How journalism is innovating to find sustainable ways to serve local communities around the world and fight against misinformation
Across the world, journalists, editors, and publishers are working to build (or, in some cases, rebuild) a dynamic, responsible media that engages their communities in news and information that meets their local needs and wants. The media they’re creating leverage the trust of localism to empower people within communities to tell their stories to one another, to give a voice to the rights of their community, and to fight the spread of mis- and dis-information.
It demands a new way of thinking built off a strong journalistic mission. Where once local news media brought the world home to their communities, now their reporting is empowering their communities to talk to one another – and to the world. It’s inside-out reporting replacing the old outside-in.
It’s the big story of the news media right now. But it’s a story that’s playing out very differently outside the global media centres in the developed world of North America and Western Europe than it is in the emerging and developing regions of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
In the latter regions, the demand for local news – and the demand for local news outlets that can share it – is deep. In some countries, communities outside national centres have traditionally been information-poor with weak or no local media (or, often worse, media controlled by the state and/or local oligarchic elites). Information scarcity has walked hand-in-hand with economic disadvantage.
The intensity of this need – of this market gap – is mobilizing journalists and media-builders to commit to meeting the needs of their communities by engaging them in new or transitional media voices that speak for – and of – them.
All of this is an opportunity: an opportunity to open the door to a new and vibrant news media ecosystem. Sometimes, this involves remaking or transitioning old media. More usually, it involves building a new media outlet out of the opportunities that digital and social technologies offer. Either path demands exciting experiments in journalism, in storytelling, and in product thinking.
It also faces challenges: Local communities often lack the resources to support their own local media. Information pollution has generated distrust of all journalism. There’s a growing authoritarianism bringing deliberate strategies of media capture. And in some countries, digital opportunities are constrained by potential readers’ lack of access to mobile data or stable web connectivity.
These challenges demand supportive interventions. Transition infrastructure support for news media has largely been rooted in and focused on developed economies in North America and western Europe. However, there are some exciting developments that are having an impact in other regions, such as SembraMedia in Latin America.
How we exploit these opportunities and confront these challenges will determine whether this aggregation of thousands of local initiatives successfully entrenches a truth-based news media in the communities where people most in need of engaged and reliable news and information live and work day-to-day.
In this report, we take what is the first deep look at innovation in news media serving local communities outside the U.S. and Western Europe. We talked to many of the journalists and media builders that are on the front-line of this struggle in the regions of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. They demand our attention and focus as they find and enact in real-time strategies for survival and growth.
This is a real-time qualitative report based on in-depth discussions with more than 35 journalists, editors, media leaders, and entrepreneurs who are transitioning legacy media and creating new local-media voices in the emerging and developing regions of Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, together with readings of their comments and self-reflections in blogs, speeches, and articles. It’s part a report back to those who joined in our conversations, and part a stab at a global leveling up of the wisdom they’ve shared. On the IPI website, you can dig deeper into the topic through stand-alone reports and 21 companion case studies of many of the media profiled in this report.
This report is meant to share the experiences and lessons of local media practitioners globally, and to build a community for networking and support. It’s about telling their story in their own voice – and helping all involved learn from one another.
By talking to both new digital start-ups and traditional media in transition, this report identifies how media builders in different circumstances understand and meet the challenges they face. Comparing and contrasting experiences from different parts of the world provides both lessons that can be copied as well as warnings about the need to understand how different regional and national conditions impact success. From there, the report draws practical recommendations for news media leaders, for media support organizations, and for the IPI global network.
This report followed on from an earlier look by the IPI global network at local media that contrasted local media in the developed West (particularly the U.S., the UK, and France) and in emerging economies, particularly in South Africa and the Asia/Pacific region. This deeper look at local media in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe has both led to new insights and tested those we drew from our earlier research. So what have we found that is particularly relevant to local news media in the regions under review?
- The disruption of local news media – the most disrupted sector of the media – makes it the sector most open to experimentation and innovation and with the greatest potential to form the bedrock of a new, stronger media ecosystem. There is a great need for transition support infrastructure. In many countries, local media are also increasingly targeted by authoritarian populists.
- Too many local communities have traditionally been information-poor with weak or no local media (or, often worse, media controlled by the state and/or local oligarchic elites). Information scarcity has walked hand-in-hand with economic disadvantage: affluent and urban, educated audiences have been traditionally better served, reinforcing social inequality.
- The intensity of this need – of this market gap – is mobilizing journalists and media-builders to commit to meeting the needs of their communities with a mission for journalism by engaging them in new or transitional voices that speak for – and of – them. With the opportunities presented by the digital space, journalists are rethinking the products that will meet audience needs.
- Local news media are shaped for the local context to both reflect and create their communities with a clear sense of their mission, editorial vision, and audience (or potential audience). They have or gain an understanding of the intricacies of local culture and diversity by embedding themselves in the community, by looking like the community, and by being their community’s champion in telling their stories to one another and the world.
- Wide-ranging innovation and experimentation is having a strong positive impact on local media outlets and the transition infrastructure (grants, advice, networks) available to support them, but this is unevenly distributed and, at times, dependent on reallocation of resources from other philanthropic projects. Innovation in local news is restrained by the limits of scale, which demands new thinking around sharing, replication, and adaptation, including through national media developing a local mindset with correspondents and localized distribution.
