Simplifying Success: An Ecosystem Initiative for Media Business

How do media outlets in freedom-restricted markets survive and thrive financially? Where should they and their stakeholders focus resources to become more successful?

Media Feast, News Famine (Michelle J. Foster for CIMA, 2017), the Media Viability Indicators (DW Akademie, 2020), the Vibrant Information Barometer – VIBE (IREX, 2020), Inflection Point International (Sembra Media, 2021), concepts such as Sustainable Journalism (Fojo Media Institute, 2021) and the ongoing work of MDIF and Splice Media have all contributed to the evolving discussion, along with many others.

Although thinking in the media development sector about financial sustainability has progressed in recent years, expertise is still in the hands of relatively few successful media outlets and specialists, which limits the potential reach and impact of their expertise.

There is very little collaborative, sectoral learning from the many media development projects globally that are focused on media financial sustainability. The current research and frameworks are a valuable look in the rear-view mirror, but nowhere is there a look ahead that leverages live business performance data to guide a media outlet now and make predictions for the future. While tech giants have outcompeted news media for audiences – partly because they gather and analyse huge datasets – independent news media, working in isolation, have small datasets and often cannot benchmark themselves to others. They do not know how well they are performing, or which things they could improve that would make a significant difference to their financial sustainability.

Simplifying Success proposes a scalable and data-driven approach to finding improved business performance for independent news media. Based on the author’s 20 years in news media, survey data from 100 independent news media outlets, discussions with colleagues and sector stakeholders, and analysis of existing frameworks, it suggests that:

  • Classifying independent news media outlets in freedom-restricted countries by one of 16 Media Types will enable them to benchmark and improve their performance across a number of capability pillars, including: governance; brand; content; audience development; use of technology; and business development – and they will learn how successful media outlets in similar contexts are planning to generate income in the future. It will also enable essential media business expertise to be pushed more easily to in-country program teams within implementing organizations, such as Internews, creating truly bilateral information flows between them and centralized operations.
  • Creating a Digital Performance Navigator protocol and platform through which performance data can be gathered and shared securely and anonymously, without the media outlet’s name or country being disclosed in any reporting, will enable every participating media outlet and supporting organisation to gain immediate, actionable insights without compromising confidential information or the ‘secret sauce’ of their work.

What action is needed?

This research was originally intended to create a scalable model for Internews and its Media Business Unit. It is now being shared publicly with the aim of creating a coalition to validate and/or refine its recommendations, define requirements and create a proof of concept. Internews brings a funder’s pledge of financial support to launch these efforts, access to hundreds of media outlet partners globally, and the convening power of its United for News coalition – a collaboration with the World Economic Forum and industry leaders.

About the author

Jason Lambert has been in management roles on the commercial side of media since 2000. He has managed the Digital division of the UK and Ireland’s national news agency, run a marketing agency, created an advertising representation business for independent news media, and consulted with and trained news media in more than 30 countries in digital and business development. Having co-founded specialist consulting firm Newsgain in 2017, he now heads the Media Business Unit at Internews, including its United for News initiative – a collaboration with two of the world’s largest advertising agencies and the World Economic Forum – aimed at strengthening the global ecosystem for independent news. Jason holds an MBA (Master in Management of Technology) from the Technical University of Denmark and a diploma in Innovation Leadership from UC Berkeley.