community ownership. Any successful model of public service media depends on high levels of audience engagement, trust and satisfaction to justify the public funding that supports it.
PRIMED will include a significant focus on building the skills of media organisations to understand audiences with a particular focus on understanding what audiences are most seeking from media institutions, what is it that they most value from media and which content they resonate most with. Audience research will be conducted by media organisations to understand audiences, test content and gain continual audience feedback. This data will be coupled with continual research with practitioners on how they have applied audience research insights to their work to provide insight into the effect audience understanding has on the prospects media viability.
However, increasing evidence suggests that understanding and maximising audience reach does not necessarily translate into meaningful additional income. In Iraq, for example, a revenue diversification strategy of BBC Media Action partner Al Mirbad, led to the creation of highly popular short satirical videos which generated a huge increase in online audience – more than 1 billion views over three years. The revenue generated by this audience maximisation was, however, minimal reaching around $36,000 p.a. Revenues from building online audiences in low-income countries are typically far smaller than in industrialised markets and there is generally no meaningful way of influencing the platforms that define the rates paid. Original hopes that responses to advertising migrating online could be offset by media institutions growing online audiences appear to be questionable. Community media have proved susceptible overtime to capture by specific political interests. Public service media have proved susceptible to capture by government interests which they prioritise over audience demand.
This question is designed to learn from both PRIMED programme and learning questions, and triangulate that learning with other international practice, to answer this crucial question of the link between audience engagement and media viability.

Q6. Under what conditions are approaches to public subsidy worth exploring and developing in the countries this programme operates in and elsewhere in the global south? What political socio-economic conditions need to exist to explore it?

The notion of public subsidy of independent media is contentious even in some of the most well-established democracies in the world. Consideration of a public subsidy approach in low income and politically fragile nations is for some too risky to contemplate. However, the widespread failure of the traditional advertising-driven business model and the particularly acute challenges confronting media in low-income countries in generating meaningful digital revenue suggest that a clear-headed and creative approach to considering this approach is required.
Approaching this question will be rooted in a hard-headed political economy analysis of the specific countries PRIMED is working in and also an unflinching assessment of earlier public subsidy approaches. For example, the record of transforming former state broadcast organisations into independent, sustainable public service broadcasters has been a poor one. It will also be rooted in an acknowledgement that the political incentives for improving public subsidy to independent media are limited and that there is already very substantial public subsidy to media in the form of government advertising and state funding of state and commercial media aligned to governmental interests. The standards developed by ARTICLE 19 on freedom of expression and state subsidies for media set clear legal safeguards that enable public money to fund independent media while averting threats on media freedom and independence: such safeguards will also inform the reflection on this question.
International examples of public subsidy to independent media are mushrooming, not least in the UK where the issue formed the focus of a major review by Dame Frances Cairncross. The notion that public subsidy constitutes an increasingly credible option for ensuring the survival of public interest in established democracies can spark more creative approaches to less established ones and should not preclude them. Answering this question will involve a clearer definition of the different models of public subsidy that might be available, not all of which involve central government. The kinds of conditions it will examine and recommend that need to exist will not only be political but also in reference to the enabling environment (for example whether international development banks have sufficient interest in enabling media as a check on corruption and a guarantor of citizen engagement to make the issue a policy priority).

Q7. What business and management models/organisational and team structures, competencies, and processes/ have the potential to improve gender equality in the workplace and gender-sensitive programming?

Gender inequality, sexual harassment and inadequate representation are long-standing structural issues in media organisations all over the world. They are acute in some of the settings focused on by the PRIMED programme. PRIMED will be making significant investments in content analysis and gender analysis and it will draw on these to answer this question. Evidence of the links between improved gender representation in the workplace and improved media resilience and viability is poorly explored and this question will seek to interrogate and add to that evidence base. It will examine how improved coverage of gender issues can broaden, build and connect with audiences and whether this can improve revenue and audience trust. It will document and explore what kinds of strategies focused on improving women’s position in the workplace have translated into real and sustained progress (and which have not). It will also provide recommendations on how media support strategies in the future focused on improving media viability can integrate gender dimensions into their design from the outset.

Q8. Which factors are most effective in enabling locally-driven coalitions for change to emerge and thrive through externally supported media development efforts?