- Digital natives are grasping the opportunity, not tied by the dead weight of the past (including restraints of legacy organizational culture). They also tend to be less subject to state capture (although as illiberal and authoritarian states expand their repression model, digital native media also become targets). Media that want to transition have to think like a digital native. Remember, too: the rising generation of audiences consists of digital natives.
- Engagement with local communities needs to be embedded across the process chain as a new way of thinking about journalism, from design to editorial decision-making to product. Sustainability demands a continued demonstration of local media outlets’ value to their community, particularly to communities that have historically been excluded from mass media offerings. It requires writing for, rather than about, communities, and building new audiences through a lens of inclusion.
- Local media need to leverage their inherent connectivity to generate trust and build an emotional attachment of “being on the same side” as their community. This is an essential shield against authoritarianism. Indeed, local news media are central in the battle against misinformation and disinformation. They play a key role in fact-checking, carrying out deep reporting, and debunking disinformation and misinformation. Local media understand that they are working in a polluted news environment and use trust and truth to compete with “fake news”.
- There is more room for experimentation with the local news product, driven by a reassessment of the job journalism does for a community. There is no right or wrong model – nor one single best product. Local news media are finding ways to reach their audience where they are. As local media transition online, opening access to new audiences, they can explore products that engage communities that may not have been served through traditional print. Having a local transition infrastructure where media can learn from one another is particularly important.
- Not all communities can sustain the media they need at the local level. There are real limits to reader revenues in low-income and disadvantaged communities (which can also be less attractive for advertisers). This means looking to other sources such as the region’s diaspora, to local businesses as donors, and to philanthropy. The donor community needs to think more about local media outside Europe and the U.S. and be prepared to commit long-term support for basic news operations.
What do we mean by “local”?
Local news media are defined by how they serve their community. It’s “local” journalism if it brings a geographically constrained audience together with the news that the audience needs, news that empowers people to tell their own stories to one another and to the world at large. Sometimes, these are hyperlocal media, deeply embedded in small communities like Nyugat in western Hungary. Sometimes they are networked media, such as those under the umbrella of the ABO Local Media Development Agency in Ukraines, or replicated, like Citizen Matters in India’s different cities.
In other places, new national media are working out ways to deliver a localized sensibility through a national network, like South Africa’s Scrolla, Kloop in Kyrgyzstan, Red/Acción in Argentina, or Ojoconmipisto in Guatemala. This can be done by embedding correspondents, like Jordan’s Radio Al Balad, or through innovative product distribution, like 263Chat’s WhatsApp groups in Zimbabwe.
The focus of local media might be regions covering millions. For example, The News Minute reports on half a dozen states in southern India, while The Centrum Media meets the news needs of Pakistan’s rising generations through video. Or they may be talking to small towns and villages in a particular region, like Rayon’s hyperlocal network in western Ukraine.
There are “local” lessons to be drawn from all of them.
The key questions for the success of local news media are as follows: Are they solving a problem for their audience? Are they identifying and filling a news or information gap for their community or communities?
In this report, we look at how journalists are innovating to answer these questions to build a new local media ecosystem across three frames: in the journalism that creates the news content; in the products and experiences that aggregate that content; and in the business models that support the process. This innovation is delivering a deep journalism that can engage and hold the attention of its audience and whose contribution is found in the value (or utility) of the information it shares and its role in community-building or social capital.
Reflecting and shaping the community
To succeed today, news media need deep engagement with their audience.
The first step is for local media to find (or identify) their audience. Whether they are building this offering out of an existing, traditional outlet or starting something new, they need to start with a clear understanding of who that (new) audience is and the role the news media can play in structuring that audience into a (more or less) coherent community.
For traditional media in transition, this may mean a refocus of just who the audience is. They can learn from the example of the Limpopo Mirror, which was launched as South Africa emerged from apartheid to meet the needs of largely rural Black communities in the country’s northeast. For new digital voices, it can mean allowing a potential community to emerge into definition such as India’s The News Minute, which aims to create a news centred around a recognition that the five southern Indian states have shared news interests.
Across most of the regions under examination, local newspapers were not the norm in the 20th century as traditional media found it more profitable to build an audience with a demand for national news.
Those that built local audiences – for example, in South Asia – usually did so by publishing in regional languages. In Sri Lanka, for example, the only significant newspapers based outside Colombo were the Tamil-language papers in Jaffna (including the enduring Uthayan). Because papers published in regional languages were a way of building self-identifying communities at the local level, they were often eyed suspiciously by the national authorities and dominant language institutions.
Some countries are built culturally, politically, and administratively around a single dominant political and cultural centre (for example, Hungary around Budapest). This in-country domination tends to lead to a media ecosystem based in (and tending to speak and act for) that centre.
In post-1980s democracies, local newspapers were historically a tool of state or local elite control. In Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, local newspapers were part of the network of state-owned media. They were a tool for the state to talk to citizens, rather than a tool for building and empowering the community. In some countries, this practice continued into post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. For example, the state-owned newspapers inherited from Soviet-era Ukraine were only forced to begin the hard work of identifying and engaging their communities when they were “destatized” in 2015 after the Maidan uprising.
Most local media in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Slovenia are commercial companies increasingly reliant on financial arrangements (often disguised as “advertising” transactions) with local governments. The Trade Union of Croatian Journalists says journalists who stand up have been censored and lost their jobs, such as four journalists from Istarski glas from Glas Istre in western Croatia, who were fired due to public disagreement with the editorial policy of the city authorities.
