Five Tips for a Sustainable Newsroom

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Workin’ It: Sustainability workshop at #GIJC17. Photo: Madelene Cronje

“What do journalists, car salesmen, and bankers all have in common?” asked Maaike Goslinga, the international editor of De Correspondent. The answer came from the room packed full of journalists, who responded in unison: “No trust!”

“We tried to get money on the street but the general public do not like journalists, so why would they give money to journalists?” asked Reporters Without Borders director-general, Christophe Deloire.

Trust was a common theme in the sustainability workshop series on case studies and best practices on Sunday at #GIJC17 in Johannesburg. How do media organizations sustain themselves in a climate of distrust? How do media organizations fund themselves without being answerable to donors? Should newsrooms get members involved?  

Following are top five tips that emerged from the discussion.

Accountability and Transparency

The United Kingdom’s Bristol Cable is a media cooperative that is funded entirely by their members. Co-founder Alon Aviram said: “We don’t just want to be a co-op by name but in practice.” In light of full transparency, The Bristol Cable opens their accounts for the public to scrutinize. “This helps build media trust,” says Aviram.

Involve the Community

The Bristol Cable, the Amsterdam-based De Correspondent and the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism’s Newstapaall get their members involved in community events. Aviram said this creates a “community of information gatherers.”

De Correspondent is also funded by their membership and applies a similar community involvement model. “Pull back the curtain and show me how the production process works,” she says.

In addition to their financial transparency, De Correspondent holds open pitch meetings, inviting the public to the newsroom to see the editorial process and even run stories that are audience driven. On one occasion they had hundreds of people pair up and led stories on what it is like to be a refugee in the Netherlands. The benefit of this finance model is “We don’t have to use click-bait or follow the ‘trendy story,’” says Goslinga.

Research director of Membership Puzzle ProjectEmily Goligoski, advocates for community engagement. Make good use of your community’s strengths. “Think about the specific skills from community members. Not everyone has money,” Goligoski said. 

Experimentation and Innovation

Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and professor at Columbia Journalism School, advises that “we need a new way of telling investigative stories.” An example of innovation is PCIJ Story Project, a children’s book that details the police killing of 17 year- old, Kian Delos Santos. This book brought in an onslaught of views on Facebook. “In the end, our work resonates most if we do stories that touch people,” said Coronel.

Yongjin Kim, editor-in-chief at KCIJ, the only nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent media organization in Korea, released a film called “Criminal Conspiracy;” through the screening they gained thousands of new donors.

Bring in the Experts!

“It’s really important to bring the right expertise in to grow,” says Nishant Lalwani, director for Omidyar Network’s Governance and Citizen Engagement initiative. When comparing the media revenues from different media outlets in four Latin American countries, in the Omidyar-sponsored research project “Inflection Point, by Sembra Media, researchers found a dramatic difference between media organizations with sales experts and those that do not. 

Find Your Mission

“Unless you can differentiate (yourself), you are going to struggle to sell your product”, says Mohamed Nanabhay, deputy CEO of the Media Development Investment Fund. It is important to have a sense of your mission.

Syed Nazakat, CEO of DataLeads, found his business’s niche through specializing in data, visualizations and events. When setting up the business they did not take any grants. “The model should sustain on its own,” says Nazakat.

Similar to Nazakat, Walid Mejri, creates revenue for his initiative, Inkyfada, through training events, media labs and production houses.

Funders are looking for journalism initiatives that have a “sweet spot,” says Nanabhay, with “strong mission and are financially sustainable.”

To find out more about sustainable journalism and membership models, check out The Membership Puzzle Project and the Sustainability guide in the GIJN Resource Center. 

Zita Campbell graduated from Otago University, New Zealand, in 2015 with a double major in theatre, film and media, completing the last year of her bachelor’s degree at the University of California Santa Cruz. She has worked as a freelancer in London and plans to specialize in long-form and documentaries on humanitarian and environmental issues.

Madelene Cronjé is an independent photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Formerly a staff photographer at the Mail & Guardian, she specializes in photojournalism and editorial portraiture.

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