Fighting for Survival: Can You Make a Living as a Global Muckraker?

March 12, 2019

New report looks at how media startups survive or don’t.

By Anya Schiffrin

Around the world, brave journalists are setting up small outlets to do investigative and accounting reporting in countries where the government is against them. They do important work and often have an impact but find it’s hard to make a living.

The case of the Philippines Rappler is an example. The site has come to exemplify the best of global muckraking: bravery reporters there are bearing witness to the thousands of extra judicial killings that have taken place under Duterte. Editor Maria Ressa jailed. Other examples from around the world abound: in Mexico there is Chiapas Paralelo, Lado B, Emeequis, Liberacion El Daily Post, 7iber in Jordan, Himal Southasian (forced for political reasons to move to Sri Lanka from Nepal) and the Center for Investigative Journalism in Malawi. Examples of such outlets can be found in Central Europe as well, like Krik in Serbia, Átlátszó and Direkt36 in Hungary.

Many of these outlets find that it’s hard to get advertising especially in places where the media is captured and government chooses to advertise in sympathetic outlets. Often the outlets end up getting funding from foreign philanthropists and development assistance.

A new report “Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South” from Columbia University in New York, profiles many of these organizations and explains how they survive or why they failed.  We went back to the organizations we profiled in 2015 for our report Publishing for Peanuts to find out how they had fared since then and what changes took place in the last three years. In our report we discuss the kinds of innovations taking place around the world and the paradox that being beloved by your audience doesn’t translate into revenue generation. 

Some of our main findings:

  • Financial survival is the biggest worry for the media outlets we profiled, followed by political risk and physical safety.
  • The outlets remain dependent on donors. Advertising is hard to come by and raising funding from audiences has proven difficult. Donors need to accept this reality and be willing to commit to long-term support for outlets creating a public good.
  • The grim political climate, rise of right-wing demagogues and attacks on the media have made the outlets feel appreciated in many countries. They recounted tales of support and encouragement from their audiences. But this sentiment does not translate into sustainable forms of funding.
  • The outlets have professionalized in the sense that many now have accounting software, bookkeepers and full-time staff working on grant writing. But many still rely on unpaid contributors and some use office space that was provided for free or rented at a discount. Sembra Media notes in their report that there is a strong correlation between employing a full-time marketing staffer and generating revenue.
  • Membership models are in fashion, but we believe that these models, while helpful, are even less likely to scale than crowdfunding. Selling memberships puts an additional demand on the readers, asking them for not just their money but also their time.
  • Our findings suggest continued dependence by media outlets on philanthropy. We urge donors to collaborate more and think about the larger media eco system as they make funding decisions. Support should be given carefully so that there aren’t too many small outlets competing for the same pots of funding. Donors and media development organizations need to maintain a balance between enthusiasm and optimism and support for innovation and creating false hopes and unrealistic expectations. 
  • There is a need for an industry-wide body that would assist small civic-minded outlets in building capacity for doing international fundraising and other kinds of efforts to generate revenue. At the moment, a group of donors offer some services but not others, but there is no one-stop shop. Certainly, media startups often do not make use of what does exist, partly because they aren’t aware of what is available or lack the time to make plans.
  • Recent discussion about creating a global media fund is also an exciting and necessary initiative. It is possible that such a fund, as well as supporting a public good, could help the outlets profiled in this report.

Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media and Advocacy specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is a member of the advisory board of Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and the Natural Resource Governance Institute and in spring 2016 joined the Global Board of the Open Society Foundation. She is also a board member at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University.