Learning questions

Note: The learning questions will be adapted and the descriptions will evolve as the project progresses. (Last updated: 18 June 2021)
This note outlines the principal questions which PRIMED expects to answer over its lifetime. It plans to answer these questions with clear, actionable insights capable of guiding future international and media development spending and strategy.
The learning questions have been identified collaboratively across the Consortium based on:
A) the principal programmatic focus of PRIMED
B) the questions which media development practitioners and donors are most looking for insight into and
C) the practical feasibility of answering them clearly.
This overview summarises each question, why it has been identified as a priority, what kinds of learning are designed to be generated and how that will be crystallised and communicated.

Learning Questions:

Learning Questions Summaries

Learning Question 1

What strategies and solutions in areas such as revenue generation, audience development, organisational management and digital development are effective in supporting the financial viability of independent media in fragile contexts? Which innovations show the most promise? What have we learnt from these strategies?
The last decade has witnessed an explosion of innovation among media organisations worldwide in seeking to find fresh models of revenue generation. That innovation has intensified as the pressures on media business models have grown as advertising has migrated to online platforms, as political co-option and the costs of journalism have increased and, over the last year, the economic impact on media of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified.
Most (but by no means all) innovation has been driven in the Global North in settings where alternative revenue models (like membership and subscription schemes, podcasts, growing online audiences, events and identifying specific niche online communities) can tap into widespread societal wealth. This question is designed to clearly and precisely identify strategies that hold most promise in the settings typified by PRIMED and, just as important, those that do not.
The different organisations in PRIMED have strong and diverse skillsets and experiences to bring to bear on this question. They also have different, and potentially differing, perspectives, on how much real potential different strategies have in this area in terms of constituting truly viable business models in low income and fragile settings. Answering this question will involve examining the different revenue generations strategies available to PRIMED and other similar settings and assess which provide credible avenues for meaningful paths to sustainability in the future.
MDIF will collect detailed data on the progress of several partners in Ethiopia over a period of three years and against agreed metrics and collect relevant learnings from workshops in all three countries (1 event /year/ country). BBC Media Action will work with media practitioners to collect data on their reflections and audience data on partners content over time to complement this work.
It will summarise both optimistic and more critical arguments for their exploitation in the future. It will also reference some of the specific constraints and characteristics to revenue generation including inability to pay, potential information inequality and the degree of power of those with money to undercut commercial revenue generation through political cooption of media.
This question will be led by the Media Development Investment Fund which is the world’s leading organisation in advising and investing in independent media with the aim of making them sustainable and profitable. Given its expertise, MDIF will disseminate practical learnings to facilitate uptake of good practices and share know-how from hands-on-work with media organisations.

Learning Question 2

Under what conditions are approaches to public subsidy worth exploring and developing in the countries this programme operates in and elsewhere in the global south? What political socio-economic conditions need to exist to explore it? Which strategies are most effective at supporting/encouraging/engaging reform-minded governments and domestic regulatory institutions in creating the most conducive conditions for media viability and resilience?
The notion of public subsidy of independent media is contentious even in some of the most well established democracies in the world. Consideration of a public subsidy approach in low income and politically fragile nations is for some too risky to contemplate. However, the widespread failure of the traditional advertising driven business model and the particularly acute challenges confronting media in low income countries in generating meaningful digital revenue suggest that a clear headed and creative approach to considering this approach is required.
Approaching this question will be rooted in a hard headed political economy analysis of the specific countries PRIMED is working in and also an unflinching assessment of earlier public subsidy approaches. For example, the record of transforming former state broadcast organisations into independent, sustainable public service broadcasters has been a poor one. It will also be rooted in an acknowledgment that the political incentives for improving public subsidy to independent media are limited and that there is already very substantial public subsidy to media in the form of government advertising and state funding of state and commercial media aligned to governmental interests. Thestandards developed by ARTICLE 19 on freedom of expression and state subsidies for media set clear legal safeguards that enable public money to fund independent media while averting threats on media freedom and independence: such safeguards will also inform the reflexion on this question.
International examples of public subsidy to independent media are mushrooming, not least in the UK where the issue formed the focus of a major review by Dame Frances Cairncross. The notion that public subsidy constitutes an increasingly credible option for ensuing the survival of public interest in established democracies can spark more creative approaches to less established one and should not preclude them. Answering this question will involve a clearer definition of the different models of public subsidy that might be available, not all of which involve central government. The kinds of conditions it will examine and recommend that need to exist will not only be political but also in reference to the enabling environment (for example whether international development banks have sufficient interest in enabling media as a check on corruption and a guarantor of citizen engagement to make the issue a policy priority).
A working Brief titled Pathways to Media Sustainability in a Broken Market: Is independent media a public good and is public subsidy to support it realistic? has already been published to inform the work in Sierra Leone in particular. The topic will be revisited as PRIMED gets more insight from implementation as one of the Programme’s key learning questions.
MDIF and BBC MA have also produced an article with a set of practical recommendations to public interest media responding to the business challenges presented by Covid-19.
FPU's Michael Pavičić has also produced a blog about Big Tech influence on financial viability of independent news media and journalism.