No sustainable process of media reform or strategic intervention can be driven from outside a country. It requires effective coalitions of change to assert ownership and generate the reform or media viability process from within. In many countries, especially those with little tradition of independent media or authoritarian control, these coalitions take time to emerge. In countries with longer democratic traditions, they are often fragmented. The task of external partners is to support independent media development, not determine it. This is often easier to commit to in principle than it is to in practice given that external actors not only have greater access to funding but also have clear imperatives and pressures to deliver on that funding, which often places pressure to shape action on the ground. Furthermore, international actors are often not always aligned or coordinated making it difficult for nationally and locally generated coalitions of change to engage with them.
This question will build on and document some of the best-organised attempts at coalition-building drawn from the experiences of other countries such as Zimbabwe and more recently from Sudan as well as drawing on the coalition-building programming within PRIMED, which particular focus on Ethiopia and Sierra Leone (and Bangladesh?). The answer will provide clear practical recommendations on coalition-building through these three case studies. It will explore what kinds of approaches are most suitable to adopt when (for example if there is a sudden political opening, such as that which existed in Sudan in 2020 compared to Zimbabwe, where opportunities for media reform have been extremely limited and sporadic). [DL7]

Q9. How do we analyse and incorporate the influence of international social media platforms and other external forces shaping domestic media development prospects?

The PRIMED project is designed and premised on the assumption that programmatic intervention at a national and local level within the partner countries can improve media viability and independence. The project acknowledges, however, that an increasingly dominant influencer of the conditions which shape the prospects of improved media viability are the social media platforms over which domestic media actors and international media support actors have negligible influence. These platforms shape audience dynamics and demand by algorithmic rewarding of content that galvanises audience attention but does not necessarily reward content that serves the public interest or other independent media objectives. The platforms shape their own terms of trade which defines the rates paid for advertising content and over which domestic news organisations have negligible influence. And as most citizens gain access to the internet and mobile telephony, they shape the broader dynamics of public debate which is increasingly carried out online and which, according to much analysis, fosters political polarisation and misinformation. This question will focus on how much influence the international platforms have on media reform and support efforts. It will document these and other related effects, help in-country partners understand and adapt to these dynamics but also identify what and how partners in-country can do in the context of this growing international influence.

Q10. How do we define public interest media in PRIMED settings beyond ownership status, business model and newsroom structure?

The concepts of what constitutes “public interest” and “independent” media are contested. Few if any media in PRIMED countries would claim that they are genuinely independent of government or other control. Notions of the public interest can include a range of media types from large mass media institutions to citizen journalist networks to ecosystems that privilege participatory forms of communication. Who defines the public interest and how can serving it be measured or assessed? Drawing on both programmatic experience and broader international learnings, this question will seek to provide practical guidance into how to navigate and translate these conceptual questions into programmatic insight and advice.

Q11. What constitutes a resilient media organisation and what support strategies are most effective in building media viability and resilience to shocks and stresses in PRIMED settings?

There is a scarcity of research on the impact of political and economic disasters and crisis on media organisations. Some studies and findings have looked at the characteristics that ‘make up’ resilience in an organisation. One of the few publications on the resilience of media organisations published in 2019 by WAN-IFRA concluded that strategic thinking, a close adaptation of revenue models to the local context and partnership opportunities contributed to a sense of resilience. Media economy analyst Ann Hollifield suggests we borrow insights from other industries about business continuity and resilience in the face of disasters given the scarcity of literature on media. These insights suggest that a key element of surviving a crisis is innovation and the capacity of organisations to do it.
Answering this question will contribute to building a body of literature on the characteristics and culture of an organisation that makes it more likely to be resilient, but it will go beyond assessments of internal adaptation and leadership capacities. It will use a case study approach to tell the complex story of how different organisations supported by PRIMED have survived, collapsed or recovered in and after various economic and political challenges during the three years of implementation.
A framework and a bank of accompanying indicators are being developed to understand media resilience across organisations. Measurement of resilience coupled with data from practitioners, management and others in the wider media ecosystem will enable identification of the key drivers of media resilience.
This work will first establish the ‘what’ question. What do organisations need to be resilient to? How do they perceive their vulnerabilities? There will be differences in the challenges faced between different organisations within one media ecosystem and at different times. This will depend on particular political contexts and markets that organisations operate in and their position in those contexts and markets.
The analysis will take into consideration the interconnectedness of the ‘macro’ political economy factors that media organisations have to be resilient to, as well as micro factors within each organisation that support their resilience to the challenges they face, i.e. capabilities, leadership and culture. It will conclude with an analysis of what makes some organisations more or less sensitive to these areas in a given context? And what support strategies are likely to be most effective in improving their resilience to those vulnerabilities.

Q12. What are the key constituents of an enabling economic environment for public interest media in the current context in these settings and what options are there for supporting the creation of such an environment?

