Walking the tightrope of media viability | #mediadev | DW | 04.07.2017
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Media Viability

Walking the tightrope of media viability

In their scramble to stay financially afloat, traditional media houses are finding creative ways to earn money. The question is how to do this and still stay in line with the ethics of journalism.

"Do not bet when you are distressed or depressed" and "Do not bet using borrowed money or money set aside for daily necessities" are just two of the responsible gambling tips offered by a sports betting site launched in June 2017 in Kenya. 

What’s unusual is that the site is run by a leading Kenyan media house, Royal Media Services. If successful, revenue from sports betting could contribute to the financial sustainability – and quality journalism content – of the company’s two TV and 15 radio stations.

The move by the Royal Media is an attempt to stave off its financial troubles – at the end of 2016, it sacked more than 100 staff citing the difficult business environment within the broadcast industry. 

Like Royal Media, many other media organizations around the world are exploring (often with a degree of desperation) creative ways to boost their profit line. 

But is it ethical for a media outlet to launch its own betting service to stay afloat? Is there a limit to how far a newsroom can go to secure its economic survival and still maintain its journalistic legitimacy? 

These were some of the dilemmas participants explored at the Media Viability Idealab organized by DW Akademie as part of the Global Media Forum held from June 19 - 21, 2017 in Bonn, Germany.

From business models to resource models

The term "media viability" refers to economic survival as well as a media company's ability to produce quality journalistic content in the long term. DW Akademie is a strong advocate of this understanding of media viability, believing it offers a framework to help donors and media development organizations better understand the complex challenges faced by media companies worldwide. 

At the Media Viability Idealab, participants were divided into one of four tables where, guided by an expert in the field, they had the chance to explore various media viability approaches and scenarios, and share their experiences. 

One group table led by Ann Hollifield, professor of media research at the University of Georgia in the United States, examined how in the digital age, business models supporting traditional media – including public service media – are often no longer financially sustainable. As a result, media outlets' viability will largely depend on developing "resource" models rather than "business" models, she said. 

Resources include various revenue sources for the production of quality journalism content, access to technologies needed for attracting audiences, fair labor costs, professional training for staff, and access to a legal framework that supports independent journalism. 

Hollifield's research shows that combining these resources in various ways can move media towards viability. 

"The challenge," she told #mediadev "then becomes this: what resources – and how much of each resource – will produce viable, quality media under different sets of conditions?" 

Learning from each other

Media viability consultant and host of a second table, Daniel Blank, believes the business side of media production has “long been neglected” by media development, possibly because of a fear of corrupting journalism by focusing on finances. 

"Some people feel that media marketing and sales work are introducing a more capitalist flavor into the media profession – a profession that should only be guided by lucid ethical standards," he said. 

Blank, the DW Akademie country representative for Ghana, is a long time advocate of a more comprehensive approach towards strengthening the business side of the media. 

The debate at his table swirled around how content producers and financial staff can better understand each others' needs. Idealab participants agreed that journalists needed to reach out to the "money people" in media organizations to create a clearer understanding of why journalism production needed to be independent from profit goals.

Nigel Mugamu, the founder of the Zimbabwean media initiative 263Chat, pointed to good practices for dealing with funders. Launched in 2012, 263Chat originally used Twitter to hold a weekly discussion on political, social and cultural issues affecting Zimbabweans. Due to its popularity, 263Chat expanded to produce its own news content. The initiative now generates revenue from sources such as advertising and sponsored content, and also offers social media trainings. 

Media-related startups should make sure they maintain their independence when seeking funding, Mugamu stressed, to avoid funders seeking to influence content, or the startup being perceived as a donor's mouthpiece.

"The key is to know exactly what you want to do and find funders who are ready to support your ideas, instead of the other way round, and doing only what the funders want," Mugamu cautioned. 

263Chat, said Mugamu, receives no donor funding.

Rohit Singh, director of Gram Vaani (Voice of the Village), a community media initiative in India, sees content viability as a way to ensure long-term financial sustainability. 

His initiative is a citizen radio-over-the-phone platform that aims to improve public communication outside of the cities. Described by the founder as "a Facebook of sorts for rural areas", Gram Vaani wants to help those with poor literacy and low-incomes to discuss common interests and easily share information. 

"The challenge of content viability is designing content relevant for our users, while also remaining relevant for our business partners to fund that content," Singh said. 

Although Gram Vaani is donor-financed, he said, advertisers are becoming interested because it is one of few media outlets catering to this particular audience.

Is all business just show business?

A fundamental question raised during the workshop was the extent to which media content should be treated as a product, and media companies as business entities. 

"This is walking the tightrope, but it is pretty clear that [the] media are a business," said Ann Hollifield. "And although we have to be careful about adopting practices businesses use, we should at least look at them and think about them, and not think of media as being unique."

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