#07 transition
Frank Habann

Lost in Transition – How to Achieve Sustainable Media Development in the 21st Century

Media support can be defined as any kind of support that helps develop and establish a free, professional and unbiased media system. Yet traditional media support rarely results in sustainable media development. In contrast media funding, which focuses on media organisations, could be a way to achieve more sustainability.

Appropriate sustainability indicators are needed, however, as prerequisites for sustainability. To date international actors in the field of media development have established indicators on a broad, media system level. These indicators are the outcome of a long causal chain – and supposedly brought about by media support activities, though this link is very questionable. This article will therefore make suggestions for a hands-on set of indicators for the level of media organisations.

In the digital age of the 21st century, media organisations are increasingly being replaced by online-based communities – a drastic shift. As a consequence, indicators for sustainable media development have to adapt to meet this situation and ideas for adaptation are also presented here.

Following a quick overview of media development, these three aspects will be discussed here, each introduced by a brief thesis.

Media support and media development

The traditional focus of media development has been on developing countries and, since the fall of the Soviet Empire, also on transitioning countries in Eastern Europe. Media development is any positive outcome within a media system brought about through media support. The overall goal is to foster a human and democratic society in accordance with the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for 2015.[1] A development may be labeled "sustainable" if it is long-lasting and meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[2]

The three basic types of media support are

  • a) Training (especially journalism training courses), which is generally directed at individuals
  • b) Direct support, which includes a wide range of support for local media from paying salaries to buying printing paper, and is directed at media organisations
  • c) Media environment support, which includes contributions to developing new media legislation and lobbying for it, as well as to developing structures of self-regulation such as journalism associations. This is directed at a national media system as a whole.

Type b), direct support, which is aimed at media organisations, may particularly help such organisations develop into role models that set standards for other independent media[3]. The central principle of "media funding", which is introduced in the first thesis below, is generally the direct support of media organisations and may be an instrument for ensuring sustainable media development.

Thesis 1: Traditional media support rarely leads to sustainable media development. In contrast media funding, which focuses on media organisations, could be a way to achieve more sustainability.

As C. Dietz and H. Osang point out in their 2010 survey of German media support: "...few institutions are developing or have already developed specific instruments focusing on media sustainability".[4]

Of the two main forms of media support – traditional media support and media funding – traditional media support incorporates a "donor" attitude and is therefore often criticised for its inability to promote sustainability. It is generally initiated by national or pan-national institutions and as a rule a non-refundable financial, human and/or technological contribution. As to the level of funding, the major global donors include the U.S. ($ 124 million*,) the European Community ( million*), and Japan ( million*) and national European donors include Germany (38 million*), UK, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. (*all data for 2008[5]).

In many cases, traditional support lacks a well-designed long-term concept. Subsequently, beneficiaries do not build a lasting infrastructure because they are not forced to plan for what happens when support is terminated. The sustainability of individual journalist trainings – a major portion of traditional media support – is not monitored systematically.

The second central principal, media funding, reflects an attempt to achieve economic sustainability. It represents an "investment" attitude and is often combined with ongoing management training.

Examples include the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF) and the Southern African Media Development Fund (SAMDEF). They provide loans and management expertise and their goal is to ensure that independent, democracy-orientated media are ready to survive even after support has ended. Loans are paid back, so the money is not lost and can be invested in other media projects.

This kind of support is still in the development stage. The active investment portfolio of both these organisations taken together is about million (2010). From 1996 to 2010, the MDLF invested about million in loans and equity in 76 independent media companies in 26 countries. By 2010 about half of that investment had been recovered.[6] The impact of the MDLF's activities is monitored using an economy-oriented set of basic indicators.[7]

Thesis 2: to ensure sustainability, appropriate sustainability indicators on the level of media organisations are needed.

To date measuring the sustainability of media support is still "a work in progress" and there is a causal gap between media support and creating the foundation to support the overall goals on a media system level. To overcome this, UNESCO released 5 categories of sustainability indicators in 2008,[8] all generally oriented towards the media system level. However, some of these indicators are more suited to assess support given (i.e. input) than actual impact.[9] The IREX Media Sustainability Index, established in 2000 for Eastern Europe and Eurasia, measures five dimensions of sustainability.[10] Methodologically it is based on trustworthy expert interviews in target countries. This is a step in the right direction, but still does not help define the exact causal relationship between media support and the specific values of these indicators.

The suggestion has been made that starting with sustainability indicators on the organisational level would help close this gap. This is an area already targeted by the MDLF indicators. Since these only focus on the economic aspect though, they are not sufficient when our ultimate aim is to support the development of a democratic, informed society. Indicators for the economic and for the editorial and social dimensions of sustainability are needed and should be monitored on a permanent basis.

