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July 23, 2019, 11:19 a.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   July 23, 2019

Digital publishers worldwide face a common set of challenges — monetizing digital while retaining print subscribers, deciding how much content to give to third-party platforms, and so on. But publishers in repressive media environments have additional barriers to overcome.

A new report from WAN-IFRA looks at 54 news outlets across 11 lower-income and middle-income regions: East Africa, South Africa, the state of Palestine, the Philippines, Malaysia, Jordan, Egypt, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, and Indonesia. All of the countries except for South Africa are “considered to be politically pressured,” falling in the lower half of countries globally as ranked by the World Press Freedom Index, and all are “operating in regions identified as eligible for official development assistance” by the OECD.

Beyond their circumstances, though, the outlets were quite varied, ranging in age from less than two years old to more than a hundred, with monthly unique users from 1,000 to more than a million. Twenty-four of the outlets had print editions.

WAN-IFRA wanted to look at the kinds of business decisions the outlets were making to survive in “flawed markets,” and collected data for about two years. “Digital business was particularly problematic for media in repressed or pressured environments,” the report’s author, Clare Cook, writes. “Financial operations were restricted and the market classified as flawed because they could not work as normal business entities due to harassment, declining media freedoms, business pressures and restrictions, and legal complexities.” Of course, the publishers also face the same challenges that publishers face elsewhere — monetizing digital while retaining print subscribers, deciding how much content to give to the platforms, and so on.

Here are some trends (though across this many countries and newsrooms, most common trends are very top-level — I’d have loved to see more specifics on individual newsrooms as case studies):

— Publishers often found “resilience” in broader networks and partnerships with outside organizations and publishers:

According to digital-native in the Philippines it “widens our perspective and provides us the necessary tools to plan and come up with a systematic-structured and viable business plan.” International media collaborations notably between South Africa’s Tiso Blackstar Group and Norway’s Aftenposten resulted in “useful insights” in digital-first operations. Hiber in Jordan partnered with mainstream media organizations (TV, radio) and other regional websites to make joint programs together to increase audience.

However one publisher in the Philippines had explored a content sharing agreement with a larger incumbent publisher in Hong Kong. While they were pleased to have been found and recognized, they felt the arrangement was imbalanced. “We will financially bleed. In the spirit of fair journalism and economic freedom big newsrooms should teach us what to do and we are small. They do not feel threatened but we can give them stories their readers want. Their deal is one way. They are squeezing us.”

In some cases networks were informal sharing of notes and advice between journalists for example through the Alliance of Independent Journalists, or self-help projects among journalists or WhatsApp groups…in others these were more formal work packages driven at [the] editorial level.

— Coverage of social justice issues was often popular — “matters of privacy, corruption and big crimes.” Publishers were working to create content for different audiences; for instance, “Serdab Data Creative Lab in Jordan had worked to identify three audience groups to tackle audience fragmentation. They developed a strategy to divide audiences into different groups (loyal readers, website occasional readers, social media audiences) and cater to their needs differently.” Meanwhile, in South Africa, GroundUp held community events “where they visited the communities covered on the site with a printed newsletter of example stories to boost digital followers.”

— Advertising was still the primary revenue driver for most of these news outlets; a handful were experimenting with sponsored content and with memberships and subscriptions. On the sponsored-content front:

In East Africa, The Star explored the use of charging corporate clients a fee for running a press release in its entirety while Nation Media Group responded to demand from advertisers wanting a narrative rather than display approach. This was said to be an experimental step for banks, telecommunication companies or betting companies wanting to drive brand building or awareness. “Most of it is just straight text stories with a video or photo and to elaborate on some of the points they want coming across. The client decides on the angle, but then it will go through an internal editorial check so that if there are any red flags that would be flagged up.” had two clients in a sponsored content deal from the housing and transport industries. The publisher produced one story a month for $400 labelled as advertorial addressing an issue identified in collaboration with the sponsor, such as safety precautions traveling in mountainous areas and initiatives the company is working on…

Four publishers had explored online payment differentials. wanted to offer a $6 subscription for readers receiving all the website content via an email, directed by user demand. This would lead to some stories being tiered for paying subscribers only. In Indonesia, Solopos Digital Media had implemented a membership model for online services and PT Kompas Cyber Media ( had begun to think about paywalls and online advertising. In Mexico, Noroeste de Sinaloa’s digital subscription focussed on local content and changing the hierarchy and process of story release.

The full report is available for free here.

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