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Strategies for public interest media confronting the Covid-19 pandemic: Building business around content

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a crisis in media at a scale and geographic spread not previously seen. The impact of the pandemic and the infodemic, alongside the daily stress of living and working with the virus, are an ongoing challenge for media businesses and workers. It has also shown that the media’s need for financial resilience is greater than ever, with the viability of even the best positioned public interest media under strain.

In a global survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, more than a third of survey respondents reported a fall in revenue of 30% or more. In many countries in the Global South, the situation is worse. Many media outlets working with PRIMED* consortium members have faced a 40-60% downturn in revenues with the prospect of recovery still far from certain. Advertising and other business partnerships largely collapsed as companies cut marketing budgets and alternative established sources of income, such as live events, disappeared.

A study by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University identified funding as media’s greatest need. In the survey of more than 1,400 journalists from 125 countries, 76% rated funding to cover operating costs (including salaries) as important or very important due to the crisis. Similarly, a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that more than 80% of media respondents said their most critical need was funding.

These findings are supported by a recent survey by Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) of the media it works with. Although based on a relatively small sample size (39 media companies), the survey found that 87% of respondents said that Covid had had a negative impact on their business, the severity of the impact ranging from ‘huge’ (33%), ‘moderate’ (44%) to ‘small negative’ (10%). Interestingly, the survey also found that 10% of media respondents experienced a positive business impact. The greatest business challenge from Covid by far was the economic impact and decline in revenues, with an average rate of 4.02, where 1 represents the smallest challenge and 5 represents the biggest challenge. In comparison, the second and third most-rated challenges were changes in newsgathering practices (2.94) and physical and mental health and safety of the workforce (2.88). [MDIF will publish the survey results in its annual Impact Dashboard later this year.]

Faced with a deep financial crisis and no clear indication as to when it will end, the default position of many public interest media has been survival. Problems are exacerbated by the atmosphere of uncertainty, which makes long-term planning impossible.

On the positive side, many media have seen a surge in audiences during the first and successive waves. The thirst for and importance of quality news has enabled many public interest media to connect with more people and magnify their mission to provide reliable information. However, in many cases the bumps in consumption have proven to be temporary as news fatigue set in. The rise and fall of audiences has made it even more important for media to retain as many of the new readers, listeners and viewers as possible, and to develop strategies for effective audience and advertiser relationships and, potentially, revenues.

Public interest media across the Global South have demonstrated discipline, innovation, resilience and courage as they responded to the crisis. While these qualities are essential for survival, they are most effective when coupled with practical business and operational strategies, particularly those that have been tried and tested by other public interest media in similar environments.

However, there is no blueprint for how media should respond to the crisis. Every media organisation and media market is different, so any response will be contextual. Still, certain practical steps can be identified that news leaders should consider as they seek to build their media’s financial and operational resilience.

In the MDIF survey above, media companies were asked about the importance of the measures they introduced in response to Covid. Two measures were seen as having the greatest positive impact on the organisation: introduction of new/alternative revenue sources (23.5%) and working from home (23.5%). Other measures, from scaling back products to reduced hours for some staff, were seen as less useful and beneficial only to some organisations.

The recommendations below are addressed to media leaders and senior editors as they consider their organisations’ financial and editorial responses to the pandemic. They draw on the experiences of media in countries where PRIMED consortium partners work and set out practical steps that public interest media have found helpful as they navigate the crisis management phase of the pandemic and prepare themselves for the new reality that will follow.

