Sustainability refers to the ability of media outlets to operate without outside assistance, typically achieved by generating enough advertising revenue to maintain operations.
The sustainability of media outlets in developing countries is one of the greatest challenges facing any effort to develop the media around the world. With the proliferation of digital media and citizen journalism, the old business model for sustainable media outlets has come into question in the Western world. But in the developing world, where local owners and managers often lack the most basic knowledge of how to run a modern news operation, the issue of sustainability is even more of a challenge.
Numerous issues add to the already-difficult problem of sustainability in developing countries. Advertising revenues are often scarce in the weak, developing economies. Business skills are often lacking among media owners and do not always make it into the trainings organized by media development implementers. And among budding news agencies, the capital for expansion and efforts to create a quality product is often unavailable.
There are a variety of approaches available for promoting media sustainability: management training, advertising sector development, the development of audience research and/or circulation audit capacities, market research, outreach methods to potential advertising clients, business planning, facilitation of capital infusions and loans, network development and promotion of information exchanges, and exploring innovative sponsorships/partnerships.
The challenge is being taken seriously by both donors and implementers:
- Training in Business Practices. Training in basic business practices is widely seen as essential for major programs. In Jordan and Egypt, USAID is funding IREX, among others, to organize a series of business workshops for media managers that covers advertising, newspaper circulation, financial management, and new media platforms. Similarly, ICFJ, under a United Nations Development Programme initiative, is working to build successful business models for community radio stations in East Timor. Training topics covered include financial management, audience research, community-based marketing, and recruiting and managing volunteers.
- Effective Partnerships. One key to success is obvious: partnering with the right people. Officials at USAID’s OTI point to their experience in Afghanistan with Moby Media Group, a private business group founded in 2002 by the expatriate Mohseni family. Four Mohseni family members left behind lives in Australia and returned to Afghanistan “to ‘do their bit’ toward the nation’s redevelopment,” as their Web site states. Using a matching grant from OTI, Moby established two major independent media outlets—Arman FM and Tolo TV. Starting in a region with virtually no advertising market, the stations are now financially successful and reach 80 percent of the national audience.
- Another success story is B92, owner of Serbia’s fastest-growing national TV station, most popular commercial radio station, and top Internet portal. Starting as a small, youth community radio station in 1989, B92 championed human rights and was repeatedly shut down by the government. B92’s courageous broadcasters attracted long-term support, including funding and business training, from a variety of international donors, and their entrepreneurial spirit helped turn the upstart station into a large, successful, and independent media trust.
- Low-interest Loans. Beginning in 1995, MDLF has pioneered the offering of low-interest financing to independent media overseas. Backed by government agencies, foundations and private companies, MDLF has provided capital to 64 media outlets in 21 countries. Its projects have ranged from establishing printing houses and purchasing newsprint to building new transmitters. MDLF’s success has inspired a similar project, the Southern Africa Media Development Fund, which has supported 25 projects across southern Africa. Notably, both groups also integrate training in business skills into their projects, which they credit as vital contributor to their success.
Toward Economic Sustainability of the Media in Developing Countries
Print and Broadcast Media Freedom: Disparities and Opening
Soft Censorship: How Governments Around the Globe Use Money to Manipulate the Media
Shifting Sands: The Impact of Satellite TV on Media in the Arab World
Community Media Sustainability: The Business of Changing Lives
Releasing the Knight Foundation’s report An Imperative to Innovate: Sustainable Journalism Training in Central and Eastern Europe