Media startups study is a trove of information | Media viability | DW | 21.12.2015
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Media viability

Media startups study is a trove of information

The 'Publishing for peanuts' study examines 35 journalism startups, exploring how they stay afloat and the ways they innovate. The case studies give great insight into how smaller media outlets operate around the globe.

The report, which was published by Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, includes case studies from 16 different countries. Although it details several Australian and US outlets, the study primarily focuses on journalism startups in developing media markets, ranging from Peru, Brazil and India to Malaysia, Lebanon and Jordan.

Publishing for peanuts: Innovation and the Journalism Start-up
takes a close look at independent media outlets which are innovative, produce credible content, and in the words of the authors, “might actually survive financially.”

For the study, the authors Anya Schiffrin, JJ Robinson and Kristen Grennan explored how the outlets innovate to tackle editorial, business, distribution and security issues. The authors also identified the diverse ways in which the outlets sustain themselves financially.

With its emphasis on capturing the struggles and successes of media practitioners in developing countries, the study is essential reading for aspiring media entrepreneurs or those working for media development organizations active in the global south.

No one model of financial sustainability

With donors increasingly pushing media outlets to become financially sustainable in the long-term, the 'Publishing for peanuts' study provides insights into the makeup of journalism startups in developing countries. The study found:

  • Most outlets were small and staffed by only a few people
  • Many were founded by a single individual who put their own money into the outlet
  • Many founders were motivated by the idea of high-quality journalism rather than financial gain
  • Most staff were overworked
  • Few staff had skills in business development, marketing, administration or bookkeeping
  • Grants accounted for just over half (54 percent) of the total revenue of all the outlets studied

The authors also wrote of their surprise in not finding common elements, or a clear model, for success. Of the three key properties they focused on (technological innovation, news quality and financial sustainability), they found “few [outlets] have fully succeeded” with most being “good at one, but not all three.”

“Grants, donations and haphazard business endeavors”

In terms of financial sustainability, the authors noted the outlets were supported by a hodgepodge of revenue strategies, including:

  • Grants
  • Donations
  • Advertising
  • Subscriptions and memberships
  • Paywalls
  • Organization of events and conferences
  • Carrying out media workshops
  • Consultancy
  • Crowdfunding

Interestingly, interviewees, including those running for-profit organizations, “were idealistic … and did not seem motivated by a desire for wealth,” the authors found. “Indeed, financial success is incidental to the outlets we spoke with.”

Recommendations, innovations and case studies

The report includes recommendations for aspiring journalism entrepreneurs:

  • Expand your focus beyond purely editorial. The authors emphasize the need to realistically examine the distribution, business and security aspects of an enterprise and not just focus on content as is often the case.
  • Research your audience. An outlet can't assume that producing content automatically generates an audience.
  • Make sure your core team has complementary skills and strengths. Hire a balanced team.
  • Free content is great – when you get it. Outlets shouldn't base their model on the assumption that a certain community will contribute high-quality content for free.
  • Don't become so focused on the grind that you neglect wider business development. This can be extremely difficult, the authors warn, but tasks such as outreach and updating workflows are essential.

And recommendations for the media development community:

  • Before supporting innovation, think about whether a project is replicable. The authors emphasize that innovative projects are often difficult to scale. Instead of funding a great idea that only works in one place, favoring methods or organizations that can also be used elsewhere may achieve better results for the field as a whole.
  • Consider how a project will, if successful, affect the larger media ecosystem. Take time to consider how grants can fit together to benefit the larger field.
  • Consider supporting some sort of peer-to-peer knowledge sharing network. Those running journalism startups often don't know where to look for alternative ideas and inspiration.

Further, an innovation index details the outlet's innovations in the categories editorial, business, distribution and security.

The study also includes

  • 35 detailed case studies outlining the struggles and successes of each outlet in an easy-to-read and personal manner. Read together, the case studies provide a wealth of information on the challenges facing smaller media organizations around the globe, and highlight the very diverse paths media outlets are taking to ensure their continued survival.
  • Summaries of the top 10 studies read by the authors on the subjects of financial sustainability and innovation – a very useful resource indeed!