By Luisa Ryan
Media development projects and organizations tend to concentrate on media quality – journalism skills and ethics are generally the main training themes. However, a key concern in developing media sectors is financial sustainability.
Media development partners don’t focus as much on the financial side of the sector. Perhaps this is because financial sustainability is a long term issue, and funding is doled out in 2-5 year cycles, making longer term planning problematic. However, thinking about the money side of media is crucial, and not just in terms of training media administrators on the technical financial management of their organization.
Financial issues can impact on the independence of journalists and media organizations, and hence on the quality of reporting. If the media organization doesn’t bring in enough money to pay staff or to cover expenses, they will be more vulnerable to “pay for play” reporting, or presenting the opinion of whomever can pay the highest fee. If the independence of the media organization is not in question, it may still not be able to hire the best and brightest if offering limited or no salary, or it may have to compete for staff time with better paying jobs.
Media development partners can “prop up” local media with unrealistic salaries, equipment and logistics which the local organization is unable to sustain once the development partner withdraws. Strategies to create income include advertising, transparently paid-for-advertorials (often by international NGOs and other development partners) and increasingly, partnerships with mobile phone operators. But will these be enough to create a sustainable, independent and pluralistic media market?
In the west, we are also struggling with this. In an age of free content, how can good quality journalism survive? How can the media development world learn lessons from the conversations currently being held in the west, to ensure that the media organizations we support in developing contexts are able to continue to deliver high-quality reporting in the absence of donors?