Liberia: Journalism Business Model Is Broken. We Must Explore New Ways to Make Journalism Pay

This piece may appear in the news pages but the subject is news to no one: The business model supporting journalism in Liberia is broken.

For decades those of us who care about Liberia’s democracy and economic development have watched as heroic journalists delivered quality news from the fumes of a fuel-soaked rag. The dirty truth is that most journalism in Liberia is not funded by independent newsmedia. It is funded by the newsmakers the story is about. Whether it is through payments for coverage (called a “bribe” in any developed democracy) or inflated “expenses” and per diems to events and press conferences, most journalists and editors make their income in a corrupted “pay for play” system that delivers the messages newsmakers want delivered, not the news an informed and empowered citizenry needs to hear.

Few Liberian journalists have the financial freedom to choose news stories the way they ought to be chosen: by asking how important a story is to the audience’s lives. Few journalists have the funds to pay for the travel, data and research a story needs to share the voices of all Liberians and present it in a compelling way that engages audiences.

This is not how journalists at the world’s leading news organizations work. At the BBC, The New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera and others, journalists are paid respectable, middle-class salaries to do scrupulously independent reporting. Journalists could be fired for taking so much as a cup of coffee from a source, let alone transport. Those journalists are routinely shocked to hear that journalists in the Global South receive envelopes stuffed with cash from newsmakers seeking coverage.

It’s not just in the West. Great African media organizations such as Premium Times in Nigeria, Joy FM in Ghana, Daily Maverick in South Africa do groundbreaking journalism by paying journalists a middle-class income and forbidding them from taking payments for coverage.

There are plenty of forces fuelling the corrupt business model in Liberia and undercutting efforts by good media to build financially independent businesses. Corrupt politicians, development agencies that don’t understand how their actions are undermining the media, foreign embassies and international businesses all pay for content – be it a press releases or disinformation – to be presented as legitimate news stories.

No one wins from this scenario: Liberia’s newsmedia struggle to build trust with audiences. Newsmakers cannot drive impact because single-sourced, dull articles with no real people, do not engage audiences and make them want to act. Liberians are robbed of the information they need to play their role in democracy and hold leaders to account.

This has to change. Since 2010, New Narratives, with the support of a range of donors including the UK and US embassies, has been quietly trying to break that dependence on income for coverage by providing journalists at leading Liberian newsmedia with funds to travel, research, talk to real people and do quality independent journalism. This has given them the freedom to bring credible independent coverage of war crimes trials and the quest for a war crimes court; of corruption in extractives industries, the Catholic Church, government and the UN; the harms of female genital cutting, teen pregnancy, the ongoing rape epidemic, drug and people trafficking, environmental damage and climate change.

With funds to cover their research and a rule forbidding corrupting payments from newsmakers New Narratives-backed journalists have built the skills, contacts, credibility and confidence they need to do journalism that has impact.

Now, with the support of donors including the Swedish Embassy in Liberia, we are going a step further. New Narratives will help Liberia’s leading independent journalism organizations develop independent sources of revenue to pay for their journalism. From Ghana to Malaysia to Ukraine and the USA, successful news businesses are generating revenue through new products, many of them online. Membership models, podcasts, social media, newsletters and donations are just some of the money-making ideas that are fuelling a resurgence in quality journalism across the world. New Narratives will also support newsmedia to find and apply for grant funding for their journalism.

As Liberia’s deteriorating economy squeezes more journalism institutions out of existence it is imperative that news organizations and technologists start the innovation and experimentation that will help them weather this storm. We hope this project will be a first step sparking the ideas and innovations that will ripple across the newsmedia and help Liberia’s independent journalism institutions build a stable financial base to support the quality journalism Liberian democracy needs going forward.

Disclosure: New Narratives is a long-time supporter of Front Page Africa. Publisher Rodney Sieh is a co-founder and board member of the organization.

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