Over the past thirty years, the understanding of what constitutes an enabling environment for the media has gradually increased but has also profoundly changed. Freedom House for instance, which has studied freedom of the press around the world consistently for over thirty years, until 2018 focused on three key elements. These key elements were the political, economic, and legal environment in which media operate. The focus of much media support has been on the regulatory and legal environment as well as the political context in which media support takes place. The economic environment has tended to be a subsidiary priority not least because until a decade ago, more liberalised economic environments provided a healthy backdrop for flourishing media.
In recent years, organisations such as the Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA), Deutsche Welle-Akademie (DW-A) and IREX (through its Media Sustainability Index) have undertaken extensive research in media sustainability or media viability. Current research is focusing more and more on issues such as internet governance; the power of big technological corporations as key players in the competition for advertising revenues; innovative business models; and misinformation, fake news, and audience trust.
A 2011 research report by WAN IFRA on newspapers states that ‘the impact of economic factors on independent news organizations is generally underestimated and often plays a bigger role than political pressure.’ The WAN IFRA study highlights two areas of media operations: business development and editorial independence. The research further states that ‘the results challenge the widely held belief that political pressures represent the major challenge for newspapers in most developing countries.’ The economic climate and market conditions represent major challenges to editorial independence and business advancement at every level of development.
In 2017, DW-A together with UNESCO developed a proposal to include a sixth category to the aforementioned MDIs, measuring the business side of the media5. It itemised different components of the economic enabling environment including national and local income levels, the intensity of competition (e.g. any competitors scrambling for a limited amount of advertising), the dynamics of the digital advertising market and of the national media advertising market and issues of financial oversight including levels of corruption.
This area of work will define what constitutes an economic enabling environment for independent small and medium-sized media outlets in PRIMED country contexts? For this research, economic environment comprises: the economic market system; political and legal system; and technological infrastructure; plurality and diversity of media; a level economic playing field; and transparency of ownership.
It will also seek to determine what is, and is not, within the scope of media support efforts to positively shift that environment. Ostensibly low levels of income in a country should obviously shape the size and plurality of a media market but the question will examine why, for example, a country like Ethiopia has such a poorly developed advertising market compared to a country like Kenya, despite the fact that both countries have similar-sized economies. Historical and broader market dynamics of the very different economic models of the countries will obviously explain much of this but we will seek to understand why the overall size of the advertising and other income available to media is often so dramatically small and what can be done to improve this.

Q13. Which strategies are most effective at supporting/encouraging/engaging reform-minded governments and domestic regulatory institutions in creating the most conducive conditions for media viability and resilience?

The most conducive opportunities for meaningful media support are when governments committed to reform assume power or when other windows of opportunity for reform emerge. These governments are often politically fragile and have relatively short periods in which to enact change. They are often working in a climate where opposition to them is strong and that opposition is often manifested by control of media and communication channels, which makes the surrendering of government control over the media politically risky and courageous. Most experience suggests that political energy for reform subsides quite quickly as entrenched interests reassert influence and frustrations in delivering results to those who have supported reform grow. Answering this question will be rooted in summarising the experience of broader non PRIMED engagement with reform-minded governments and applying it to the different contexts of the PRIMED programme and learning countries.
In any case, even in mature democracies, the process of legislative reforms is a slow and complex one where a great number of interests fight to exert their influence. In addition to the inner workings of the political sphere, the roles of other actors – such as the judiciary, the regulatory bodies, media and civil society actors – in legislative reforms need to be considered. A progressive judiciary may create opportunities for legal reform, for instance, if a court strikes down an antiquated law. An informed civil society and media can mobilise international law arguments for the purposes both of legal action or advocacy towards legal reforms.

Q14. What strategies are most effective in building a viable media ecosystem with media resilient outlets and public interest content continuously available for audiences?

This is the overriding question which the PRIMED Consortium is designed to collectively answer over the lifetime of the project. It involves synthesising our programmatic experience, monitoring data and evidence with the learning generated from answering the rest of the questions into a macro-level analysis. It will integrate analysis of the system-wide issues (such as the enabling economic environment, legal and regulatory environments and role of the technology platforms) with the specific institutional focused questions (such as which revenue generation strategies are most effective) with the policy level options for reform (such as around public subsidy). It will seek to provide guidance on how to weigh the relative importance of intervening in different areas and how to apply these conclusions in different political and economic contexts.
[2] Webinar conducted by Deustche Welle Akademie as part launched their new Media Viability Indicators (MVIs).