REPORT - Sustainability & journalism support in Lebanon
Published: 16 March 2021
The views expressed in this research do not necessarily represent those of GFMD, our members or our partners.
This snapshot report was conducted solely for the facilitation of discussions as part of ongoing efforts to coordinate effective media assistance in Lebanon and is not to be treated as representative and therefore it should not be shared or republished outside of this context.
The traditional concept of commercial sustainability was challenged by many interviewees who do not believe that independent journalism could be sustainable in the current circumstances, regardless of their current business model.
“No media that is flourishing or surviving now is able to say they are going to be flourishing or existing in five years, unless they are state funded or run through a foundation with endless funds. It is a vision, but not a reality.” Representative of an international media development organisation.
One of the main dilemmas among the interviewees was whether donor funding could also be considered an integral part of a long-term, sustainable business model. Furthermore, making the connection between media freedom and media sustainability was seen as necessary and welcomed.
“The most important thing is that sustainability is on the agenda. There cannot be a conversation about media freedom without including media sustainability.” Representative of an international media development organisation.
So what is considered to be a success in achieving media sustainability and implementing projects with sustainability components from the perspective of Lebanese and regional media development practitioners and news media organisations?
Some of the most frequently mentioned examples included:
- Building commercial arms of media organisations to secure revenue diversification (for example translation of editorial content is a commercial arm of one media).
- Engaging experts and trainers from the region for the region – those that know the language, the context, and the specific challenges facing media.
- Producing high-quality, investigative journalism: According to one participant over the last two years, 7 of the 10 most-read stories on their website are long-form, investigative journalism.
- Journalism skills development that is implemented over the long-term has contributed to some of the trainees achieving significant success (winning awards, being employed by large media outlets etc.)
- Regional cooperation, networking, and knowledge exchange: In one case, a regional network also serves to exchange information about funding opportunities.
- Selling content in order to generate revenue is considered a successful strategy by some.
Representatives of international media development organisations mentioned similar models:
- Supporting diversification and development of commercial services and products that in turn fund the work of journalists:
- Event management, translation, professional technical & design services, web development, video production training
- Building relationships and trust with long term partners
- Bringing in the right people (trainers, coaches, consultants) when implementing programmes.
- Providing long-term funding for strategic partners.
- Supporting long-term skills development of media professionals so they can find work and produce good content.
- Supporting the exchange of knowledge and experiences between media organisations from similar markets.
“We try to create opportunities for the media to learn from each other and connect over similar issues they are facing. Participants often continue their cooperation even long after the project has ended.” Representative of an international media development organisation.
“Sustainability is ensured through targeting the right partners that can incubate, grow, and take their work and impact to the next level”. Lebanese media development practitioner.
Interviewed organisations said that the whole sector needs to look at the sustainability and longevity of partners, initiatives, programmes, and platforms while taking into consideration building skills and knowledge to improve the competitiveness of journalism and media organisations in the market as well as to encourage the exchange of these skills within the community.
For one organisation, developing a sustainable business plan was the key to successfully growing their organisation. In addition, they argue that journalism organisations should only apply for grants that match their strategy and business plan.
- Organising training of journalism trainers can be designed so it evolves into a regional knowledge hub.
- Journalism university curricula should be enhanced to include references to emerging market trends and the ability to transfer knowledge, which is one of the most important elements in achieving sustainability.
In addition to looking at sustainability from a business model, innovation, and technological standpoint, participants specified other dimensions of sustainability and viability:
- The legal context: legal frameworks in which media operate including laws limiting free speech and civic space.
- The importance of networks and knowledge sharing in the context of sustainability.
- External environmental aspects that affect sustainability: political situations, the market, the safety of journalists etc.
One donor suggested that ultimately success will be achieved when their partners no longer need donors and can stand on their own feet while producing good content for their audiences.
