"Follow the money," any good investigative reporter will tell you. And, indeed, journalists exposing corruption and holding power to account in the global south say financing their operations is the biggest challenge — bigger even than physical safety or political risk.
A new report from Columbia University lecturer Anya Schiffrin called “Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South” highlights the existential challenges these journalists face. After interviewing dozens of media startups in the global south, and following them over time, Schiffrin concludes that many are not financially viable without donor support.
"The problem is always financial," says Branko Brkic, editor of The Daily Maverick, a South African website that has won several major awards, most recently for its breaking news on the Gupta scandal of state capture in South Africa. "I am worried that the news media may be unsustainable.”
Major outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have pushed hard in recent years to convince their readers that good journalism is worth paying for. Surging subscriptions and growing international reach suggest that readers agree. The report finds, however, that for independent news outlets in places like Mexico, Malaysia and South Africa, supporting independent journalism with revenue from readers and advertisers does not work as a sustainable business model.
Publishers cited in the report say that their readers in India, Myanmar, Brazil and elsewhere around the world believe in truth telling and deep analysis. They value independent journalism, and appreciate the information gap these often scrappy publishers are filling, especially in places where official media channels are perceived to be unable to report on the stories that matter.
But, appreciation does not translate into sustainable revenue, the report finds. Many readers simply can't afford to pay for this more involved journalism, or they are afraid to support media seen as standing against governments. Advertisers don't want to take the risk, either.
One example cited in the report is the case of the Maldives Independent. In a country that ranks 120 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, this award-winning news outlet describes itself as having been “at the forefront of the country’s push towards democracy during the past decade.” But, an authoritarian regime in the Maldives put the outlet’s advertisers on edge, making them reluctant to have their brands appear in the Independent for fear of being seen as political.
Publications like Himal Southasian — which moved to Sri Lanka after being forced to leave Nepal — need alternative funding sources to continue the essential work they are doing, though they have proven that they are ready to invest in themselves. Founders and editors, for instance, used personal and family funds to get their news organizations off the ground in 43 percent of the cases that Schiffrin looked at, though only 16 percent have recouped that initial investment. This, despite the fact that 42 percent of founders didn't pay themselves a salary, and those who did report that it was not enough to live off.
So, that is not enough. They need something more.
Journalists need international donors to step in and facilitate their work in concerted, coordinated ways. This could help provide support and training for reporters at outlets like Horizontal and SinEmbargo in Mexico, where they take on immense personal risk when reporting on crime and human rights violations in a country where at least 72 journalists have been murdered in the past year.
In Malaysia, where the news outlet Malaysiakini has been hit with repeated lawsuits in a country where criminal defamation laws are still on the books, accountability journalism is extremely expensive.
The report suggests that international donors should invest in sustaining and growing these organizations as they attempt to shed light on stories of power, corruption and abuse that otherwise go untold.
Graphs are taken from the report “Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South” from Columbia University lecturer Anya Schiffrin.