Dying to get online: Independent media’s “last-chance saloon”

It has been clear from the onset that the Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis, but also an economic crisis, with journalists as the first responders in the ‘infodemic’. Together with the advertising crisis and the move to a more digital, mobile, and office-less media environment, the pandemic is speeding up the need for a ‘digital vaccine’.

This article was originally published on medium.com. We’ve included the first part here, but highly recommend reading the full version.

To stimulus or not to stimulus?
The global media industry needs a massive economic stimulus. From small digital savvy start-ups in tight-knit communities in South Africa and Pakistan to larger legacy media in urban centers in Colombia and Ukraine, the line is increasingly long. Still, there is a high chance that any stimulus will be ill-designed, counterproductive and hijacked by political interests.

“The risk with any stimulus offer is that those already-struggling media companies do not use this ‘last chance saloon’ call to substantially change their dying business models,” says CEO Styli Charalambous from South Africa’s Daily Maverick.“Digital transformation and innovation have been sorely lacking in our industry and this could just be a case of kicking the can down the road. But in the context of so many less-deserving outfits who have been bailed out, why not those who inform and provide a public service?”

As a qualified chartered accountant, now leading a pioneering media start-up, Charalambous is acutely aware of the growing gap between traditional advertising and digital revenue and the constant need to get funds to stay afloat. He’s also aware that government funding of independent media is a tricky situation to navigate, especially in a country like South Africa that has been traumatised by wholesale corruption in the last decade.

“A stimulus is needed here too,” says Jakub Parusinski, Head of Marketing for the Ukrainian Hromadske TV, a leading Internet television station founded in Kyiv in 2013, but he is quick to point out that its focus needs to be on organizational-led innovation rather than covering project budgets, where in two months they’ll be back to the same problem.

“Globally, there is a trend towards public or private-public funding to sustain the media sector,” says María Teresa Ronderos, a Colombian editor and co-founder of the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), which leads cross-border collaborative investigations. “Like in France, where that have a competitive process to fund public-interest media based on the public’s need and right for information. And for the first time ever in the US, advanced talks are moving in political circles about using public money to finance local public-interest media. This was never on the cards before”.

However, she points out that this [use of public money] doesn’t work easily in many [frontier and emerging] markets, as too often the ‘BBC model’ is turned into a State propaganda machine. “So very often the better solution is a public-private option,” says Ronderos, who recently returned to her native Colombia after five years heading the Independent Journalism Program of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a private philanthropic foundation. “This is where innovative thinking is going, backing new business models for media that are vital to local communities”.

Even so, these new models operating in complex conflict markets must tread the line carefully to avoid being eaten up by such propaganda machines or being co-opted by special interests.

Such is the case for Pakistan’s media industry, which started to decline in recent years with mass layoffs and shut downs and has struggled to create such models. The situation was partly affected by the ailing economy, partly by the outcome of the July 2018 elections that brought a government to power headed by a party not seen as friendly to business, coupled with the withdrawal of government subsidies and dwindling advertising revenue.

From Islamabad, International Media Support’s (IMS) resident advisor, Adnan Rehmat, explains how the current government has clearly stated that it cannot provide subsidies to media.

“This option is not on the table and so they must rely on the market to simulate the new digital media landscape,” he says.

“You must incentivise the right kind of behavior through substantive seed capital funding or stimuli for commercial-based revenue that drive sustainable innovation,” says Parusinski, who chairs the Media Development Foundation board, which works with journalists, newsrooms, civil society and public officials in Central and Eastern Europe to help build stronger civil societies in post-authoritarian states.”

(Article continues here)