Traditional media business models have collapsed, and donor funding is rarely long term. Without sustainable resources, public interest media simply cannot deliver and sustain their operations.
With wars in Gaza, Sahel and Ukraine threatening to further destabilize communities across the globe, societies urgently need reliable facts to be able to discuss and respond to the enormous challenges. Yet independent media outlets worldwide face an urgent economic problem: their traditional business models have collapsed, and donor funding is rarely long term. Without sustainable resources, public interest media simply cannot deliver and sustain their operations.
Faced with shrinking knowledge about audiences from platforms, negligible returns from public interest news content on technology companies, and little transparency on data and algorithms, news media can make little progress in bringing about economic change in the digital landscape alone. Nor can capacity and technical support, research and coalition building be best targeted.
However, to date, the international media development community's efforts to address the challenge of media viability have been fragmented. Not only are terms like viability, sustainability, and resilience often used interchangeably without precise and shared definitions, but also the strategies employed to confront the challenge often lack clarity and coherence. In addition, practical approaches and project implementation tools are rarely coordinated or synchronized, leading to frequent reinvention of the wheel. All these factors limit the potential for meaningful impact and systemic change.
To improve the sustainability of independent public interest media, actors in the field of media viability have come together in a pioneering multi-stakeholder initiative. The initiative seeks to foster conceptual clarity, strategic collaboration, and a shared vision for the media development community.
"Solving the media viability crisis demands more than the efforts of individual media outlets. We need a systemic change that fosters fairer market conditions for independent journalism. This requires collective action from the media development sector, with coordinated strategies and better aligned implementation of media viability tools and approaches," says Laura Moore, head of research and evaluation at DW Akademie.
During a workshop organized by Free Press Unlimited, International Media Support and DW Akademie in Amsterdam, implementers from FT Strategies, UNESCO, BBC Media Action, Fondation Hirondelle, Center for International Media Assistance, Sembra Media, IREX and Internews jointly developed a theory of change for media viability.
The goal of creating this shared vision is to prevent duplication, increase the impact and effectiveness of programs, and better target activities where they are most needed. "This joint framework is an excellent opportunity to work more effectively together as a sector, as it allows to identify gaps in data and activities that local and independent media need to survive and thrive," says Isabelle Schlapfer, research manager at Internews.
The theory of change will be published as part of the Media Viability Manifesto, which aims to provide a common framework for joint action of the global media development community. The approach is three-pronged: (1) to foster conceptual clarity, (2) to strengthen strategic collaboration, and (3) to align practical implementation.
The Media Viability Manifesto, developed in a multi-stage, collaborative process involving practitioners in the field, began with a comprehensive mapping exercise and a co-creation workshop in Berlin. This resulted in a preliminary draft of a joint conceptual framework for media viability, which was tested in a survey, gathering insights from a diverse group of media viability experts. Additional input was obtained at an International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) Pre-Conference session in Lyon, which led to the development of a joint theory of change during a workshop in Amsterdam. The theory will undergo external validation before the final Manifesto is published in early 2024.
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the website of International Media Support (mediasupport.org). It is published here with permission.