Journalist organizations in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Slovenia are campaigning to find models to ensure a transparent system of local media funding that would make them independent of the local authorities whose work they monitor and review.
Successfully transitioning local media have to decide which side they are on. In Mexico, Andrea Miranda, editor-in-chief of El Debate in Sinaloa state, says: “We work for our readers. They are our source of work and our main interest. We do not work for the authorities. We work for readers and we are very close to the people. We like to be close to the people, to walk the cities, to be in the markets, to know what is happening, and not to leave the neighbourhoods.”
Media that are seeking to build out of a pre-existing (often once ad-supported) publication have discovered that success demands a rethinking that centres the audience as they actually are.
For Zoutnet, which owns Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror in northern South Africa, the shift came early. The collapse of apartheid in the early 1990s inspired them to launch a new publication for the largely black and rural community, which had been historically ignored in favour of the town-based white population.
For Rayon, in western Ukraine, it meant understanding that the relationship to readers had to change. As editor Olena Reshotka-Rozhii says: “Our readers are our friends. This is why we organize a summer school for people who want to learn to be journalists. And we’re happy that colleagues from other media often learn from what we do, which is why we organize the largest forum for journalists in western Ukraine each year.”
In Hungary, it’s meant building an emotional link that can transcend the engineered populism of the national government. Antal Jozing, a senior journalist at Nyugat, says: “Hungarian history is about surviving. So we are very good at it. We learned that we have to have a good relationship with our audience, to catch them emotionally. I think it is a very essential part of surviving to somehow get them on our side and to show them this is the right side – and if they feel it emotionally they might help us.”
In Guatemala, Ojoconmipisto (which translates to “Be careful with my money”) educates and trains citizens on access to public information and supervision of money allocated to their local municipalities. The team also trains journalists to do local journalism and data journalism and promotes citizen participation, believing that informed citizens will be a better source of information.
Finding the key
Having identified the (potential) community, successful media organizations need to figure out the key that opens the door to engage their audience. Think of this as the one big idea that lights up the path the organization can walk to success. Often the key can come from grasping a sudden opportunity such as a regulatory or technological change, or it might involve a recognition of a gap opening up in demand or a failure of supply, or experimenting with new journalism formats and products.
Sometimes it might be hiding in plain sight – or at least seem obvious in retrospect. Sometimes it can be uncovered through design-thinking research. Zimbabwe’s 263Chat found the key to its WhatsApp distribution model through an analysis of strengths (information-hungry population, high literacy), weaknesses (low income and access to data), opportunities (messaging apps, diversified advertising), and threats (misinformation, uncertain economics).
For Kloop in Kyrgyzstan, the key was understanding that journalism itself wasn’t enough. They needed to situate their work in a new media ecosystem – pro-democracy, pro-truth – so that their journalism could exist. That included a journalism school and an election-monitoring department.
For Citizen Matters, which delves into systemic, local, and hyperlocal issues, the key is in the audience, which is made up of people who are engaged in civic issues in their community. They are the changemakers. The Citizen Matters website functions as a platform for civic participation. Having members of the community as both readers and contributors creates a feedback loop and ensures impact on the ground.
For transitioning media like the Daily Dispatch in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province or Rayon in western Ukraine, it was understanding that they needed to double down on local news of interest to the local audience, whether this was potholes or weddings. Whereas before locally based media had often been a way of telling national (and global) stories to a local audience, these media recognized that the flood of that sort of information on the internet demanded that they own their own space – news about and by their communities.
In Pakistan, The Centrum Media found that video brought inherent credibility, as viewers were able to see the identified expert speaking for themselves (think of it as “the medium is the message” in practice). In India, Khabar Lahariya found credibility by recruiting their reporting team from villages in the area and then embedding them there, challenging long-held notions on who could tell stories – and on which topics.
Networks of local correspondents are also found to be the key to maintaining a localized focus in national media. The leading independent broadcaster in Jordan, Radio Al Balad, relies on local correspondents drawn from their priority reporting areas: young people, women, and human rights activists. Guatemala’s digital native accountability project, Ojoconmipisto, has made training local reporters a priority. Editor Ana Carolina Alpírez says: “Our principles are threefold. Municipal oversight, training, and citizen participation. We are very interested in the part of training citizens. Why? Because they are the first source of information, they are the ones on the ground.”
South Africa’s Scrolla found opportunity in the challenge of high data fees for its mobile service by piggy-backing off local messaging providers and designing a data-lite site. Similarly, faced with poor internet connectivity in Paraguay, El Surtidor developed a HTML-based “scrolly-telling” format that consumes little data and works on low-quality connections. The lesson, El Surtidor says, is that before developing products, it’s important to be sure that they can be properly consumed by users.
Organizations don’t always get it right the first time. They have to be empowered with the freedom to fail, with an innovation mindset that is ready to change direction, try new things, and move on to something else if it doesn’t work out. As El Debate Editor-in-Chief Andrea Miranda says about the digital transition: “We messed up a lot of things. We also spent a lot of money on all this learning, but we have a boss who… lets us do it. And for me it has been essential, basic. He is with us and lets us do it. The mistakes we make are part of the learning process and we accept them as such and they allow us to continue investigating and making decisions.”
This need for experimentation reinforces the importance of local innovation infrastructure that can support organizational change.