Fig.1 shows what indicators might be appropriate for these three dimensions

This instrument could be used to investigate what types and principals of media support lead to favorable, aggregated sustainability that incorporates all three dimensions. As a working hypothesis, it may be argued that traditional media support often does not support economic sustainability, and that media funds are often not clearly dedicated to editorial and social sustainability. In fig.1, the "local citizens contribute to content" and "content aims at local civil society's interests" indicators combine the editorial and social dimension and have therefore been placed between them.

Thesis 3: In the digital age of the 21st century, media organisations will be increasingly replaced by online-based communities. Indicators of sustainable media development must adapt accordingly.

At the moment we are witnessing the highest ever growth rates of internet and social media usage in developing and transforming countries,[11] but a clear strategy for sustainable international media support in the age of social media is not yet in sight. On the media systems level, as the recent CIMA "Funding free expression" study pointed out, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the issue of how global internet regulations will and should be defined and managed in future.[12]

Media organisations are no longer primarily enterprises that deliver content. They are rapidly developing into communities based on online platforms with strong participation by citizens. The new online-based media platforms may take the form of user generated content, like the leading independent newspaper OhmyNews in South Korea, which is primarily based on citizen reporting. They may also appear as a means for global multimedia communication among citizens without dedicated editorial content.

This points to the growing importance of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Right now they are playing a decisive role in the liberation movements in states in the Maghreb and Middle East.[13] It is debatable as to whether sustainability indicators for media support are keeping pace and have shifted towards these new media as well. With respect to the upheavals and liberation movements in Egypt, Eric Koenig, an expert from the Knight Foundation, points out: "...We're not measuring the right things any more. The old measurements are about institutions. They're developed by institutions, they reflect institutions..."[14]

The three sustainability dimensions mentioned above apply to traditional and 21st century media communities. As already mentioned, indicators for each dimension should be enhanced for the "new" media communities (see fig. 1).

The economic indicators should be expanded by adding an indicator to measure unique or active users, which in turn reflects the attractiveness of the platform. The editorial indicators should enable a democratic monitoring of the content quality being produced by a (global) community of participants. In addition, in view of Facebook's behaviour, an indicator that reflects the effectiveness of a security system for personal data is needed. The ongoing legal dispute between Facebook and EU countries provides us with a glimpse of the problems that still lie ahead. There is also a need to rework the social indicators. It is particularly important to install mechanisms that enable non-internet users to participate and monitor their effectiveness using a corresponding indicator.

This is only an initial outline of potential indicators. Their ultimate operational shape still needs more development. But a transition from non-sustainable media support – directed towards traditional media – to sustainable media support directed at democratic online communities is definitely needed. This has to be accompanied by an enhancement of sustainability indicators that evaluate media support on an organisational level. This article contains some initial suggestions to help us along the way.

Support of socially responsible media entrepreneurs for the 21st century is also urgently needed. Institutions like Ashoka[15] or the unreasonable Institute[16] with their exemplary support of social entrepreneurs could present an effective model of how to support media entrepreneurs in the digital age.


[1] www.un.org/millenniumgoals

[2] The World Commission on Environment and Development, "Brundtland Commission", 1987

[3] Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC): Media assistance in the Swiss Development cooperation: media - a key player for realizing social accountability, Bern 2007.

[4] Christoph Dietz (ed.): German Media Development Cooperation – A Survey, Aachen (Germany): Catholic Media Council (CAMECO ) / FOME 2010.

[5] Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA): Non-US Funding of Media, Washington 2009.

[6] www.mdlf.org/en/main/impact 13.02.2012

[7] See the MDLF annual "Dashboard", presenting a sales, reach and financial risk indicator for supported media organisations. www.mdlf.org/en/main/impact

[8] UNESCO: Media Development Indicators: A framework for assessing media development, released by the Intergovernmental Council of the IPDC (International Programme for the Development of Communication), Paris, March 2008.

[9] e.g. UNESCO's indicator category 4 (footnote 8): "Professional capacity building and supporting institutions that underpin freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity"

[10] www.irex.org/resource/media-sustainability-index-msi-methodology ; 13.02.2012

[11] Dubai School of Government: Arab Social Media Report, Vol. 1. No.1, Dubai, 2011.

[12] Anne Nelson: Funding free expression, Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) Research report , June 2011.

[13] See: Dubai School of Government, 2011.

[14] See: Anne Nelson, 2011.

[15] www.ashoka.org

[16] http://unreasonableinstitute.org/

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