From smear campaigns and censorship to financial pressure and legal harassment, illiberal and authoritarian governments are squeezing independent media. How can they remain financially viable and able to do their jobs?

The IPI World Congress and Media Innovation Festival panel “Modelling Journalism and the Business Under Pressure”, moderated by Dávid Tvrdoň, subscription growth and retention specialist at Slovakia’s Petit Press, brought together journalists and media professionals from Nigeria, Georgia, Myanmar, and India to explore how journalists can leverage innovation and diverse funding models to weather government pressure.

The Caravan, a long-form investigative site in India, a country experiencing a significant press freedom backslide under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, achieved financial sustainability through reader revenues. “Making money from advertising never happened due to the business decisions and political ramifications. For the first 8 years, the magazine ran on heavy losses until we introduced a digital paywall”, The Caravan’s editor, Ananth Nath, explained. Financial sustainability and independence are crucial for The Caravan, which offers its readers independent, objective, and anti-establishment investigations scrutinizing not only the government but also the corporate sector.

While expanding its subscriber base is essential, the outlet’s primary focus lies in retaining those subscribers. “Retaining subscribers is a significant challenge, particularly since we are not a high-volume content publication. We publish about 30 stories per month”, Nath said.

In Nigeria, although many outlets have introduced subscription models, it is still unclear whether reader revenues can serve as the primary source of income for the country’s news media market. According to Motunrayo Alaka, the executive director and CEO of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, relying solely on subscriptions is not a viable solution for Nigeria’s investigative media. Alaka said that subscriptions tend to be more effective for niche publications with highly specialized content.

Simultaneously, Alaka pointed out that donor funding, which serves as the primary source of revenue for independent media in Nigeria, fails to ensure the media’s long-term sustainability. “Media houses are very eager and media space is quite robust. However, there is a gap in the resources that are available. Donor funding is very robust now but even in a few year’s time donors might go”, she said.

Succeeding in exile

Despite an extremely hostile environment for free journalism following the 2021 military coup, independent media in Myanmar have not only managed to survive but have also succeeded in building sustainable business models while operating from exile. “Although we started as a donor-funded publication, we now receive a lot of donations from readers, even thousands of dollars on a daily basis”, Swe Win, Myanmar Now’s editor-in-chief said. [Myanmar Now received the 2023 IPI-IMS Free Media Pioneer award. You can read more about the award here and watch the award ceremony here.]

With an audience of several million per month, most of whom fall between the ages of 25 and 34, there is immense potential for business growth, Swe Win said.  “In our country, we want to achieve a genuine full-fledged democracy. This means many people are now reading and asking for serious news.”

In contrast, the willingness to pay for digital content is low in Georgia, a country with a population of three million and where pressure on independent media is growing.  “We are fighting for survival,” Netgazeti & Batumelebi’s Irma Dimitradze said. Launched in 2001, Batumelebi, a local news outlet, and its sister organization, Netgazeti, are predominantly donor funded. While Batumelebi’s revenue used to be advertising and print income, since the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, advertising deals have dried up and the demand for printed content has shrunk. Due to political pressure and media polarization, companies became hesitant to advertise in independent media, Dimitradze explained.

Despite a decline in revenues, Batumelebi & Netgazeti remains one of the country’s most popular independent news websites. According to Dimitradze, over the past three months, the website attracted more than 1.2 million unique visitors. So far, Batumelebi has carried out a crowdfunding campaign but has held back from introducing a subscription or a membership model. “Once we have a chance, time and power to think about deploying more innovations, and working with our audiences closer, we will probably try to introduce reader revenues”, she said.

Revisit the IPI World Congress & Media Innovation Festival 2023