The authoritarian challenge
Media capture and other forms of repression by authoritarian regimes pose an increasing challenge to local news media that are perceived as a threat due either to their accountability journalism or simply to their providing an autonomous voice. Pressure can come through blocking advertising revenues from state or oligarchic-owned corporations and pressuring other businesses to do the same; through legal actions such as defamation or tax audits; or through targeted attacks on media institutions and independent journalists.
In Hungary, for example, most media are either owned or tied in some way to the governing Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The party uses state advertising funds to reward supporters and punish independent media, and influences private businesses to do the same. As Nyugat’s Antal Jozing says of private advertisers: “They don’t want to put advertisements in Nyugat because it is an independent site and maybe they will have some disadvantages from it later on – not so directly, but indirectly. It is a very, very hard situation.”
Starting in 2007 with the closure of television broadcaster RCTV, the Venezuelan government started co-opting established media. It took over several radio stations, while government-friendly business people began to buy out “troublemaker” outlets including Últimas Notícias, the most popular newspaper in the country; El Universal, formerly the most respected newspaper; and television news broadcaster Globovisión. After Venezuela’s economic crisis in 2013 forced media to cut back their reporting staff and close outlets, almost all the surviving media outlets were taken over by the government or by supportive business elites. Government-friendly media are supported by a state-organized troll army used to shape public opinion.
Still, with this repression also came opportunity and the emergence of a new digital media ecosystem, with members like the news site El Pitazo. Starting with a YouTube channel before adding in data-lite distribution through WhatsApp and SMS, El Pitazo has sought to fill in Venezuela’s information deserts.
The attacks that kept crashing El Pitazo’s website led them to bring their news to the streets with what they call “El Pitazo en la Calle”. They climb the hills of the slums in Caracas and other cities to call out the news with a megaphone and paste posters with the headlines in schools and community centres.
For many organizations, the journalistic mission meshes with a broader demand for social and political accountability. Bektour Iskender from Kyrgystan’s Kloop says: “The core mission of our organization is to encourage people to become brave enough to fight for something, something good … We are, I think, balancing on the edge of activism and journalism – I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but we just feel like in Kyrgyzstan, it’s something we have to do these days.”
In Kyrgyzstan, where the fight for democratic, publicly accountable institutions is a central social challenge, this stance ultimately establishes the credibility of their journalism. “It has built a very strong reputation for Kloop, like a media outlet that would be the last one to give up against any sort of pressure”, Iskender says.
A journalism that engages
Successful local media are also experimenting and innovating with the journalism itself to work out what engages their audience across the creation chain. This begins either through specific journalistic content that brings together an audience in need of such specific – usually localized – content (as, for example, 263Chat, which has created a previously unserved audience of farmers through specific WhatsApp products); or, particularly for geographically defined media, by asking (and asking again) what the audience wants to know, what they would find useful, or what would contribute to building their civic engagement.
The demand of engaged readership requires a new way of thinking about journalism – a journalism that holds local institutions to account and provides difficult-to-access information as a service rather than as a report for the record. Local media are differentiating themselves by taking the time to go deep rather than emulate the traditional model of fast coverage of spot news. Implicit in this shift is the idea of understanding the community and making trends/events/developments relevant to local audiences, including scaling national reports and data back to the relatable local size.
Argentina’s Red/Acción, for example, uses what it calls “human” journalism: an intersection between solutions journalism and participatory journalism as part of a mission to strengthen citizens’ commitment to social change. The outlet engages its audience in conversations around six themes: climate change, gender equality, social inclusion, education, health, and technology for the common good.
El Pitazo in Venezuela, which has correspondents in most regions of the country, engages disconnected communities outside big cities through flip charts pasted on walls, two-minute news briefs before movie showings, and live chat forums through WhatsApp. Using performative journalism, they also produce plays that tell investigative stories so that these stories can reach a wider audience.
Some start with a journalism that reflects a deliberately different perspective. Khabar Lahariya, for example, starts with a feminist lens. 263Chat creates a community of farmers through WhatsApp where the farmers become both creators and consumers of news as they share vital information into 263Chat’s network.
An emphasis on the local offers an opening to hold power to account where people live. The Daily Dispatch in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, for example, has a long tradition of exposing corruption and brings this investigatory expertise to its renewed emphasis on local news. Ojoconmipisto similarly centres accountability journalism at the local level in Guatemala.
Successful local media engage their audiences in the acts of research and writing, reaching out to them for information, commentary, and analysis. They also empower their audiences to engage with the story through comments and questions once the story is published. This all works together to shape future stories through a virtuous circle of engagement.
Media are also innovating the structure, readability, and presentation of journalism to make it accessible and readily usable by its audience.
While a locally focused journalism is creating something new for its communities, it isn’t doing so in a vacuum. Many communities bring a misunderstanding of what “journalism” is or should be thanks to exposure to a type of journalism that is polluted by state, commercial, and political interests; misshapen by advertising pressures; or misrepresented through mis- and disinformation.
Often, media can only overcome this challenge by embedding themselves in the community and rebuilding trust with a journalism that listens to, rather than talks at, the community – by creating journalism that reports for, rather than about, the community.
Innovation can come with subject matter content that abandons the commodified breaking news cycle and speaks instead to the wants and needs of the communities being served. In western Ukraine, Rayon found this came with a hyperlocal focus (e.g., weddings, school concerts, potholes). Ojoconmipisto in Guatemala found it came by flipping the accountability focus on corruption from the national to the municipal level, tightly tied to the “pisto” – money or taxes that residents pay.
