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How smaller newsrooms have taken the pandemic head-on: Key findings from Reuters Institute

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While the pandemic has been tough on most publishers, a “significant minority” have continued to do well, according to a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). 

The report looks into the financial impact of Covid-19 on independent newsrooms across the world and what kind of support would be most useful to them. It also includes insights from newsrooms that “show different examples of ways forward” and “will define the future of independent news media in most of the world in the years ahead.”

“Organizations that will define the future of independent news media”

The report, Few winners, many losers: the Covid-19 pandemic’s dramatic and unequal impact on independent news media, is based on a survey of 165 newsroom representatives from across the world. It also includes interviews with seven independent news publishers operating in middle income countries with some or significant limitations on media freedom.

The authors acknowledge that the interview data does not represent the most privileged parts of the world and underrepresents legacy broadcasters and newspapers. They have “deliberately focused on interviewing key people at digitally-oriented independent news media from outside high income countries with a good media freedom situation.” 

Organizations like these are likely to be more indicative of how the crisis is impacting organizations that will define the future of independent news media in most of the world in the years ahead. 

RISJ’s Covid-19 report

“Some of them are even thriving”

A clear majority (64%) of respondents say that their overall audience reach has increased during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Source: Reuters Institute

However, revenues have declined for most. 22% of respondents expect a significant (1–20%) drop in their 2020 revenues, 21% a very significant (21–30%) drop, and 36% are expecting severe drops of 30% or more. 

At the same time, “a significant minority of 14% of our respondents expect stable or even growing revenues,” the authors note. “These are often smaller online newsrooms, some of them nonprofits…but they tend to invest a far larger share of their operating costs in their newsroom than legacy media and commercial media have historically done.”

“They are not exempt from the challenges of surviving in an incredibly competitive digital environment,” write the authors. “And many of them have also, as our case studies show, been hit hard by the pandemic. But they show different examples of ways forward, many of them in contexts that are more politically and commercially challenging than those found in high income countries with a good media freedom situation.” 

Some of them are even thriving. Their work is not easy, their future not guaranteed, and their models will not always work for others or elsewhere. But it is important to recognize their success and learn from it, during the crisis, and in the post-pandemic future.

RISJ’s Covid-19 report

“We got better at experimenting and innovating”

South African online news site, the Daily Maverick, has continued to invest and focus on its overall strategy despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Where a lot of other people were managing cutbacks, retrenchments, pay cuts, we hired people. We invested in tech, we invested in new products and we even launched a print publication.

Styli Charalambous, Publisher and CEO, The Daily Maverick (South Africa)

The publisher has hired a dedicated marketing person to manage campaigns. It has also invested in a much more rigorous approach to experimentation and testing. “We got better at experimenting and innovating,” says Charalambous. “We started actually realizing you actually need a framework to do that.” And that they could not continue to do “everything by gut instinct.” 

In fact, their new print product—a contrarian move in the current environment—is the result of extensive market research and aims to reach an identified target audience by focusing on a very specific niche.

Animal Político, a digital-native news site in Mexico, saw big drops in advertising income due to the pandemic. However, traffic surged by 30-40% across all its brands as the publisher focused on serving readers with stories related to the pandemic. It has retained about 20% of the new audience. 

The publisher’s membership program has seen a significant increase in participation with the number of members growing from 700 at the beginning of the year to 1,600 with a high retention rate.

Editorial Director Tania Montalvo says this was at least in part because Animal Político was “honest and upfront about the impact that Covid was having on the site” due to which the staff had accepted a voluntary 30% salary cut.

Their focus now is on growing the number of paying members. That’s our “principle project from the rest of the year in terms of revenue streams,” she adds.

“This is what we do and this is how we know to work”

Meanwhile, Lebanese online-only news site Daraj is working on building a diversified revenue stream that includes an advertising alliance with 15 independent platforms from the region and a content production stream. Co-founder Diana Moukalled says that Covid-19 brought a surge in readership but also slowed down much of the business expansion. 

The publisher is now expanding and investing in building up the site with support from International Media Support, the European Endowment of Democracy, and the Open Society Foundations. 

When asked about the future, Moukalled says, “As a person who has been living in wars and crises for the past 30 years, I don’t expect any stability soon. But this is how we function.” 

We’re news people, we are journalists, we know how to work under pressure and we will keep doing so, because this is what we do and this is how we know to work.

Diana Moukalled, Co-founder, Daraj

The survey also asked respondents to identify the kinds of support their organization would benefit from. The vast majority (84%) chose funding support, followed by product development and innovation support (61%), and technical training in digital media skills (39%).

“It is clear that both basic economic survival and continued digital development (especially around audience analytics, experiments, membership programmes, and reader revenue), are priorities,” the authors write. 

“We’ve grown our newsroom every year”

“Funding is always, I guess, a no-brainer in terms of support,” says Charalambous. However, “we know that philanthropy can be fickle [and] hard to sort of build long-term around,” he adds. So while the Daily Maverick continues to seek non-profit support, it remains committed to a hybrid model with the aim of generating the majority of its resources from commercial activities and reader revenues.

“[When] you’re born as a digital native, you don’t have big fancy offices and a legacy overhead and tradition and all that to work with,” he says. “You’re kind of, you’re born in the fire…You’re always running lean.”

“We’ve been in an existential crisis for the better part of a decade. That has been our norm…you kind of get used to operating like that…that’s just our reality, and we’ve accepted that, and we work with that [and] within those limitations we still force ourselves to try and grow. And we’ve grown our newsroom every year.”

Styli Charalambous, Publisher and CEO, Daily Maverick

The full report is available at RISJ:
Few winners, many losers: the Covid-19 pandemic’s dramatic and unequal impact on independent news media