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Media love to call themselves independent. It doesn’t mean much

Media love showy descriptions of themselves. The problem is they usually don't mean much to readers.

Ask journalists anywhere what sets their media apart and more likely than not you’ll run into a variation on one of the following answers. 

“We’re objective – we give you the real story.”

“We’re truly independent, we’re not some mouthpiece.”

“We have a [fill in the blank – smarter, edgier, more interesting] take on news.”

How media position themselves is an almost existential question. News organisations live in an overcrowded field, fighting not just against other outlets for precious seconds of audience attention, but also against such giants as Facebook or Netflix (not to mention non-sedentary activities like sport or, God-forbid, family time). 

But media are not equal. Topics covered, political leanings, style are all different (or at least should be) to suit the specific audiences needs.

So how do media actually position themselves? A look at 100 media organizations from across the entire world (mostly large, recognized organizations, but also national leaders, digital start-ups and niche non-profits) shows some surprising, and some painfully obvious results.

Word cloud of media slogans from 100 media across the world. Source: The Fix research team

Independence is perhaps the most overused term of all

As media in many countries increasingly fall under the heel of over-bearing governments and oligarchs, it is perhaps not surprising to see how many media – particularly on the non-profit and investigative end of the spectrum – bandy about their independence.  

But that’s where things get complicated. Revenue streams for most media have been decimated over the past two decades. As a result, many media are completely dependent on just one or two sources of revenues (e.g., a dying print run and some events; a combination of donations and grants). 

If anything, running around town shouting about your independence might be the clearest possible sign that you’re living in denial. 

Donor or more broadly grant-based financing isn’t bad in itself, but it typically has a turn on/ off mechanism for annual budgets that gives a lot more power to funders than is typical of most advertisers. It’s chunky, unlike subscriptions or ads which comes and leave in gradual waves, allowing more freedom to change and adapt to a new reality.

The London-based team of The Conversation (slogan: “academic rigour, journalistic flair”) emphasize their publication’s independence in their description, further explaining that most funding comes from a bunch of UK universities and a few foundations.

“Saying you’re independent doesn’t mean anything for readers”

Jakub Górnicki, co-founder and head of Outriders

That’s pretty much a best case scenario. Most donors don’t have the perceived neutrally of slightly random academic institution. Indeed, alt-right figures from failed Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy, to the UK’s Paul Joseph Watson have made a career (well, at least a social media career) decrying the support media and other civil society organizations by the like of billionaire philanthropist George Soros

(Disclaimer: I received a master’s degree from the Central European University, which was founded by George Soros. It was a great education).

As a result of campaigns by rising populist forces from Budapest to London the image of donation-supported media has suffered. Claiming you’re independent doesn’t solve that problem. In fact, it might be worse – by focusing on the losing battle of the dependent-independent conversation, media are actually missing a more important opportunity to connect with their readers.

“Saying you’re independent doesn’t mean anything for readers,” argues Jakub Górnicki, founder and head of the Polish media startup Outriders. Everyone is saying it, he argues, but in fact they are mostly dependent on donor financing or other patronage. Audiences, particularly the more high-brow readers that most of those media aim for, are not fooled. They see that you are dependent on donor financing, and the whole thing rings hollow, Górnicki summed it up.

Whether you’re a media looking to transition from non-profit support to commercial revenues, or you’re already running a viable business model, turning your readers into fans is critical to survival in the jungle that is journalism in 2019. 

Terms that keep coming up – “breaking,” “journalism,” “reporting,” “leader” – that keep finding their way into media slogans are often meaningless for members of the audience. At best, they tell you that you are dealing with a media company.

As a result, many media are now shifting towards messages their readers can identify with. Ukraine-based Kyiv Post, for example, went from “Independence. Community. Trust.” to “Ukraine’s Global Voice” in order to better reflect the fact that the English-language publication was the many source of information about Ukraine for readers across the world (which makes sense – over 80% of its online audience is outside Ukraine).

Poland’s leading daily Wyborcza went political in a move not unlike that of the Washington Post (which recently changed the slogan to “Democracy dies in darkness”). The outlet decided this July to change its slogan from “We are not indifferent” to “No freedom without Solidarity” (itself a historical reference to its slogan from the transition from communism period but that’s a longer story).

Outriders, which specializes in foreign reporting using a reportage style amplified by various digital innovations, decided to go a different way. “What makes us special is that our reporters always know the local context,” Górnicki told me at a cafe in Warsaw’s Stalinist Palace of Culture. 

“So we leaned into it,” he concluded, “and said ‘We are on the ground’.”

Source of the cover photo: https://unsplash.com/

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