Red/Acción in Argentina found the innovation sweet spot at the intersection between solutions journalism and participatory journalism. Founder Chani Guyot explains: “Our mission is focused on helping citizens… do their job well as citizens because we fundamentally deal with six issues: the climate crisis, gender equality, social inclusion, health, education, and technology for the common good. We cover stories underrepresented by other outlets, explain complex social issues, and focus on the story of the people and organizations that are solving them, amplifying the voices of diverse minorities.”
An example of how Red/Acción meshes participation and solutions is its project on Centennial economics, exploring how Gen Zers deal with money and planning, and what their expectations for the future are. Starting on Instagram, Red/Acción collected about 3,000 comments. These were fed into an online post that was then distributed by that same network of participants. “They feel their participation, they feel represented in the story, and then we did an event. All this in the course of three weeks”, Guyot says. “And when you look at this whole process, it looks a lot like an open conversation between our newsroom and our community.”
Innovation also comes with the format and structure of journalism. Pakistan’s The Centrum Media uses long-form video that identifies experts – particularly those who are young like their audience – and presents them directly. South Africa’s Scrolla writes specifically for a mobile audience and for distribution on messaging apps and its data-lite site.
In India, the Bangalore-based Citizen Matters integrates citizens and editors to tell stories about the challenges facing the urban centres of Bangalore, Chennai, and Mumbai. “We created a platform for civic participation in journalism to be a more reflective and inclusive publication, that drew from the truth of people’s experiences and could push for change, as a guide to newsworthiness determination”, co-founder Subbu Vincent says. “Editorial stewardship is critical”, adds co-founder Meera K, “to ensure that what citizens develop is journalism – and not just a rant like on social media. An editor facilitates this process – we handhold and mentor community reporters to tell the story with truth, accuracy, and fairness.”
In Hyderabad, meanwhile, Suno India, which launched in 2018, has jumped in to fill another gap: a lack of media using the warmth of audio as a medium for reporting. Incorporating the founders’ skills of journalism, policy advocacy, and digital expertise, the outcome is a multilingual and multigenerational podcast platform based in Hyderabad and New Delhi, building the niche of “slow journalism” through its audio stories and targeting among others, regional language communities in Tamil and Telugu. The outlet focuses on topics such as tuberculosis, rare diseases, climate change, technology, and governance.
“As a platform we believe in processing information slowly, synthesizing it thoroughly, and only then putting it out”, co-founder and editorial lead DVL Padma Priya says of Suno India’s philosophy.
Audio is not the only way Suno India has reached out to its audience. Partnering with Iranian artist Azammma Soumzadeh, it produced ‘Corona Flashcards’ in English, Telugu, and Hindi to give practical tips in the form of FAQs. “I think my neighbour has coronavirus, what should I do?” asks one. “Avoid contact but give them a smile”, comes the answer. The Telugu cards were printed out and put up as posters by listeners. Suno India also pivoted this year to airing a two-minute news podcast dealing with COVID-19 each evening to provide trusted and accurate information on this fast-moving story in India.
El Surtidor in Paraguay has invented its own way of visual storytelling: the “surtiscroll”, a vertically scrolling “scrollytelling” format that features information posters, explainer videos, long-form, and Japanese street-theatre, or Kamishibai, stories.
Local media trusted by their communities have an opportunity to leverage that trust to confront disinformation head-on. Bektour Iskender from Kyrgystan’s Kloop says: “We had this really cool project where we managed to scrape all the comments from Instagram accounts of media outlets in Kyrgyzstan, and then analyze these comments and find out which ones were left by bots, which were organized most likely by the government.”
Products that reach the audience where they are
Once they’ve understood their audiences and the journalism they want and need, local news media need to work hard to ensure their journalism is packaged into products that can reach the audience where they are and that they will value. In this sense, “products” can be taken to describe any of the means by which the journalism is made readily accessible to the audience. This can include platforms, means of distribution, language used, or the mix of text, audio, and video.
As 263Chat’s Nigel Mugamu says: “(We) work backwards to create products that are aligned to either their value system, their purchasing decisions, the way they access the internet, the kinds of information they want to see and hear. (We) really think of the community.”
This is design thinking for products in action: starting with the audience and the organizational capabilities, the value of the journalism, and understanding what the organization can do better than anyone else.
Understanding the need for products that mesh with audience practices is central to the rethinking of a journalism that can set the sort of modern habits of consumption that could once be found in the morning newspaper over the breakfast table or the evening television news. A breakthrough moment in the remaking of digital journalism was the recognition that simply transferring the news package to the internet with a “build it and they will come” attitude was inadequate to the moment. Media find that when seeking a locally defined audience, it’s particularly important to get the product range right.
Central to getting the product right in the regions under review is grasping the limits of the distribution infrastructure such as the extent and affordability of broadband or other internet connections as well as mobile take-up with related data limits and charges. It’s also shaped by government regulation and control of the infrastructure and of the social media platforms that work through it.
South Africa’s Scrolla, for example, recognized that if it wanted to reach an audience that skewed young, it had to be mobile-centred, delivering news wherever their potential users were, treading as lightly on data as possible. In doing so, they could create habits of consumption in the daily pockets of time that the mobile internet fills, like on the bus or waiting for a friend.