Cut costs; hoard cash

  • Review cost-optimisation regularly. Cash flow and working capital are most important. Analyse how each business unit is doing compared with initial projections; having the information to hand will allow you to respond more quickly and pivot if something is not working out. Challenge every cost: look at each division, investment, contract and loan.
  • Plan your cash carefully so that you don’t land right back into distress when temporary cuts are reversed. Delay cash-hungry projects and new hires to keep cash and avoid unnecessary risk.
  • New expenditures should be matched by shifting costs or reducing costs in deprioritized areas. Even if you expect new expenditures to produce new revenues, still offset the costs elsewhere – you can’t afford to be wrong, and timely collection of proceeds may continue to be a challenge for some time.
  • Focus on the core of your business that you want to protect at all costs and allocate resources accordingly. Identify the talent you can’t do without and make sure you don’t lose them.
  • If you receive grants, be strategic and use them to address business challenges. Focus on projects with clear paths to revenue generation or cost management in order to build a stronger organisation when markets recover.
  • Some governments have provided programmes to temper the impact of salary reductions and job losses – if you are in a country that does, make use of such programmes as long as they do not compromise your reporting.
  • Act quickly and be flexible: decision-making and agility are critical. Decide what needs to be decided fast and what can wait, so you are focusing on the right thing at the right time. Prioritize decisions that can save you the most money or increase revenues the most. Timely collection of data is vital for quick decision-making.

Keep searching for revenue

  • Don’t stop experimenting with alternative revenues. For example, webinars can provide bigger audiences than live events with lower costs, or your business news unit may be able to conduct surveys and analyse data for paying clients. Don’t always play a defensive game. Remember, even a bad market provides room for innovation.
  • Plan how to capitalize on increased readership, don’t leave it to chance. If you have subscriptions, focus on building them to compensate for falling advertising. This single focus may also help to build a shared purpose for the whole organisation – editorial and business.
  • Consider a new pricing strategy that includes services like webinars and specialized newsletters; it can help attract new clients and position your organization as a full-service, solutions-oriented partner.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Seek out information on other media’s experiences and see whether they may be adapted to meet your needs. Now is the time to collaborate, not work alone.
  • Maintain relationships with existing advertisers and other clients even if they are not immediately bankable – it will make it easier for them to return in the future.

Report in the public interest

  • Be prepared. Build and keep building contacts with emergency responders, health organisations and experts. Discuss what the public needs beyond breaking news.
  • Do your research – learn about your audience: their situation, concerns, needs, beliefs and trusted information sources. And learn about the health issues: the basics about prevention, transmission and treatment, and consult with experts to ensure accurate and informed reporting.
  • Think of the bigger picture. Disease outbreaks, health emergencies and the response to them affect more than people’s health. Their livelihoods, education, daily routines, access to food and routine healthcare are all likely to be affected by the outbreak. Who is particularly vulnerable because of the pandemic and response, and whose vulnerabilities might be exacerbated? Who might be forgotten in the response and how can we help meet everyone’s communication needs?
  • In a public health emergency, media and health responders need to work together to provide timely, clear and consistent information.
  • Help your audience stay healthy. Provide accurate information about what is happening, and explain the emergency response measures underway, including how and when to access help, how to prevent the spread of infectious disease and what to do if they or family members have symptoms.
  • Feature trusted voices, and counter mis- and dis-information. People only act on information and guidance if they trust it, and that is partly based on who the information comes from. Who will your audience trust? And are they reliable sources of information?
  • Ask the right people the right questions. Select people with the right knowledge, credibility and ability to express themselves on the subject. This might not always be an expert.
  • Motivate your audiences to cope – with content that is understanding, empathetic, interesting and engaging. Showcase positive stories of coping and recovery and share experiences and learning from others affected. And think creatively: short public-service announcements, longer documentary-style segments, dramas, personal stories, even catchy songs can reach people with life-saving information.
  • Interact with your audience and create opportunities for audiences to have their questions answered by trusted experts. But remember to keep yourself and your audiences safe – during a disease outbreak, call-ins or online discussions may be safer than in-person interactions. And don’t forget about the voices of the most vulnerable people, who might be harder to reach.
  • Do no harm. It’s not enough to just make sure your information is accurate. Consider how your reporting might be interpreted and whether it might be feeding stigma or discrimination, for instance by appearing to link a particular group with the spread of a health problem. And be empathetic and sensitive. The needs of someone affected by a disease outbreak are always more important than the needs of the interviewer.
  • Do not try to compete with the speed of the infodemic. The overwhelming amount of information – both accurate and false – has helped create communication fatigue and caused harm through misinformation.
  • Above all, communicate well. This may seem obvious, but to ensure content is as accessible and helpful as possible, it needs to be clear and accurate, realistic, engaging and solution-oriented. Trusted, consistent, practical programming saves lives.

