Donor-funded journalism: The value of impact

According to Mia Malan, health journalism has always been a hard sell. Malan is editor-in-chief and executive director of Bhekisisa Centre for Healthcare Journalism, and says stories on healthcare are often marginalised in a traditional news environment because they are considered 'soft news'.

​​“Typically, political and hard-hitting investigative stories are what make the front pages of newspapers or get the most prominent space on online homepages,” Malan explains. She says this has forced publications reporting on healthcare, development, education, social justice and the environment - the so-called 'softer stories' to seriously consider alternate forms of revenue generation. And this is where the donor-funded journalism model has a role to play.

​​Malan, a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, is a multi-award winning journalist with more than 20 African journalism accolades under her belt. She will be speaking at Digital Media Africa 2019 conference about Bhekisisa's journey over the past six - from an incubated donor-funded startup that increased its readership 35 times and its funding eightfold, to venturing into a brave new world as an independent publication. But first things first.

Is donor-funded journalism a sustainable revenue model?

​​Malan won't be drawn into a rushed discussion on the sustainability of donor journalism. “It’s crucial to provide context here,” she explains. “Currently, no media model is sustainable — at least not in the case of the print media.”

This, she says, is why some media houses have turned to subscription revenues, membership models and sponsored events like public discussion forums that draw large audiences. Others have dabbled in large-scale digital advertising.

While publications explore these different revenue models, Malan thinks that most are likely to settle for a combination model, incorporating aspects of the various strategies. She says this is because individual strategies have rarely brought in enough money for media houses to survive.

Malan says the donor-funded model gives prominence the 'softer issues' that might otherwise not make it to print - this, she explains, is one of the things that makes the model so interesting. “Donors that are interested in these areas, but that are not primarily media donors, have taken advantage - in my opinion rightly so - of the print media’s need to survive,” she explains.

“Donor-funded journalism is, for instance, the main reason why health reporting became so prominent at the Mail & Guardian after Bhekisisa was launched - because there were resources, that the newspaper didn’t have to provide itself, for health reporting to thrive.”

Malan says the reasons why newsrooms marginalise health reporting are obvious: “Political stories contain the voices of influential and often controversial people who give such stories prominence, even if they are badly written.”

Malan says when health stories are stripped of political maneuvers and intrigue, they are harder to tell and challenging to promote. She says this is because impactful health journalism demands more than just tracing the silhouette of a political saga or stitching together the views of a handful of politicians and commentators.

When does a startup stop being a startup?

For publishers marking time to leave their incubator nest, Malan has this to say: “This will be different for each startup — but not all startups necessarily need to move on.” She says the media environment in which a startup operates contributes to guide it towards its unique conclusion.

Malan says Bhekisisa's recent leap of faith is the centre’s own response to significant changes to the South African media environment.

When Bhekisisa launched in 2013, it boasted the biggest health journalism desk in South Africa - with just a single editor and two junior reporters. “In 2013, the M&G was also one of the only newspapers reaching decision-makers. By 2019, that had changed markedly," Malan explains. "The Daily Maverick and even News24, because of its wide reach, now also play an important role in distributing news information to this audience.”

The landscape has further been impacted and disrupted by social media and noticeable changes in news consumption habits. Malan says “it made sense for Bhekisisa to become independent and to take advantage of publishing on those digital platforms for growth.”

Jumping ship? First be clear on this

This, she says, entails answering questions that deal with four main anxieties that each startup considering this route must face. “None of the questions can be adequately answered without metrics data and consistent conversations with your donors and incubator,” she warns.

The first question a startup must answer is whether the move will result in audience growth or audience decline, and what the impact will be on digital reach. Next, it is necessary to ask how important the brand of the mother publication is to the existence and credibility of the startup as it ventures out.

The third thing for incubated startups to consider is how donors will react to the move. And finally, to end all anxiety, a startup must be confident in the continued survival of its product, even in the absence of funding or contributions in-kind from the incubator.

Click here for the Digital Media Africa 2019 conference programme and more details.

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