In Zimbabwe, 263Chat founder Nigel Mugamu found that “the internet to most people is actually WhatsApp”. He leveraged the platform by publishing a Monday to Friday e-paper in about 200 WhatsApp groups, creating, at the same time, real-time multi-channel engagement.
Suno India saw in the country’s burgeoning podcast market an unserved gap for the 75 million Telugu speakers in southern India, including some who are illiterate, and filled it with deeply reported narrative audio journalism.
Product design calls for a willingness to pivot to hold onto existing audiences or to extend the range to reach new audiences. Previously, media organizations required significant capital expenditure (in, say, new presses) to launch a new product line. Now, there’s a freedom to experiment, to prototype at low cost, to see what works. Successful media need to be open to adapt and change
Sometimes, expansion may call for new languages: Kloop in Kyrgyzstan launched in the largely urban Russian language before expanding into the more rural (and more widely spoken) Kyrgyz language. Scrolla is pairing its English site with news in isiZulu.
In northern India, Khabar Lahariya has pivoted its product iterations. Starting as a literacy project for rural women in northern India, the outlet developed the women they had taught into local reporters in regional languages, like Bundeli, first for print papers and then through video storytelling for their communities. They have now moved into telling the stories from their communities about rural life to the broader Indian community, with special reporting for national media and a growing subscriber base.
The product range is essential to break through the inherent constraints on scale. It can be extended through forms of sharing, adaptation, and replication – almost a form of franchising – or by taking a successful local model and adapting it to other cities and regions. In India, Citizen Matters was launched in Bengaluru and has since been applied in Chennai and Mumbai. According to Meenakshi Ramesh, who was behind the launch of the Chennai chapter of Citizen Matters, “You need a pull from the city. It cannot be a push. I cannot wake up today and say, okay, let’s have a Citizen Matters in Delhi. Somebody who lives and breathes and feels for that city must jump in so we can start Citizen Matters in that city.”
Social media video streaming through YouTube and Facebook Live provides a low-cost point of entry to deliver local news and perspectives to a young mobile audience. Often one- or two-person teams adapt this model to provide low-cost local news.
Business models that work (or might work!)
Local media has been the most disrupted sector of the news media. It had to rethink all aspects of the business model. Previously, local news media were the only path to potential buyers for both national and local advertisers. Now, that business model has been squeezed, on one side from national news media making their digital product widely available along with their national ads; and on the other by social media offering a low-cost alternative for micro-targeting local advertisers. The ability of local media to simply adapt the subscriber-based model of national media is constrained both by the size of their audience and, often, by the disadvantaged nature of their communities.
Local news media need to assess what business models can work best under these circumstances to build financial sustainability into their products while pushing back against information inequality, ensuring their journalism reaches across the community rather than simply servicing those who can afford to pay via, for example, hard paywalls.
The result? Local news media across the regions under review – both new and traditional – are thinking deeply about how they can best leverage their core offering: a deep relationship of trust with their audience. Monetizing that trust demands an open conversation with the audience about how the outlet’s journalism is supported and how the audience can help.
There is no single model that works for all local news media. Instead, we’re seeing lots of experiments. It’s critical that these ideas – and the lessons that can be drawn from them – are able to be shared so that they can be adapted (not simply copied) by others. Each experiment (successful or not) lays another brick in the foundation of local news sustainability.
Advertising and other business or corporate support remains important for some media. This is particularly true for transitioning media that built the traditional business off advertising. El Debate in northern Mexico, for example, continues to be an important platform for advertising in the local community.
The near-universal trend toward programmatic allocation of advertising, particularly through social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube, has particularly hurt local news media. Usually, their inventory (markets, space on page) is simply too small for the programmatic algorithms to bother with. There are exceptions. The News Minute talks to an audience of about 250 million across the southern Indian states and is able to translate that into a programmatic advertising income flow – although even they find that inadequate for their needs. Similarly, Pakistan’s The Centrum Media is able to generate programmatic revenues through its YouTube and Facebook channels.
Some translate their deep local relationships into advertising. Rayon is an integrated network of hyperlocal sites in western Ukraine, each of which is targeted at separate communities. The Rayon network is able to leverage its connectivity to source advertising for (and between) local businesses as a continuing income source.
Zimbabwe’s 263Chat is able to use the functionality of its core product (a PDF e-paper distributed through WhatsApp groups) to include advertising that it displays to its largely rural audience. Founder Nigel Mugamu says they are cautious to ensure a diversity of advertisers to prevent the risk of perceived (or actual) capture and dependence on any one source.
Scrolla in South Africa is pursuing a diversified revenue stream, allowing content to remain free for all. They use sponsorships to build their content verticals, with individual corporations sponsoring particular subject areas. They have also recently launched a Data Lite edition, where readers can access a version of Scrolla that’s both light on data and cost-free thanks to sponsorship from a mobile company.
Organizations are also reaching directly to their communities (or specific sectors of their communities) for support.
The News Minute, for example, developed separate membership products for their local audiences in Southern India and for NRIs (Non-Resident Indians living and working abroad). When they found that they weren’t able to convert as many NRIs as expected, but that local audiences were showing their support, they merged the membership products. At the same time, they learned that what people valued was deeper engagement rather than simply more engagement: their monthly editorial meetings open to members were well attended and appreciated. The outlet has been gravitating towards adopting a strategy that looks beyond membership products to reader revenue as a whole through enabling readers to provide support in ways that go beyond the traditional concept of membership – whether it is by supporting a specific project or donating one-off or recurring small amounts to the website.
