Aid to media startups accelerates
Global study recommends new tactics for funders, universities, tech platforms
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter, which I send every Thursday. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.
What follows is an edited excerpt of the Recommendations chapter of SembraMedia’s Inflection Point International study of 201 digital native media in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Read the full report here–also in Spanish and Portuguese. It is republished under Creative Commons 4.0 ShareAlike international license (Disclosure: I am treasurer of SembraMedia and participated in the editing of the report.)
Our recommendations are based on what we’ve learned from our research, as well as more than six years of working directly with entrepreneurial journalists in our training and consulting programs at SembraMedia.
In this final section, we offer recommendations for media leaders and future media founders, as well as investors, foundations, trainers, and others who share our passion for supporting independent journalism.
Recommendations for media founders and leaders
We start with our recommendations for media leaders because helping you become more successful is always our top priority. If you are launching or working to build a digital news organization, we recommend:
Be kind to yourselves and your teams, and when things don’t work out as you planned, try to learn from the experience and move on. Creating a new business is hard under the best of circumstances. Even the most successful entrepreneurs make mistakes along the way.
Build a team that includes people with business, sales, accounting, and tech experience, in addition to the journalists and editors we know are vital to your news business.
Diversify your revenue sources, but don’t take on too much at once. We’ve found that most digital native news organizations can effectively manage only one or two new projects at one time.
Align your editorial content to your media’s purpose, and use analytics, social media comments, and surveys to ensure you are truly meeting the needs of your audience.
Seek ways to make administrative work more efficient by investing in business management software and other tools that improve workflow.
Form partnerships to help grow your audience, market new products, and develop new revenue opportunities.
Apply for grants, but don’t become overly reliant on donor support. When you develop proposed budgets for grants, make sure to include at least 10% for overhead and business expenses. And whenever possible, use grant funding to strengthen your organization and develop new revenue sources, as well as produce great journalism.
Systematically track your journalistic impact and share your success strategically to attract grant funding, reader revenue, and new audiences.
Invest time and resources in better understanding your best tech options, from WordPress to payment platforms. Rushing into new technology solutions, or trying to create your own new tech programs without comparing all the options, can lead to costly mistakes.
Seek out training opportunities, not only for yourselves, but also your teams. A few places we recommend for keeping up with trends, finding opportunities, and learning new skills:
SembraMedia’s online school, blog and case studies in Spanish
The Knight Center for Journalism in the America’s offers MOOCs in English, Spanish, and Portuguese
Splice Media’s new online school and coaching services in Asia
Recommendations for funders
In our first report, we recommended that foundations provide grants not just for reporting and other types of journalistic work but also to help entrepreneurial journalists hire, manage, and develop professional sales, accounting, and business teams, as well as dedicate resources to audience growth, product development, and technology.
In the years since our first study, we’ve been inspired by the way foundations and other support organizations seem to be paying more attention to the importance of media sustainability.
Dozens of organizations informed us that our first report helped them better understand the need—and the potential—for these media to function without grant support in the long run, and that encouraged them to push media leaders to become more financially independent.
Give advance warning of funding cuts
But we feel compelled to add a warning in this report: building sustainable media organizations takes time, and cutting funding too abruptly can have devastating effects.
In the last year, we’ve heard from media leaders in our training programs that some of the foundations that have supported them for years are now ending their grant support—sometimes giving media leaders just a few months’ notice.
Our recommendation to funders who are considering cutting or reducing grants, especially after years of significant support, is to notify these media organizations at least a year in advance and consider providing extra money in a final grant to help them build economic independence.
Recommendations for tech companies
In many of the countries studied in this report, media leaders are in impassioned discussions with Google, Facebook, and other big tech companies about everything from how much journalism organizations should be paid for their content, to how algorithms often favor misinformation over their fact-based reporting. The outcome of these discussions, which in some countries have led to lawsuits and new government regulations, could represent a radical shift in the way the media in this study reach audiences and make money.
It’s beyond the scope of this report to delve into all of the intricacies of these issues, but we share the concerns expressed by the Working Group on the Sustainability of Journalism in its insightful and nuanced June 2021 report, A New Deal for Journalism. In it, they state:
“The risk of poorly thought-through or imbalanced policies in this space is that they benefit only a few already large publishers, or legacy incumbents at the expense of digital-born entrants; that they make it impossible to reach an agreement, leading to disruptive market exits; or that they give the government more direct sway over the independent news media meant to hold power to account.”
Verify profiles, simplify take-down appeals
Based on the interviews conducted for this study, we offer these two clear and relatively simple recommendations to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other tech platforms:
First, develop better ways for journalists and media leaders to get their profiles verified.
Second, and perhaps more urgently, create a clear process for media of all sizes to appeal content take-downs so that they can get their journalism back online quickly when information is removed or profiles are shut down.
Companies that offer open source as well as commercial solutions, such as WordPress, should help media leaders better understand how costs compare so that they understand when premium services are really best for them, and when hiring a local programmer could save them money in the long run.
Software developers should provide tech support and training materials in more languages (translation is not that expensive) and make tools more accessible to media leaders who don’t speak English. This not only helps them, it can also open up new markets.
Recommendations for universities and others who provide training
Expand journalism curricula and training programs to include business, management, and tech skills for journalism entrepreneurs.
Create training programs to teach journalists how to hire and manage sales and business development people.
Train journalists and media leaders to systematically track the impact of their work to improve their ability to recruit and retain talent, build audience engagement, and strengthen marketing campaigns and grant applications.
Make impact measurement a part of the curriculum in journalism schools and on journalism training courses so that the next generation of journalists and media leaders will enter the ecosystem already equipped with these vital skills.
Provide more tech training to journalists, especially in emerging areas that show promise, like using AI tools to enhance newsroom processes. Those who used AI to enhance newsroom processes reported three times more revenue than who were not using such tools.
Help media better understand which social media channels or messaging apps may be best for reaching and engaging their communities.
Encourage and support journalists to develop skills in analytics, product development, and other specialties that are increasingly important on media teams.
Continue researching and experimenting with new business models, product development, and revenue sources.
Recommendations for media support organizations
Make it easier for journalism entrepreneurs to find—and qualify for—pro-bono legal and other specialized services.
Provide legal support in forming businesses and nonprofit organizations and help media that have resorted to launching new businesses in the U.S. or elsewhere to escape local legal challenges or to accept international payments.
Provide networking opportunities for digital native media leaders to share best practices and build partnerships.
Expand marketing and outreach internationally to help more journalists learn about prestigious fellowships and other training opportunities.
Note: This newsletter article is based on an article on my website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.
Inflection Point Part 1: Digital media entrepreneurs punch above their weight
Inflection Point Part 2: Digital natives fill coverage gaps, drive social impact
Inflection Point Part 3: Digital natives still depend heavily on grants, advertising
Inflection Point Part 4: Three skill sets needed for successful digital news media
Inflection Point Part 5: Media freedom and journalist safety