Representatives of Lebanese (and regional) journalism and media organisations and media support organisations identified numerous challenges to achieving media sustainability and implementing projects with sustainability components, such as:
Difficulties in collecting and interpreting audience data and analytics and deciding on audience targeting; for example, who is the current audience, how wide should it be, should the organisation serve well defined, specific geographic segments and age groups, or the public more generally?
The tendency to apply for and implement projects that are not in line with the organisation’s own plans and strategy because of financial necessity. This leads to distraction from strategic and business plans and orientation towards donor and international media assistance agendas or implementing projects while not having sufficient capacity to work on them.
Insufficient core funding to alleviate the lack of commercial revenue and availability of mostly short-term funding that does not allow for capacity-building, combined with the stress, time, and resources spent on constant fundraising.
Limitations in accessing and acquiring knowledge and skills related to innovation and business, leading to an inability to develop new, innovative, and alternative business models. Additionally, a lack of access to experience and knowledge exchange between media operating in similar markets and circumstances.
Lack of subsidies from local and national governments, and a lack of support from the private sector.
Training or consultancy programmes based on inappropriate attempts of North-to-South transfer of knowledge that do not correspond to the reality on the ground and country-specific contexts.
From the perspective of donors and organisations providing international media assistance, the challenges to successfully implementing sustainability support projects include:
This can be an unrealistic expectation and can also prevent the journalist(s) from pivoting to reporting on other stories that would be more valuable to their employer. One interviewed representative of an international development organisation advised that organisations no longer set these kinds of requirements.
Some recipients of support have their finances secured for the time being and, therefore, are not prioritising sustainability or planning for the donors’ exit from the country/region.
Audiences are not used to paying for news content. Efforts need to be made to influence these habits. There have been some successful examples of introducing paywalls.
User-friendly solutions that help revenue generation and monetisation of content are not always available in certain regions. For example, credit card payments are not feasible in some countries and other payment mechanisms may be complicated.
Lack of motivation or willingness from the top management to work on specific projects and/or implement change.
A lack of managerial and business skills in leadership positions in news media.
Laws in the region can be restrictive and used against the media, hampering their development and efforts towards achieving sustainability.
It is particularly difficult for independent media to function in countries where state media have priority as recipients of state advertising and where the market is not a level playing field.
“Keep the lights on!”
Support core funding – Several participants (both international and local representatives) suggested that donors should consider core funding more often, including short-term emergency funding, especially during such a fragile period. One practitioner that has secured core funding stresses that this meant their organisation was able to focus on being effective and impactful rather than worrying about being able to pay the salaries of their staff. Others said, “a kind of stability related to the core support helps liberate the institution from doing projects for only the sake of money”. In addition, there is a need for donors to also support organisations in navigating and addressing financial, administrative, and legal operational issues.
Support investigative and long-form journalism – Local journalism organisations suggested that support for investigative and long-form journalism, including series of articles dedicated to themes that provoke high audience engagement, is a good way of supporting sustainability.
Success could be about quality, not quantity – One donor noted that some media organisations are not attempting to chase large audience numbers, but prefer to have smaller but loyal, engaged, and well-defined audiences. According to this particular donor, this is often a valid business strategy provided that they have a defined business plan, a setlist of goals, and focus on progress (that can be on a smaller scale).
Collaborate to survive – Donors are advising actors in media development and journalism support in Lebanon to look within the industry for solutions, to support each other, and to share ideas and practices. “The days of working in isolation and extreme competition are gone.”
Support innovation – There are still gaps in providing assistance for new media startups and effective digital platforms which focus on engagement and user experience.
Being led by fashionable reporting trends: Another donor representative warned donors to avoid “trendy” reporting topics. As an example, they noted how many organisations wanted to support reporting on ISIS a few years ago.
A short-term approach to training: The same donor noted that nurturing investigative journalism takes years but too often training is short-term.
Donor/programme driven creation of media: One donor representative also warned against donor/programme-driven creation of media outlets from scratch, rather than relying on existing locally-driven initiatives. It may be seen as political funding from Western countries and it may not be sustainable.