As TNM’s audience editor, Ragamalika Karthikeyan, explains: “Membership exists, and we want to convert as many of our readers into members as possible, because that is then an organic process of involving the reader in everything that we are doing as stakeholders. So that continues, but we’re also broadening the focus into audience revenue.”
This audience revenue includes crowdfunding initiatives: “We’re not just looking at ‘Hey, become a member for one year … or become a recurring member for one month’, but sort of looking at it as audience revenue as a whole, and saying we’re doing a reporting project about COVID, so why don’t you support us for this particular project”, Karthikeyan explains.
Having introduced both a subscription model and a wire service, Khabar Lahariya is drawing on its strength of reporting on the ground to bundle its stories into reports on life in rural India for a growing subscriber base and for syndication in city media. They are experimenting with a bulk subscription programme, hoping it can become a serious revenue earner at some point. With discounts for more than 50 subscriptions at a go, institutions, including those outside the country, have shown interest.
Experimentation with crowdfunding is also showing results, particularly where a clearly defined special purpose matches an identified community need. Rayon, for example, has crowdsourced through appeals to its audience to support specific products, including a special podcast series on COVID-19. Rayon’s new crowdfunding target is a newly launched culture vertical. The outlet explains that it often seems that cultural life is concentrated only in big cities because that’s where the theatres, art galleries, and large concert halls are. The new vertical is driven by a desire to share the unique culture in communities, small towns, and villages, where urban journalists rarely come. The site will become not only a platform for news, reports, interviews, and articles on culture but also a service media for artists and institutions, helping them to communicate with their target audience.
The Centrum Media is also experimenting with crowdfunding by setting up a Patreon account where it offers access to its full interviews in exchange for financial support. The challenge here, though, is finding an audience for feature-length content in a sustainable way so as to ensure long-term financial commitment. “In Pakistan, we’re willing to pay for Netflix, but no one will pay for really good journalism. So it’s very interesting, I think it’s just the behaviour of our audience”, Talha Ahad, The Centrum Media’s CEO and editor, says.
To build revenues to sustain their journalism, organizations are also looking sideways, developing tools that apply their knowledge of regional communities and their understanding of what makes their journalism special.
Most of Khabar Lahariya’s resources go into training journalists from disadvantaged communities. They have recently invested in a new academy, and the newsroom recently became profitable through its content agency work. “We get commissioned to create video content for various foundations and institutions”, Disha Mullick, the organization’s co-founder, says. “We also subsidize our news content – that’s the larger revenue – and we also take on research projects which are located in rural areas. Lastly, we produce high-quality films for other NGOs, which may not be news- or feature-related.”
In Paraguay, El Surtidor translates its visual journalism offering into a visual communications agency through its arm La Fábrica Memética and carries out training through Latinográficas. These two initiatives deliver about a third of the organization’s revenues. In Kyrgyzstan, Kloop monetizes its data insights and media-monitoring capacity to help other institutions and organizations.
Pakistan’s The Centrum Media recently developed an eight-part documentary series called “Wonder Women” in partnership with the U.N. They aim to do three to four long-form collaborations per year as well as smaller videos each month.
Many organizations depend on philanthropic support to get off the ground. Some media have grown out of NGO programmes that pivoted to local news media. Khabar Lahariya started life as a literacy programme in Indian villages before evolving into what it is today.The ABO network in Ukraine relies on external aid support for about 70 percent of its revenues. Ojoconmipisto was first funded under a USAID transparency programme to monitor public money in the municipalities of Guatemala, many of which are isolated from the country’s capital and otherwise have no accountability media.
Often this support comes from global support programmes, most prominently the Media Development Investment Fund, which invests in countries where independent media is under threat. Some come from local philanthropy like the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation in India.
Regional innovation lab-style initiatives are valuable in building sustainability, such as the one-year Velocidad accelerator programme in Latin America, which is supported by Sembra Media and is currently working with 10 media entrepreneurs in its second phase. For example, El Surtidor is using the programme to roll out its visual storytelling consulting company and its training school, developed in phase one, across the region. Meanwhile, El Pitazo is building its membership model.
The recently announced Google News Initiative Startups Lab in India was created in collaboration between the Google News Initiative (GNI), the global innovation lab Echos, and DIGIPUB News India Foundation. It offers a 16-week catalyst programme that aims to help the next generation of independent Indian news startups achieve financial and operational sustainability to deliver high-quality reporting for local and previously underserved communities. Suno India will be one of the 10 media startups joining the first lab with the aim of sharpening its product and audience-research capacity as well as experimenting with more sustainable revenue activities.
Conclusion: A positive plan for action
The local news media sector is emerging as the key challenge for a sustainable global news and information system. As this research demonstrates, it’s particularly urgent to meet the challenge in emerging and developing democracies and economies across the regions under review: Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
This report is the first attempt to paint the picture of where the journalists, editors, and media-builders in these regions find themselves right now as they remake their local media to meet the needs of their audiences. It seeks to identify practical measures that the global media community and its supporters can take to help them succeed. It adapts many of the recommendations in the earlier report of the IPI global network on local media, which focused on the U.S. and Western Europe with some comparisons in India and South Africa.