Learning Question 3

What business and management models/organisational and team structures, competencies, and processes/ have the potential to improve gender equality in the workplace and gender sensitive programming?
Gender inequality, sexual harassment and inadequate representation are long standing structural issues in media organisations all over the world. They are acute in some of the settings focused on by the PRIMED programme. PRIMED will be making significant investments in content analysis and gender analysis and it will draw on these to answer this question. Evidence of the links between improved gender representation in the workplace and improved media resilience and viability is poorly explored and this question will seek to interrogate and add to that evidence base. It will examine how improved coverage of gender issues can broaden, build and connect with audiences and whether this can improve revenue and audience trust. It will document and explore what kinds of strategies focused on improving women’s position in the workplace have translated into real and sustained progress (and which have not). It will also provide recommendations on how media support strategies in the future focused on improving media viability can integrate gender dimensions into their design from the outset.

Learning Question 4

Which factors are most effective in enabling locally driven coalitions for change to emerge and thrive through externally supported media development efforts?
No sustainable process of media reform or strategic intervention can be driven from outside a country. It requires effective coalitions of change to assert ownership and generate the reform or media viability process from within. In many countries, especially those with little tradition of independent media or authoritarian control, these coalitions take time to emerge. In countries with longer democratic traditions, they are often fragmented. The task of external partners is to support independent media development, not determine it. This is often easier to commit to in principle than it is to in practice given that external actors not only have greater access to funding but also have clear imperatives and pressures to deliver on that funding, which often places pressure to shape action on the ground. Furthermore, international actors are often not always aligned or coordinated making it difficult for nationally and locally generated coalitions of change to engage with them.
This question will build on and document some of the best organised attempts at coalition building drawn from the experiences of other countries such as from Zimbabwe and more recently from Sudan as well as drawing on the coalition building programming within PRIMED, which particular focus on Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. The answer will provide clear practical recommendations on coalition building through case studies. It will explore what kinds of approaches are most suitable to adopt when (for example if there is a sudden political opening, such as that which existed in Sudan in 2020 compared to Zimbabwe where opportunities for media reform have been extremely limited and sporadic).

Learning Question 5

What strategies are most effective in building a viable media ecosystem with media resilient outlets and public interest content continuously available for audiences?
This is the overriding question which the PRIMED Consortium is designed to collectively answer over the lifetime of the project. It involves synthesising our programmatic experience, monitoring data and evidence with the learning generated from answering the rest of the questions into a macro level analysis. It will integrate analysis of the system wide issues (such as the enabling economic environment) with the specific institutional focused questions (such as which revenue generation strategies are most effective) with the policy level options for reform (such as around public subsidy). It will seek to provide guidance on how to weigh the relative importance of intervening in different areas and how to apply these conclusions in different political and economic contexts.