The long term: sustainable media, viable media | #mediadev | DW | 25.08.2015
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The long term: sustainable media, viable media

In an era of digital change, media must find ways to secure their long-term survival and independence. Media sustainability is often discussed – but what does it actually mean? And would media viability be a better term?

The definition of media sustainability generally goes beyond just media survival. Sustainable media outlets also have the resources they need to produce high-quality, independent journalism that supports transparent and responsive development in the areas of government, human rights and economics.

This sounds pretty theoretical. What does it mean, exactly?

To ensure both economic sustainability and independent, quality media coverage, three factors are crucial: 1) the overall economic environment and media-market structure, 2) revenue sources of media organizations, and 3) media organizations’ resources and structures. Simply said, they represent macro-, mid-, and micro-levels.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1) The overall economic environment and media-market structure deal with the big picture on a national scale. In this context, to maintain media sustainability it is important that

  • the economy provides media organizations with an environment that reinforces their sustainability;
  • media audiences and (potential) advertisers are wealthy enough to support media; and that
  • media at all levels – national, regional, and local – are able to attract big enough audiences to be financially viable.

2) Revenue sources of media organizations here refer to the media sector as a whole. Media sustainability can only be guaranteed if:

  • media organizations do not depend on a single source of revenue but have income streams from a variety of sources
  • the distribution of state and non-state subsidies is fair and transparent; and if
  • the sources of these subsidies do not constrain editorial independence.

3) Finally, zooming in to the micro-level, the resources and structures of media organizations themselves should also support sustainability. For example, media outlets should

  • be able to generate enough financial resources to provide their audience with high-quality news reporting;
  • be able to pay high enough wages to retain qualified employees and discourage unethical behavior; and
  • have sound business and financial plans which they are able to implement.

This is just a smattering of what is needed to assure true media sustainability. It does not mean that in order to have media sustainability all media must be sustained. Quality media outlets, however, should be, and this requires time, money and experts with experience.

Some people talk about “media viability.” What is the difference?

The media development community is beginning to agree that the concept of media viability includes a sense that the media organization is an independent actor.

Most often this is connected with a dedication to news quality, professional organization, and sound financial planning. Such criteria are not solely subject to external factors, such political, legal or regulatory controls. The power over quality, organization and finances lies in the hands of the media outlets themselves and contributes to making those outlets viable.

Why is media viability actually the better term?

In much of the literature, there is no differentiation between viability and sustainability. But as recent discussions have shown, viability is a broader concept that not only encapsulates the (financial) survival of media outlets, but also their ability to produce independent, high-quality content. Therefore, it makes more sense to speak of media viability as the means of ensuring high journalistic standards and independence.

Must reads

Financially Viable Media in Emerging and Developing Markets by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, 2011

Matching the Market and the Model: The Business of Independent News Media by CIMA, 2011

Community Media Sustainability Guide. The Business of Changing Lives by Internews, 2009

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