There are five big measures:
- Embed a vision and sense of mission that matches audience/community needs with an appropriate journalism focus;
- Level up access to the information, training, network support, and funding essential to building sustainable local media;
- Create a global network that prepares local news media to take on the challenges; that allows them to share, understand, and learn from one another’s steps and stumbles; and that gives them access to expertise, mentoring, and community support;
- Ensure that donors and the media support community (particularly in developing countries and regions) understand that the future is local; and
- Leverage the relationship of local trust to rebuild confidence in news media and lead the fight against misinformation and disinformation.
Here are nine immediate practical steps:
- Create opportunities for news media serving local communities in the regions under review to develop the skills and knowledge needed to build sustainable news media. Such opportunities can include bootcamps, virtual training, summits, and labs with a focus on audience engagement, product design, and revenue strategies.
- Design an adaptable aid package from immersive training to mentoring that will help local news media to know and understand their audience; to design news products that create value in the eyes of their audience; and to implement revenue strategies for long-term sustainability.
- Work with advanced digital transition organizations and programmes globally (particularly in the U.S.) to explore collaborations that can see their programmes adapted, extended, or replicated to where they are needed. Build understanding within donor organizations and philanthropic networks that not all communities can sustain the local news media they need. Some will need long-term funding commitments.
- Create a fund to support local media in the regions of need with external funding that can:
- Support experimentation and innovation;
- Support training and networking opportunities;
- Support news organizations that are unable to be funded (in full or part) by their communities; and
- Address a specific challenge and/or to provide seed money for new products or other initiatives.
- Identify and build a global network of local news media supporters, publishers, and editors that can create networking and sharing opportunities across continents. This should include a framework for local media to tell their story to others and collect best practices in an accessible format. Such a network should encourage confidence to share lessons from successes and failures. IPI is ideally placed to act as a connector between local media and points of advice, funding, and support; and to advise and help global donors and support organizations to understand the needs of local media, and to act on these.
- Link fact-checking experts with local media to build the essential capacity to fight misinformation and disinformation.
- Build a local news media focus in the IPI virtual visits programme to provide for a deep dive into experiences and lessons that can be shared globally. Facilitate an IPI transnational mentor network for media startups by linking across nations and drawing on the expertise of senior IPI members. Build a regular local news summit into the annual IPI World Congress.
- Evangelize for local news media by leveraging networks and reporting frameworks that showcase local media, encouraging them to tell their story to broader audiences and to act as champions for one another and for the sector at large.
- Build an IPI local news award programme that recognizes the importance of the sector and promotes great journalism.
Special thanks to the editors, journalists and news leaders whose experiences and perspectives have contributed to the research and this report:
263Chat, Zimbabwe, Nigel Mugamu
ABO, Ukraine, Lera Lauda
Citizen Matters, India, Meera K, Meenakshi Ramesh
Convoca, Peru, Milagros Salazar
Croatian Union of Journalists, Croatia, Maja Server
Daily Dispatch, South Africa, Cheri-Ann James,
El Debate, Mexico, Andrea Miranda
El Pitazo, Venezuela, César Bátiz
El Surtidor, Paraguay, Alejandro Vazquez
Jamlab Africa, South Africa, Tshepo Tshabalala
Khabar Lahariya, India, Pooja Pande, Priya Thuvassery, Disha Mullick
Kloop, Kyrgyzstan, Bektour Iskender
Limpopo Mirror, South Africa, Anton van Zyl
Local Call, Israel, Haggai Matar
Nyugat, Hungary, Gyöngyi Roznár, Antal Jozing, Adam Vincze
Ojoconmipisto, Guatemala, Carolina Alpirez
Radio Al Balad, Jordan, Etaf Roudan
Rayon.in.ua, Ukraine, Olena Reshotka-Rozhii
Red/Acción, Argentina, Chani Guyot
Scrolla, South Africa, Mungo Soggot, Tshepo Tshabalala, Thabiso Sekhula
South African National Editors’ Forum, Sbu Ngalwa
Suno India, India, Padma Priya
The Centrum Media, Pakistan, Talha Ahad
The Continent, South Africa, Sipho Kings, Simon Allison
The News Minute, India, Dhanya Rajendran, Ragamalika Karthikeyan
The Cable, Nigeria, Vivian Chime
Tikvah Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Mahidr Sihbat
Local Journalism Project Case Studies
Additional research: Nathalie Alvaray
Research assistance: Sasha Schroeder, Vidya Kathirgamalingam, Sophie Bennett
Editing: Scott Griffen
Layout and design: Milica Miletic, Javier Luque
Reading, advice and copy editing: Andres Schafer, Christopher Warren
Park, J. 2021, Survival strategies: How journalism is innovating to find sustainable ways to serve local communities around the world and fight against misinformation
International Press Institute
About the Author
Jacqui Park is an editor, media strategist, and head of network strategy and innovation for the Vienna-based International Press Institute. She is a senior fellow at the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), writes on and advises media startups and programs globally on revenue and fundraising, storytelling and human centred design strategies. Previously she was CEO of the prestigious Australian Walkley Foundation for journalism, Asia regional director for the International Federation of Journalists and co-creator and director of the Splice Beta festival for Asian media startups and innovators in 2019 and a 2016 Knight fellow at Stanford University. Her research on news media innovation 2020 was published by UTS in December 2019.
We wish to thank the news leaders who took the time to share their experience and perspectives on how local media are navigating the digital transition, serving their communities, and combating misinformation. (Listed at the end of the report.)
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
This research and report have been supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation