Sustainable media: the key to independence
Every year on 3 May, the world marks Press Freedom Day. It’s a day on which we are reminded of the role of free media as a cornerstone of democracy, of the importance of media pluralism, of the significance of objective, quality, ethical journalism in informing citizens and defending their interests, holding the powerful to account.
We hear a lot about independence, but less about what independence really means. We think of independent opinion, of the journalists who investigate, who often face the most direct threats, but far less of the media managers in the offices behind them, ensuring that their stories can go to air or print, that wages and suppliers can be paid.
It’s an issue of which the European Union is acutely aware. “The threats to free journalism are complex,” European Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn told an Eastern Partnership media conference last September: “Vested interests and concentration of media ownership often make it difficult for independent media to survive,” he added, highlighting the vital importance of “looking for ways to achieve economic sustainability of the media”. “There is a lot of support for content, for journalism, but local media need more help to become sustainable,” confirms Veselin Vačkov, director of the oldest and most prestigious Czech daily newspaper Lidové noviny, who has been working with the EU-funded OPEN Media Hub project, leading a series of media management workshops and master classes in Eastern Partnership countries, focused on increased organisational and financial management skills, and ways to maximise revenues from print and online.
Vačkov says the media he has worked with in Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine are aware of media ethics, and work very hard to be balanced and to produce quality work, “even by Western standards”. “But if you are dependent on state support, on the support of a local entrepreneur or oligarch, even on EU money, you soon find out that you are not entirely free.”
Financial pressure can be far more effective than overt political pressure in strangling independent media, says Artur Corghencea, news director at PRO TV in Chisinau – a leading independent media in the Republic of Moldova. “Financial independence is synonymous with editorial independence – the Moldovan authorities have understood this and are trying to make it difficult for independent media to survive,” he said. Last year, the authorities introduced new rules obliging television channels to produce at least eight hours of local programming a day, six of them during prime time. “Beside the fact that this is an unbearable financial burden for most stations, including PRO TV Chisinau,” this meant television stations were not allowed to broadcast high-rating foreign programmes at prime-time, such as football or Holywood movies – “and these are the programmes that attract advertising and therefore money,” said Corghencea.
PRO TV has managed to step back from the brink with the help of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), a foundation supported by the European Union, that provides grants to organisations promoting democracy and human rights. EED funding has helped PRO TV to develop four new shows, including ‘In PROfunzime’ a weekly political talk show that has become one of the most popular programmes in Moldova, as well as popular entertainment shows. “Thanks to EED support, we have been able to meet the quota of locally-made production”, but also to build a more sustainable base for the future, says Corghencea. “Because the shows are popular and have high ratings, we are convinced that we will gain advertising in the future with these programmes, despite the difficult circumstances.” EED support also helped PRO TV to build production teams and in-house capacity for the programmes. “These teams now have the experience to continue producing the shows and to initiate new TV projects in the future,” said Corghencea.
But financial pressures are not only political. In fact, most of the challenges facing media in the Eastern Partner countries are very similar to those that have swept the media landscape in Western European countries in recent years, says Veselin Vačkov. Among them, he lists the loss of circulation in the print media, compounded by the economic crisis, the transition from print to digital and the difficulties of raising revenue online, the need to invest in new technology, as well as the squeeze in advertising revenue. His media management training – which is also available as an online course – addresses all these issues and more. “We have had a very positive feedback,” says Vačkov. “Participants are really glad to have this support for a much healthier future.”
Operating a successful media business in a small market is a challenge in itself, according to Lyudmila Chekina, CEO at TUT.BY, the leading online news portal in Belarus, employing more than 50 editorial staff and read by 42.9% of all Belarusian internet users. “A successful financial model enables an independent media outlet to survive,” she says. “Increased profitability also enables an outlet to be independent of large corporate advertisers.”
Though the company had grown from a start-up in 2000 to a major digital media player, its dependence on the brand advertising market in Belarus and increasing online competition, including from foreign players, meant TUT.BY needed to develop its organisational structure and introduce better operational processes to stay ahead of the game. To do so, it turned to the EU-funded Advice for Small Businesses programme, implemented by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which connected TUT.BY with a team of international business consultants. “The project helped the company improve significantly its operational performance, provided advice on its video sector development and budgeting, as well as enabled it to make some strategic decisions that changed its structure,” said Chekina. As a result, earnings are up 20%. “For sure, the improved earning capacity has gradually increased the editorial budget and the number of employed journalists,” she says, adding: “Our earning capacity helps us to preserve our independence.” Lyudmila Chekina is confident looking forward, but conscious of the need to diversify for growth: “In small countries, the limited market is a key problem for the media operating based on an advertising model. Therefore, we believe that the development of content projects with the possibility to expand into large markets and media cooperation with leading service companies in other markets… are the most forward-looking and efficient strategies.”
On World Press Freedom Day, it’s a reminder that independent media needs a sustainable business model to keep the stories coming out. “Running a media is not only writing articles,” Veselin Vačkov reminds participants in his media management workshops. “Sustainability is more of a challenge than quality. And the more the media is economically successful, the freer we are as journalists.”