A computer showing a Zoom screen sits on a table

Saving the life-savers

October 26, 2020
Independent media need funding to continue vital pandemic coverage

(Two Internews staff members spoke on this panel on the future of independent media.)

By Emilie Warren

Independent media organizations deliver timely and localized information to the public, and during a pandemic, that can be life-saving. But they can’t operate without money. COVID-19 accelerated a global trend of declining revenues for these agencies. This could have lasting repercussions on the health of people and of democracies.

That’s what six media donors and industry experts told their virtual audience at a panel on the future of independent media on Friday. The event was part of Carleton University’s Journalism in the Time of Crisis conference. The discussion was moderated by Mark Nelson, a senior director at the Center for International Media Assistance.

The crucial role of independent media

Simon Collard-Wexler, one of the panelists and an executive director at Global Affairs Canada, said independent media played a crucial role in countering disinformation, something the federal government sees as “a strategic threat” to Canadian democracy and global stability.

“All our efforts connected to combating COVID, both domestically and internationally, depend on reliable media,” he added.

But those independent outlets don’t exist in some countries. Mira Milosevic, the executive director of the Global Forum for Media Development, said almost a third of Brazilians lacked access to local community news.

In a context like COVID-19, that’s “actually a lack sometimes of life-saving information,” she said. “It’s similar in Venezuela and other countries.”

“I think the effects of a market failure are going to become more and more apparent, not just on COVID, but on a whole bunch of things,” said James Dean, the director of policy and learning at BBC Media Action.

He said a weakened media landscape means less oversight of the wrongdoing of governments. “I think we can expect corruption to soar in the next few months and years.”

Collard-Wexler said there were more opportunities for abuses to go undetected without journalists there to denounce them. “85 per of the time that you hear about rights violations or abuses occurring, it’s because of independent journalism and civil society groups,” he said.

COVID-19 brings traffic, but not money

Joy Chelagat, Internews’ media business advisor for Africa, said media consumption increased during the pandemic because people were looking for credible sources of information.

“When people would be seeing things on social media, they would quickly run to media accounts to go and verify ‘is this actually true?’,” she said.

This inflated demand wasn’t reflected in the money these organizations were getting, Marjorie Rouse said. Rouse is Internews’ senior vice president for programs. “Most of our outlets saw an 80 per cent drop in their revenues, and they still haven’t recovered.”

“We saw partners getting two to three times the level of traffic in the first wave of the pandemic,” she said. But “at the same time their advertising was shrinking.”

Rouse and Chelagat both said a big reason for this was that government advertising, a main source of revenue for local media agencies, decreased during the pandemic. Advertisers were also reluctant to put ads on pages with COVID-19 content.

A glimmer of hope

As Dean said, “organizations can’t sustain themselves without money.”

In May, the Global Forum for Media Development made an emergency appeal to governments, donors and other telecom companies to implement policy changes that would help the industry. 180 media organizations have signed the petition so far.

The changes include providing tax relief for independent journalists and designating journalism as a charitable industry so that donors could invest more money in it.

Some non-profit organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are increasingly keen to fund independent media.

“Something that very quickly came to light as the foundation was addressing [sanitation and health] issues was that these are underreported issues, and they’re often ignored,” said Alex Jakana, a program officer for global media partnerships at the foundation.

For that reason, he said the foundation had decided to give financial aid to newsrooms reporting on global health and development.

Nationally, Collard-Wexler said the federal government had provided about $17 million in media development assistance from 2012 to 2018. He said supporting the media was an ongoing priority for his department.

View the whole panel discussion here.

(Banner photo: Photo montage by John MacGillis)