The Precarity of Independent Public Interest Media: An URGENT Global Threat

Journalist surveying the damage in Ukraine. Credit: Andrii Dubchak

By Courtney C. Radsch

This year, the theme of UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day was “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.” Yet despite the celebratory events lauding the importance of independent public interest media and the role of a free press in democratic governance, the pressure on journalism has never been greater.

Over the past year, I spoke to more than a hundred journalists and media managers around the world to better understand how to provide more effective and scalable support to news organizations in the face of ever-mounting economic and political pressure. The resulting report for Internews, “Understanding and Responding to Global Emerging News Threats” (URGENT), addresses structural and economic challenges that news outlets face when working in high-pressure conditions, such as crisis and exile.

Some of URGENT’s recommendations echo perennial needs, like providing more core support to news outlets with fewer strings attached, while others highlight new ideas such as creating collective infrastructure for data sharing and learning.

Chronic Pressure

Interviews reveal that pressure on independent media is building in every country represented in the research. The overthrow of elected governments in Afghanistan and Burma and the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a mass exodus of thousands of journalists and undermined years of progress toward building sustainable media systems in those countries. The loss of local expertise, closing civic spaces, and new technological developments generate “chronic pressure” for independent public interest media to produce high-quality journalism with minimal and often insufficient resources.

Independent public interest media operate under endemic financial precarity, and the availability of business models and revenues are shaped by underlying financial and technological infrastructures and access to financial gateways, such as credit, payment processing, and exchangeable currency. Many global independent media outlets lack financial security, and the vast majority who receive donor support survive on project funding rather than core support.

This precarity often prevents outlets from hiring the analytics, business, and administrative staff that would translate into improved revenues and enhance their resilience in times of crisis. It is often too late, too expensive, or too difficult for news outlets to adapt when a crisis hits and borders close, networks shut down, advertising dries up, or conflict arises.

Journalists in Crimea, for instance, were better prepared to deal with crisis when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 due to their experiences with the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. In the leadup to the invasion, one Crimean journalist advised other Ukrainian colleagues to take precautionary steps to protect their work and safety: “Make a backup now, prepare those documents, prepare emergency steps in case your correspondents will need to relocate or work in occupied territories.”

Investing in crisis readiness can enable media to keep working, communicate safely with their sources and teams, pay the bills, stay connected, or relocate if needed.

The Challenges of ‘Platformization’

Platformization further compounds the vulnerability of media to economic and political pressure. Media outlets do not have much choice when it comes to the platforms they use and the business models they enable, particularly in repressive contexts and in countries experiencing crisis. The vast majority of the outlets interviewed for this research rely primarily on Google and Meta to publish, disseminate, and monetize their news.

Even though they underscored the challenges of achieving sustainability from digital advertising, interviewees also described how these platforms shape their business and editorial strategies and the risks posed by incentivizing journalists to “play to the algorithm.”

“These platforms tend to benefit sensational clickbait kind of content. We are seeing a decline in quality journalism because of this tendency to prioritize getting the most traffic for the media,” said the CEO of an Asian media group.

While websites peddling sensationalized clickbait and false information are eating up billions in digital ad revenue, legitimate news sites are struggling to monetize online content. “We are not even making $100 a month on social media,” said an ethnic media outlet in Burma.

Indeed, a pivotal factor affecting media viability is how governments leverage platform content moderation systems to drown out and attack journalistic reporting. These systems have been shown to censor reporting on newsworthy issues, especially in low-resourced languages and during crisis. This imposes additional burdens on news outlets that are already under strain, have limited resources, and are often struggling to evade censorship and repression.

“When you talk about the impact [of content takedowns], we reach about 20 million people a month across our platforms,” explained the CEO of a citizen journalism outlet that focuses on corruption and human rights abuses in Nigeria whose website was temporarily shut down by a falsified takedown notice. “And all of a sudden, we went dark and instantly, we could not publish, we couldn’t figure out why.”

Looking to the Future

The interconnectedness of the challenges facing news media underscores the need to focus on cultivating healthy information ecosystems rather than just individual outlets or projects. To adapt to these ecosystems, media assistance providers must have the data, analyses, and collaborative strategies to respond to current challenges and design for a future in which journalism flourishes. Organizations have made efforts to create data collectives, such as Internews’ Media Viability Accelerator and the Global Forum for Media Development’s proposed tech crisis response mechanism, but these initiatives require continued investment and strategic, longterm commitment.

The structural constraints within which independent media work urgently require that policymakers and tech companies improve the global enabling environment for a free press.

These media are not only “a crucial weapon in the defense of democracy” and human rights, they are a global public good. Without bold strategies, more money, and a collective infrastructure to support independent public service media, they will wither away. The resulting news deserts will mean a less-informed public, less accountability for people in power, and less democratic governance.

Dr. Courtney C. Radsch is a fellow at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy and author of the report URGENT: Understanding and Responding to Global News Threats, commissioned by Internews.

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