Use your content to drive your business

  • The pandemic has reinforced the importance of quality journalism in the public interest and provided an opportunity for deeper audience engagement. To take full advantage of your public interest reporting, audience listening and analytics are essential. Develop an internal data capacity and an ability to communicate metrics across the team in a way they can understand.
  • Ask yourself why your audience keeps consuming your content. It’s important to identify your strengths and to keep developing them. If you’ve had a surge in audience, understanding why will help you create a strategy to retain them.
  • Look again at content and how the newsroom works: Is it time to close products / sections / services that don’t serve your audience? What adds to your value proposition? Are you prioritizing features that really add value for your audience? Experiment, innovate and test, but decide on your own company’s terms; don’t do something just because a competitor is doing it or because it impresses other journalists.
  • Consider limiting the coronavirus content you provide for free. Be strategic in what you produce and what you share – keep vital information open to everyone but consider putting added-value content behind a paywall if you have one.
  • Depending on your national context, it may be time to start reducing Covid content and returning to things you used to do or find new areas of interest. Find out how your audience’s interests and needs are changing.

Your team is not immune

  • Be transparent with staff, clients and audiences: build communication and trust – loyalty throughout the pandemic is imperative, particularly to staff. Be open about problems; everyone can contribute to a solution, though the leader must take the final decision.
  • Lead from the front – senior managers and editors should be the first to take salary and benefit reductions if that is necessary.
  • Take time with people, recognise the drain and the drag on their energy and resources. Set a team meeting schedule and stick to it; it helps morale / loyalty, as well as supporting editorial quality by continuing a dialogue between reporters and editors.
  • Think about how you can take care of staff. Consider introducing a peer-support system or even a mental health support program.
  • Inducting new staff is difficult. Think about how to replicate your on-boarding process virtually. Proactively organize time for them with management, key colleagues and peers.

Planning for the future

  • Take a step back and assess the changes you have had to make, including remote working. Which of these could be beneficial to make permanent? Where are the gaps in your organizational management that the pandemic has revealed?
  • Think about business consolidation – this may be a merger / acquisition or operational issues, e.g. could sales teams be merged or ad sales outsourced if they are a non-critical activity? Could high-cost resources such as property or printing facilities be shared by more than one business?
  • Your competitive landscape will have changed. Prepare a thorough market analysis to understand how. New competitors? New customers? New audience habits?
  • Review lessons learned from this crisis and update or create a crisis management plan. Even if there isn’t another pandemic in the near future, sooner or later you will face another crisis.
  • Plan for the post-pandemic world. Consider how fundamental media trends will change in your country so you can position your company to take advantage of potential opportunities and exit the crisis in the best possible position.

In addition to the recommendations above, which were provided by MDIF and BBC Media Action, Free Press Unlimited has a wide range of Covid-19 resources available to help media respond to the crisis, including:

To read more about communication and reporting in the Covid-19 pandemic and public health emergencies read the BBC Media Action guide.

Please note that the views and contents of this blog are those of MDIF and BBC Media Action and do not necessarily reflect the views of other consortium members.

For further information, contact peter.whitehead@mdif.org.

* Protecting Independent Media for Effective Development (PRIMED) is a 3-year programme to support the provision of public interest media in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, beginning in October 2020 and funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). It is implemented by a consortium of media support organisations with expertise in different aspects of media and development. Led by BBC Media Action, other core consortium members are Free Press Unlimited, International Media Support and Media Development Investment Fund.

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