For startups in the Global South, is success simply surviving? - Reuters News Agency

For startups in the Global South, is success simply surviving?

REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Catalina Albeanu | Jul 15, 2019

Economic survival is the main challenge for many media startups, followed by the political context in which they operate and physical safety risks, found the report “Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South” by Anya Schiffrin of Columbia University SIPA, published in January 2019.

Many startups are dependant on funding from donors and on the hunt for additional funds, while membership is emerging as a trend among organizations who are looking for alternatives.

Some 15 out of 20 surveyed startups said they had lost one or more founders since their launch. 

Only 11 of the 20 said the founders pay themselves a salary, of which nine said the salary covered living costs.

The report is a follow-up of “Publishing for Peanuts: Innovation and the Journalism Startup”, which surveyed over 30 media startups producing innovative journalism in politically charged environments in 2015. 

The latest study aimed to return to these startups to highlight takeaways about how it’s possible to keep emerging media outlets going in the Global South. 

Speaking on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Italy in April, Schiffrin said the report was initially supposed to be called “Learning from Success”. 

Success versus viability

Following the first interviews, it became clear there was no textbook story of success. 

There were only journalists “completely committed to committing journalism” that were struggling to make media an economically viable operation – so the title for the report had to change.

The research also looks at what makes a media organisation viable. It points out viability goes beyond the business model. 

It takes into account the political context in which the organisation operates, the access to technology (both that of the newsroom and general internet access in the country it serves), and support from the community. 

Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation Australia, an outlet that blends academic research with journalism, bridging the gap between media and academia, said his experience of trying to fund journalism has been a precarious feeling of being “on the edge of not succeeding”.

If you sometimes feel the same way about your organization, here are there key takeaways from the surveyed startups and others working in this field.

1. Hire non-journalists

The organizations that have grown to include non-editorial staff, from book-keeping to marketing, have a more positive outlook.

For example, a full-time staffer working on marketing meant an increase in revenue for those surveyed.

2. Membership should not be the default option

The drive to increase reader-revenue has emerged a key trend across the media industry.

Membership has become a popular approach in the past two years with both large legacy media like The Guardian as well as independent publications and startups.

But some are skeptical of membership as a silver bullet for journalism’s financial troubles.

Lina Attalah, publisher of Mada Masr, an independent media outlet from Egypt founded in 2013, told audiences at the International Journalism Festival that she agrees with the suggestion that membership is a hype. 

Mada Masr does have a membership program, but it’s because it makes political sense for a media organisation in Egypt. 

She explained it’s important for Mada Masr to be able to openly say they are funded by the readers and not by foreign actors, but she doesn’t see the outlet ever being entirely funded through a membership program. 

Mada Masr currently supplements revenue from membership with income from services such as editing and production, event organisation or marketing.

3. Build a healthy mix of revenue streams

At a panel discussing membership models based on research from the Membership Puzzle Project and the News Revenue Hub, there was a consensus about what makes a healthy revenue stream. 

This mix encompasses grants from foundations, major donors, membership, as well as sponsorship and advertising. 

NPR in the United States is a good example of this, with around 30% of its financing coming from membership, another nearly 30% from corporate sponsorships, and the rest from donors and other sources. 

Survival at scale

“Fighting for Survival” points out that membership models are more difficult to scale than other reader-funded models such as crowdfunding, because they often come bundled with a requirement for a time commitment from readers as well as a financial contribution.

“Even the outlets that won awards and broke major stories say they can’t make it on their own financially,” writes Schiffrin in the report.

“This raises serious questions about the future of small-scale global muckraking and the role of philanthropy in supporting it.”

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