Local media outlets exhausted by pandemic-induced financial stresses may fall under the control of oligarchs or repressive governments that strip them of their independence. Six steps can help to prevent this outcome and put smaller news organizations on a sound long-term footing.
WASHINGTON, DC – In 2021, the world will start to recover from COVID-19, thanks to unprecedented scientific cooperation and global vaccination efforts. Economies will emerge from the crisis, and communities will begin the long road back to “normal.” But it won’t be the old normal: Some job functions will be lost, and entire industries will disappear forever. We must not allow independent media to be one of them.
The pandemic has underscored the role that local media play in relaying critical information regarding people’s health and livelihoods. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2020 Digital News Report, local newspapers and their websites in the surveyed countries are the top source of news about a particular town or region and reach four in ten people weekly. During the pandemic, local media have helped to inform communities about basic preventive hygiene practices, testing sites, and vaccination procedures. They have provided citizens with lifesaving information and debunked conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus and vaccines.
When anxiety about the virus increases, media consumption rises as well. But according to IREX’s annual Media Sustainability Index, higher media consumption in Eastern Europe has not led to higher revenues. In Georgia and Serbia, for example, local media readership has risen considerably before and during the pandemic, but advertising revenues continue to decline. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the media advertising market has shrunk by about 60% in the last ten years, according to local estimates.
Even before the pandemic, an IREX study found that governments, political parties, and private interests in Eastern Europe had stepped in as major subsidizers of the media, due to the volatility of the region’s advertising markets. This trend will escalate after the pandemic, and local media outlets exhausted by COVID-induced financial stresses may fall under the control of oligarchs or repressive governments that strip them of their independence.
This danger is not limited to Eastern Europe. According to the 2020 Freedom House report “Beijing’s Global Megaphone,” China is gaining influence over key parts of some countries’ information infrastructure, including South Africa’s and Italy’s, as Chinese technology firms closely linked to the ruling Communist Party of China acquire content-dissemination platforms used by tens of millions of people.
Such pressures could result in small local media outlets ending up in the hands of government officials who use them to push their own agenda. Editorial independence, always a somewhat nebulous concept in China, will disappear altogether, and the constraints of journalistic self-censorship will tighten.
To avoid this, international media development organizations should focus on six steps to address the challenges faced by independent local media. First, the pandemic has accelerated the move online, moving media further away from traditional financing models. Incubating alternative models – such as crowdfunding and online advertising – could reduce local media outlets’ reliance on donor resources and minimize the influence of political and business-driven owners, who tend to curtail editorial independence.
A second priority is to support independent media in leveraging digital platforms. Local news outlets are improving their online presence, but need a better understanding of digital opportunities in order to capitalize on it. Smaller local media need training and assistance from supporting institutions to understand how to survive online competition with social networks and provide citizens with quality content.
Third, establishing new government and nongovernment emergency funds would help to support journalists and media outlets that are under pressure. Like Freedom House’s Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund for civil-society organizations, or Luminate’s International Fund for Public Interest Media, multiple funds should be established for emergency assistance and resiliency grants. One or two initiatives like this will not be enough to address the global challenge facing local media. Tackling the issues at scale will instead require a concerted effort led by government and nongovernment international development institutions.
Fourth, media-literacy training for journalists, editors, and producers is crucial for combating disinformation. Journalists often do not have the skills or time to fact-check information. In the race to break a story, accuracy often is not the highest priority. Mid-career training for professional and freelance journalists in media literacy, fact-checking, and debunking conspiracy theories needs to be widespread.
Fifth, international funders should help to finance psychological support for media professionals. The 24/7 news cycle and the demands of reporting from the pandemic’s front lines are taking their toll on journalists and independent content creators, but media companies rarely provide staff with the necessary psychological help to withstand these challenges. An emergency psychological-support mechanism for media professionals could help ensure that journalists stay in the profession and provide citizens with critical information during the post-pandemic recovery.
Lastly, supporting investigative journalism is crucial. According to the World Bank, corruption is one of the primary obstacles that developing countries face. Investigative journalism is one of the most important and often overlooked tools for fighting it. The availability of troves of online data and inexpensive artificial-intelligence tools to analyze it should be a gold mine, but journalists often lack the skills to use them. Teaching media professionals at local smaller outlets how to work with data and open sources to conduct investigations is key to holding local governments accountable and mitigating corruption.
Current global media trends are worrying, but there are grounds for optimism. The expansion of digital media and broad acceptance of the importance of quality information may give independent media organizations the opportunity to carve out a new role for themselves. That is especially important for local news outlets, which remain an information lifeline for millions of people around the world.
Michael Mirny is Director of the Information and Media Practice at IREX.
The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website