Job cuts, pay cuts, content reduction and closures – that is what many media outlets are currently facing. Some blame digitalization and the coronavirus pandemic. But could it be that they got their priorities wrong in the first place? Nadine Jurrat explores.

Media houses worldwide – not least in Africa – have been struggling to make ends meet. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the situation, resulting in so many media outlets fighting for survival. In some parts of the world, the corona crisis has been referred to as an extinction event, particularly for print and local media outlets, finishing off what digitalization had started.

But is digitalization and the COVID-19 pandemic solely responsible? Are there not enough people capable of paying for news or not enough advertisers to finance local media outlets? Could it be that media owners and managers are still ‘not getting it’?

At DW-Akademie, we repeatedly hear during these times of the pandemic, how people are looking to the media for reliable information on how the virus is affecting their lives, their economy, and the political landscape.

Searching for solutions

By working with local media, DW Akademie has been looking into the causes of this problem in 50 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. While the political environment may differ in each nation, the root problem is often the same. Digitalization has ruptured long-standing business models as well as audience habits.

With its promise of a much bigger audience reach and increased income, online advertising soon turned out to be a rich source that mainly feeds the big US-based tech companies. Smaller media outlets turned to hosting events, promoting developmental agendas, or selling their independence to government agencies with massive advertising budgets.

Ultimately, the strategy has not worked: Audiences have been losing trust in the media – Kenyans are some of the few to go against this trend – and have increasingly been looking for information on social networks or other free-to-access services.

Getting priorities right

The root problem lies not only with the audiences and the freely available information but also because many media outlets mainly focus on the business’s financial aspects when trying to survive. They neglect the quality of their content or the opportunity to understand who their audiences are and what they want.

Whenever DW Akademie talks about media viability, it is not just about media sustainability – viability transcends the issue of money. Media experiences from around the world, clearly show that even the savviest paywall or membership program will not save the day if the audience feels they are not getting value for their hard-earned cash. The most innovative online news platform will not earn a shilling in financial returns if readers do not have a safe way to pay for content. So, what does it take?

First, the bad news: There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to making your media outlet viable, no silver bullet that will turn your radio, newspaper, digital outlet or TV station into a thriving business. Because every media outlet has a different set-up, serves a diverse audience and works within various political and economic environments.

Now the good news: There are inspiring examples of successful media outlets on every continent, working within the most challenging circumstances – poverty, social unrest, high illiteracy rates, or poor digital infrastructure. And still, they have managed to establish themselves as strong brands.

The Liberian ‘mediapreneuer’

Take FrontPageAfrica (FPA) in Liberia, for example, in a country with one of the highest illiteracy and poverty rates, its founder and editor-in-chief, Rodney Sieh, has established one of the country’s leading newspaper. He has a clear vision of what his newspaper wants to achieve: high quality, independent and investigative journalism that speaks to the everyday life of most Liberians.

The result: Sieh has built a business model based on advertising, including online advertising on the website that is the go-to for the diaspora, as well as a smart partnership with the non-profit organization New Narratives, which he co-founded to bring donor funding to support the paper’s investigative reporting. Moreover, he has a diverse team of loyal staff that stood by him even when he got sentenced to 5,000 years in prison for libel. (He was released after four months in detention following an international outcry).

FPA’s audience values and trusts the reports as the paper has a zero-tolerance towards brown envelope journalism (when journalists are bribed through cash to write positively or negatively about specific people or stories).

Sieh’s FPA was the first media outlet in Liberia to publish issues that affect women on the front page – a novum at the time. Why? Because Rodney Sieh knew that half of his audience are women, so apart from topics such as rape or female genital mutilation (FGM) being critical societal issues, it also made business sense.

Key points to media viability

Looking at FrontPageAfrica and other viable media outlets, these are the main lessons learned so far:

  • Know your business and analyze your market: Look at what your market can offer, where the limitations are and how you can deal with the biggest threats to your business in terms of finances, infrastructure, legal actions, and lack of qualified staff. DW Akademie’s Media Viability Indicators (MVIs) show which aspects are essential. Also, ask yourself what you can offer the market that no one else can-what is your unique edge? You won’t be able to work on everything immediately, so take an informed decision on what needs to be prioritized. DW Akademie has developed a Viability Assessment Map – or VAM360°[NJ1] – which breaks up the complex issue of media viability and can assist you in identifying the priorities of your media outlet. DW Akademie also offers an accompanying facilitated online or face-to-face assessment, the (Viability)-Sprint.
  • Build a community around your media outlet: Show your audience that they can trust your information by observing two main aspects: One: Ensure that your journalistic content is ethical and fact-based. Two: Understand who your audience is and what they want from you. Start a conversation with them on what topics they are interested in and how they want to consume this information. Look at the numbers: which stories had the most positive feedback? Which issues sold best and engaged most people? What can you do to make your reports more attractive to your audience? If people feel that they are part of your community, they are more likely to buy your products and support you when times get tough.
  • Integrate qualified people dedicated to business: Some research shows that media outlets that hired people devoted to the business side of the media dramatically increased their turnover by 3,000% (yes – three thousand!). In your newsroom, you will have qualified journalists – so why not get staff with the relevant business acumen on board?
  • Dare to be different and create room for innovation: Try out new ways of distributing and marketing your content or engaging with your audience, but closely monitor innovations and cut them off if they are not successful. We live in unprecedented times – and they call for exceptional measures. Make sure you understand why a new approach has not worked and watch out for new technologies that might be relevant for your media as a business. Do your audiences mainly communicate via messenger apps like WhatsApp or Signal? Then look at how you can integrate this into your distribution.
  • Actively engage in relevant networks to learn from the success and mistakes of others: Yes, there is competition among media outlets – but some issues are just too big to be tackled alone. These networks can always include media outlets that are not in direct competition, especially at pan-African or international level. It is crucial to build networks with relevant people outside the media bubble. Such people include graphic designers, who can explain a complex story in a visual way that your audience can easily comprehend; or a lawyer’s association to deal with challenges within the national legal framework, like access to information or protection of journalistic sources.

Success will not come overnight. But it will entail building a strategy that goes beyond financial aspects, taking into account the political and legal environment, as well as organizational development. It must also include ethical journalism, building trust amongst your audience and possibly taking into account the security challenges.

All this will require time and constant analysis of what is working and what has failed. Most of all, it needs the courage to move out of your comfort zone. It is not something that can be done alone but needs a dedicated team that understands the various challenges and one which is quick to react to changes in the market and audience behaviour.

It’s not a comfortable ride – but successful examples show that it is worth it![NJ1]

About the Author

Author ProfileNadine Jurrat
Nadine Jurrat is a senior consultant at the Policy and Learning Department at DW Akademie. She focuses on media viability and investigative journalism. A graduate from the London School of Journalism and the University of London, she has been working in international media development for more than 17 years, supporting journalists in regions of conflict and closed societies. Nadine has also been assisting media outlets and NGOs in developing business strategies and fundraising.  

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