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Keeping online newsrooms sustainable in the developing world

media frontiers

Independent news websites in the developing world tend to be on shaky ground, as they often oppose a corrupt regime or report in a censored environment. Their work attracts hacking attempts from the government and sends advertisers fleeing.

Offering a solution to this two-pronged problem of sustainability for these sites is Media Frontiers, a social-purpose enterprise of International Media Support, a nonprofit, Danish press freedom organization.

Media Frontiers offers secure hosting services and a unique advertising model driven by a freedom-of-expression ethos. It helps independent online newsrooms in countries such as Zambia, Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, Iran and Syria embrace their independence and turn a profit.

Advertising is usually the primary source of income for traditional newspapers, but online news publishers working in hostile publishing environments don’t always have access to advertising markets domestically. To assist with this problem, Media Frontiers offers a service called Diversity Advertising. The service helps generate income for these newsrooms at no cost to them, connecting the publishers with European and North American advertisers that want to reach members of the diaspora and ethnic-minority communities who visit these sites to keep up with the news from their native countries.

“There’s a direct correlation between the degree of press freedom restriction in a country and the size of the diaspora community living outside of the country,” said Thomas Hughes, director of Media Frontiers, in an interview with IJNet.

The service also reaches out to international advertisers that want to reach audiences abroad, but don’t know how to tap into the market. The BBC used the service to find the African Footballer of the Year. Most of these ads, though, are for remittance services, calling cards and international banks.

As print ad revenue follows the “analog dollar to the digital dime” paradigm, there’s more ad space to go around. Advertisers want to target ads to relevant people and are more interested in the profile of the end user than in the stature of the publisher, Hughes said, creating more equality among online publishers who traditionally couldn't compete for high-cost ad impressions.

“There’s a very clear and quick shift when you’re selling advertising from selling the publisher to selling the audience,” Hughes said. “The publisher is no longer the destination.”

Diversity Advertising also steps in where the largest ad network in the world, Google AdSense, cannot. Sites that publish in less commonly used languages, such as Kurdish, Somali, Tamil and Azeri, can’t use these basic ad networks like Google AdSense because most of them rely on contextually matched advertising to match words on the page to an ad. Diversity Advertising is able to hard-wire its service for sites like Azadliq in Azerbaijan, one of the largest independent news sites in the country.

An ideal publisher is a small, online, investigative news team that is building a solid audience but lacking the in-house capacity for advertising or security.

The Zambian Watchdog embodies this ideal, having grown rapidly in traffic and income generation since it partnered with Media Frontiers. The Zambian government has often targeted the website with hacking attempts, but by using Media Frontiers' secure hosting services, Virtual Road, Watchdog Editor Lloyd Himaambo said the site resists almost weekly hacking attempts and ranks eighth among the most often-visited sites in Zambia.

Syria Deeply, an independent website tracking the revolution in Syria, also uses Virtual Road to stay online.

With many websites looking to innovate with digital advertising and paywalls, this traditional form of display advertising could seem outdated to some publishers. But paywalls would be “close to disastrous” for these sites because they don’t have the brand strength to attract enough paying subscribers, Hughes said.

Ad markets in developing countries are “taking a different trajectory,” he said. “They’re where the ad markets in the U.S. and Europe were 2 to 3 years ago. But they’re moving in their own way and their own pace and they’ll catch up quickly.”

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via darthdowney.

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