The paradox facing media: record audiences, shrinking revenues

The crisis caused by the novel coronavirus has shaken the media business worldwide. New opportunities have appeared for independent media, that are working hard to utilise every one of them, but at the same time the new challenges may be insurmountable.

Media are seeing a growing audience

How do you break bad news to someone? Do you ask if they want the good news or the bad news first? And what if the good news actually shine some light in otherwise dark circumstances? The novel coronavirus is causing that exact dilemma when it comes to describing the situation many independent media outlets are currently facing. As part of IMS’ coronavirus response, we have reached out to our partners across the world to collect their experiences and get their view on the matter — and yes, let’s start with the good news, since bad news has been given the lion’s share of our attention the last few months. 

The most obvious positive development in the wake of the corona crisis is an instant increase in readership. Partners from across the Middle East, Africa and Asia report of Covid-19 related audience growth. This is part of a global trend where citizens on a massive scale have sought out credible information about the novel corona virus. As pointed out by The Fix, fact-check media, independent media and community media are seemingly witnessing the biggest online traffic increase compared to other types of media — a tendency confirmed by IMS’ partners where many have seen double-digit and even tribble-digit percentage increases in their audience reach. Additionally, the very direct demand for information that the increase is a reflection of has also led to an increased sense of purpose, as Alia Ibrahim from Daraj in Lebanon has explained earlier.

Finding new formats to satisfy a growing demand

One of IMS’ partners who have seen their audience more than double as a consequence of the coronavirus is Puma Podcast from The Phillippines. Part of their strategy has been to let the news agencies run with the breaking news stories and instead focus on the personal stories on the ground that better unpack the human side of the pandemic. As part of that Puma Podcast has introduced a new “diary” format of shorter podcasts that have caught on with the listeners, which in a broader sense constitutes another of the opportunities that the coronavirus has brought with it: innovation.

Development of new formats and innovative ways of doing journalism are definitely part of the independent media response to the current crisis where many journalists, sources and much of the audience is trapped at home.

“We have had to adjust our work process, and we have had to innovate and to practice new ways of producing while telecommuting. Interviews with resource persons has had to take a hit quality-wise, but this has been an opportunity to teach these same experts and resource persons to raise their comfort levels with granting interviews online,” says Carl Javier, COO at Puma Podcast.

One of IMS’ Jordanian partners, 7iber, has made use of a similar approach of finding a hole in the market and use that as an opportunity to reach and inform a larger audience during this crisis:

“7iber’s coverage has been filling a gap as state-sponsored media’s and mainstream media’s coverage of COVID-19 — though extensive — is almost completely driven by government officials’ statements and virus spread and containment news. In light of this, 7iber is paying attention to what is happening behind the scenes, away from the eyes of the public and the government, of social and economic ramifications taking hold on vulnerable people across the country,” says Lina Ejeilat, executive editor at 7iber.

“We have had to adjust our work process, and we have had to innovate and to practice new ways of producing while telecommuting. Interviews with resource persons has had to take a hit quality-wise, but this has been an opportunity to teach these same experts and resource persons to raise their comfort levels with granting interviews online,”

Carl Javier

Chief Operations Officer, PumaPodcast

A new demand for fact-checked information

Among other opportunities that the crisis has offered is the possibility for stronger collaboration between like-minded independent media organisations along with an increased focus on the need for improved media literacy.

According to Cris Chinaka from the Zimbabwean fact-check media ZimFact, the current situation has actually created opportunity to bring some much-needed attention to public media literacy through explanatory fact-checks.

“We have witnessed a rise in public demand for fact-checked information and requests to check or confirm information circulating on social media, and the current Covid-19 crisis illustrates the obvious need to treat information with caution. This is a good basis for us to bring attention to and build a strong media literacy programme through fact-checking,” explains Cris Chinaka.

Authoritarian regimes don't like critical journalism

However, as advertised, the coronavirus certainly also has a down-side for independent media. The challenges actually outweigh the opportunities.

To many powerholders, and especially those with authoritarian leanings, independent media has an annoying tendency to point out their failures and shortcomings through critical journalism, and the novel coronavirus has given independent media lots of opportunities to do just that recently. As a response to this situation, and in an effort the control the flow of information, there has been an alarming clampdown on free media across the globe from political leaders trying to stifle the free press. A recent survey from the International Federation of Journalists found that “three in four journalists have faced official restrictions, obstruction or intimidation in reporting on Covid-19.

The challenges for independent media, however, doesn’t stop there, according to our partners. Keeping staff safe is an obvious challenge and concern in these times in addition to the challenge of obtaining verified facts while battling the immense amount of false information that is being spread online.

 

The financial distress of Covid-19

That said, the biggest challenge is the financial distress caused by the coronavirus. While audiences in big numbers are seeking out independent media to get reliable and unfettered information about the virus, the advertisement market has all but collapsed and halted one of the most important revenue streams for independent media.

“Advertisement has completely disappeared,” as a partner from Morocco, who does not want the outlet’s name to be mentioned, puts it.

The same is the case for the online outlet Herne Katha from Nepal.

“Our revenue streams are a big challenge. It has always been a struggle for us, but the Covid-19 outbreak has added much trouble,” says Bidhya Chapagain, co-founder and editor at Herne Katha.

And it is not only the advertisement market that is challenged. According to our partners, the economic downturn is affecting the spending habits of many news consumers, which, in turn, negatively affects the membership and subscription-based business models for independent media.

Adnan Khan Kakar, editor at Humsub, an IMS-partner in Pakistan, hits the nail on the head of this dichotomy: “The biggest opportunity also happens to be the flip side of the biggest challenge — converting growing digital news traffic into business revenues.”

The full impact on independent media of this economic crisis is still to be seen. A gloomy outlook, however, is given by a survey conducted by Splice Media, a collaborative partner of IMS in Singapore, among 59 independent media outlets worldwide. In the survey, more than forty percent state that they expect to start cutting jobs in the next six months if the current economic situation does not improve. A slightly smaller number of the outlets say that they maybe have to consider that final option in order to survive as a business. Surely, 59 respondents aren’t a lot, but nothing suggests that this alarming outlook isn’t representative on a broader scale. As professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, wrote recently: “To be brutally honest, I think a lot of news media won’t make it.

At a time where independent media is more needed than ever to provide crucial information on the novel coronavirus, that same virus is causing such an economic disruption that independent outlets will have to downsize or even shut down. The silver lining in the current situation is — as pointed out in the above — that many outlets are finding new and innovative ways of operating, which, despite the mounting challenges, could be seen as a glass-half-full scenario. However, there is an acute need to find solutions to the financial challenges independent media face to prevent the economic distress from shattering the glass entirely. 

“Our revenue streams are a big challenge. It has always been a struggle for us, but the Covid-19 outbreak has added much trouble.”

Bidhya Chapagain

Co-founder and editor at Herne Katha

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6. May 2020

Covid-19

A TURNING POINT FOR INDEPENDENT MEDIA?

Across the world, Covid-19 is re-awakening people to the vital role that independent media plays in their societies. 

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, many independent media outlets are seeing their audiences grow as people realise they need quality information to navigate the crisis. 

 

INNOVATIVE MEDIA RESPONSES TO COVID-19

In countries plagued by disinformation, our partner organisations are exploring new ways to inform and connect with their audiences. They’re preventing panic, slowing the spread of the disease, amplifying the voices of those affected, and helping mitigate the social and economic costs for the people and societies in which they work.