How can independent public interest journalism thrive in a time of crisis?

Reflections from our last grantee get-together on sustainability, viability, and partnerships.

Published: 17 February 2022

“Let’s be honest, we are facing a true journalism crisis. There is a need for an ecosystem to come together to counter this and this includes funders, governments, etc.” – Khadija Patel, Head of Programming, International Fund for Public Interest Media

Independent, public interest journalism in Europe finds itself increasingly under pressure with journalists being silenced, refused access to political debates, and the plurality of media being at risk. At the same time, independent media organisations are financially strained as the Internet has changed how people consume news. As a result, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for news and advertisers are redirecting money to online platforms where unverified information is provided for free. To be able to counter all these developments, the sector needs to reinvent itself and its business model. This takes time and effort which is why at Civitates we provide long-term funding for journalism organisations so that they can develop in a sustainable, resilient, and inter-connected way as long-term financial support will allow the grantee partners to address the specific needs of their organisations.

In November 2021, Civitates gathered its grantee partners in Brussels to talk sustainability together, reflect on each other’s business models and find inspiration and possible solutions to revenue diversification. The overarching conclusion was that no matter the size of the journalistic organisation, the problems are common – the retention of audience members, the attraction of new ones, clearer division of roles between the editor-in-chief and the managing director, ensuring the well-being of the journalists, ensuring good managerial practices and smooth processes for leadership succession. All these aspects are as important to journalistic organisations as is producing fact-checked public-interest content. 

We were joined by Marius Dragomir, Director of the Center for Media, Data and Society, Nadine Jurrat, Head of Research and Evaluation, Deutsche Welle Akademie, and Khadija Patel, Head of Programming, International Fund for Public Interest Media who could share their perspectives on journalism and sustainability beyond Europe.

While we are all looking for magic recipes to achieve sustainability and while a lot of emphasis is put on innovation, Khadija Patel reflected on her experience as an editor-in-chief.

Sustainability is not something journalistic organisations can do while fighting for survival. Innovation is not the way to go either as journalistic organisations have more pressing needs such as having a dedicated financial expert, for example. One way to look at innovation in journalism is looking at the tools of distribution that can lead to sustainability”- elaborates Khadija.

As Marius Dragomir further explains: “A media outlet is as an organism – everything is interdependent. It’s essential to understand the market, the framework a journalistic organisation is working in, and understand the possibilities there. The market in a given country may be failing to sustain independent public-interest journalism which would make the sector dependent on donor funding.”

Independent and self-sustainable may be mutually exclusive. According to Marius Dragomir, 

 “Sustainability in independent journalism is a myth. It’s important to stop pushing media outlets to become sustainable, which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t think strategically”.

It’s maybe time to rethink our requirements towards journalistic organisations as a whole and instead of insisting on their sustainability, put an emphasis on their viability. DW Akademie defines viability in journalism as more than just financial sustainability – aspects such as audience engagement, quality of content, partnerships, and the overall operational environment are equally important.

For our grantees, partnership is the way forward. As Sofia da Palma Rodrigues, editor-in-chief at Divergente shared: “Public-interest journalism organisations need to be partners and not competitors and it’s time we reached out of our bubbles.” Partnerships and exchanges are in the planning for our grantees in the next months. After their first meeting, they have a clear idea of how to best benefit from each other’s expertise and share practices in what works well or not so well when talking about their business models and organisational strengthening. Through Civitates’ small grants on learning initiatives, our grantee partners have initiated cross-country newsroom exchanges that will allow them to further learn from each other.

As to the sustainability question, philanthropy has a role to play in ensuring journalistic organisations have the time and space to reinvent themselves. The field needs more multi-year core support, covering costs related to the strengthening of organisations. Experience shows that supporting not-for-profit journalism organisations with core grants, as opposed to providing them with project grants, works particularly well. This has to do with the key importance of editorial independence, and the need to provide journalism organisations with editorial flexibility. Core funding doesn’t automatically mean that the grants should be very large, but flexibility and longer duration are of great importance.

Philanthropy has a role to play in ensuring journalistic organisations have the time and space to reinvent themselves.

The field needs more multi-year core support, covering costs related to the strengthening of organisations. Experience shows that supporting not-for-profit journalism organisations with core grants, as opposed to providing them with project grants, works particularly well. This has to do with the key importance of editorial independence, and the need to provide journalism organisations with editorial flexibility. Core funding doesn’t automatically mean that the grants should be very large, but flexibility and longer duration are of great importance.