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Tips for Building Sustainable Business Strategies

Journalism is in crisis. The traditional media business model is collapsing, and media organizations are struggling to survive. Media outlets are now more than ever looking for innovative digital strategies to reach and engage audiences as well as remain sustainable.

At the 13th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC23), practical steps on how to build sustainable news organization businesses were presented during the panel session “Developing a Business Strategy,” moderated by Gina Chua, executive director at Semafor.

Starting a media business is both easy and difficult, said Bila Randaree, Africa Director of the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF). The difficulty: sustainability requires a lot of creativity, research, and thinking actively about keeping costs low. The easy part: speaking with people already successful to find out what works and what doesn’t, which doesn’t really cost anything but time

“Do not overthink it,” urged Yasmin Namini, a digital media consultant. “Don’t think starting a media business is super complicated because it does not have to be. But you do need to know your business. You need to know how much it will cost.”

One mistake to avoid — but one that most new media enterprises make — is just focusing on the journalism while neglecting the business aspects. A strong board of directors is important, noted Namini. Media organizations do not need a board full of journalists, but one with strong personalities is able to raise money to do the journalism.

“Let’s find the passionate younger people and invest skills and training in them,” Randaree added. But she acknowledged that not every organization propped up by funding should survive. “Some of these organizations should die natural deaths — it does not have to be the elephant in the room.”

Andras Petho, co-founder and director of Hungary’s Direkt36, a GIJN member, pointed out that media organizations need to hire business development professionals, because they can end up one of a media outlet’s greatest assets. “If you have a membership program or subscribers, you need someone who digs into this data and is good at it.”

However, as with any organization, growth can bring with it internal friction. Sometimes editors pitch stories that a larger management team is reluctant to greenlight, due to a perceived lack of interest by their audience. To solve this, Nasmini noted that both parties should always revisit the organization’s founding, journalistic mission. “Go back to your reason for existence. If the story fulfils why you are there in the first place, then go for it.”

Randaree explained that there has to be a balance between different constituencies within a news outlet and accountability for both. “Most times, the conflict is not between the editorial and commercial; it is between personalities and legacies,” he added.

Marketing Your Idea

Journalists are rarely experts in the business of media.  But it’s critical for any size new organization to know how to market their ideas to their audience and donors. One way to do it, Namini said, is to clearly articulate the impact created by one’s journalism. This will not only drive engagement and readership of the content but also help in getting the attention of potential funders.

One effective way to grow sustainable business strategies is to look for benchmarks and peers in your reporting space, Petho said. “You just have to borrow ideas, see what is out there, and choose the component that you are comfortable with,” he explained, adding that building a membership program is efficient also.

“When you build membership programs, your readers are basically part of your editorial processes or decisions,” he noted. Membership programs can be quite sensitive for investigative journalism outlets, however, as they have to be cautious about who gets involved in their decision-making processes. Petho offered some other options for attracting members, such as “having workshop sessions with them, having some special skills — like coding sessions— where members are included.”

Audience Is King

As hard as it is to believe, media organizations sometimes fail to think about their own audience. The audience is the ultimate consumer, and they are crucially important to its growth.

“No matter how small your audience is, no matter how young you are, you need to be engaging with your audience because they are your customers. Your donors are not your customers,” said Randaree.

Courting your audience is also necessary to drive impact. There is no way to generate impact if no one is paying attention to the media reports. Namini explained that the audience does not need to be global; it can be very niche. But not every story must be defined by what your audience wants — or thinks it wants.  “It’s like broccoli. They might not want it, but they need it,” she said.

Understanding the Business Strategy Framework

To build sustainable strategies, it is necessary for media organizations to know and understand the business strategy framework. In a GIJC23 workshop following the panel, Nasmini explained the main components:

Digital media strategist Yasmin Nasmini at GIJC23.

Digital media strategist Yasmin Nasmini conducts a workshop on business strategy at GIJC23. Image: Screenshot, GICJ23/YouTube

    1. Mission: A mission describes the reason for the existence of any media organization. “Oftentimes, the mission is broad. We are trying to be all things to all people, but we forget that we need to be specific,” Nasmini said, stressing that a mission statement doesn’t have to be pages and pages long, but it must answer the relevant questions of existence.
    2. Vision: Your vision is where you aspire to go. “Don’t be too far into the future when creating your vision, create your vision statement in such a way that it is achievable,” she explained.
    3. Unique value proposition: You should be able to answer the question: “Why would readers prefer us to our competitors? How does our journalism differ from our competitors? How is our journalism better than our competitors?”
    4. Audience: The audience plays an integral part in the development of any business strategy or plan. Media outlets must ask questions about who their current audience is, how they would engage them if there is a new audience they need to expand to, and how beneficial their journalism is to their audience.
    5. Impact: A good business development strategy should include a plan for measuring impact. Does it result in changed government policies or actions, has it garnered awards or citations, are there reader or source testimonials? What are your metrics? “Impact is not just about numbers — the number of people who read your story or the number of donors you have. It is also about anecdotal stories and policies,” Nasmini said.
    6. Strategic priorities: While it is important to set goals, it is equally necessary to connect visions to goals and action plans daily. “A strategic priority for a media outlet could be to improve their website and the user experience — and how readers get engaged.”
    7. Action plans: You need an action plan because it is a way to support you and give you an organized process to prioritize all the things you have to do. It gives you a roadmap on how to achieve your goals, Nasmini explained.
    8. Business or financial plan: Your financial plan has to be simple and not complicated. It is where you input your business finance flow and expenditures.
    9. Map Your Future: Looking forward, your leadership should be planning ahead, communicating any strategy to your team, and securing budgets for the top three strategic priorities.

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