Editors note: This article was originally published in October 2020, on Entrepreneurial Journalism, created by James Breiner. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

Author’s note: this post is a summary of remarks I made in a Zoom presentation for the Free University of Brussels and the technology research center IMEC.

This research started when our colleague told us he was worried about the future of quality media. He saw traditional media failing as businesses because they were not responding effectively to the challenge from digital media.

This occurred at one of our informal weekly coffee sessions two years ago in the Faculty of Communication at the University of Navarra. So two of us, Mercedes Medina Laveron and I, decided to take up the challenge from our worried colleague–Alfonso Sanchez Tabernero, who is also the rector of the university–to see if we could identify some solutions for the industry, some promising paths forward.

And, as happens at universities, the result was a paper.

The three of us ultimately identified 20 examples of sustainable quality journalism from four regions–Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the US, and Latin America. Then we examined the elements of their business models to see if there were promising paths forward

You can see a summary of some of our research here, with a detailed graphic of the 20 news media organizations. We concluded that there were five elements that all of these organizations exhibited.

1. Independence and credibility

All 20 described themselves as independent of the political and commercial powers that be, and they tied that to a claim to credibility and trustworthiness. Their value proposition was based on this independence, their highly differentiated content, and a stated commitment to public service.

They backed up their claim to credibility with an unusual level of transparency: They identified their owners, investors, shareholders, donors, or sponsors. Most revealed detailed financials, with revenue and expenses. They all gave profiles of their executives and staff in editorial, business, and technology functions.

Fourteen of the 20 identified accountability journalism, or investigative journalism, as a key part of their offering. And often they described how they went about gathering the information for their investigative reports and how they made the decisions about how to present it.

2. They focus on users

All have made the needs and problems of their users the primary focus of their work. Advertisers and sponsors come second or not at all. Half of the group accept no advertising.

They focus on creating value for the users, enough that they would be willing to pay for a digital subscription. Half have some sort of paywall. You can’t ask people to pay for information that is irrelevant to them.  

3. They are digital first

They have embraced the power of digital communication and its differences from traditional media. They use hyperlinks to connect users to original source documents to provide evidence and context. They tell stories in multimedia formats. They make their work social and shareable through the channels where users prefer to consume news and information.

4. Their founders are veteran journalists

Nearly all were founded by veteran journalists, often from traditional media, who used their experience, reputation, and credibility –that is, their social capital– to attract investors, contributors, and employees. One exception was Perspective-Daily of Germany, which was founded by two scientists. Their site focuses on solutions journalism.

5. They engage their audience and encourage participation

The best evidence of engagement is that users are willing to pay for a digital subscription or membership. They encourage their audiences to participate in information gathering–crowdsourcing. They use two-way communication or interactivity with the public to get story suggestions and news tips, and to do collective investigations.

All of these organizations ensure that all parts of the team understand their role in the financial success of the company. Seven of the 20 are nonprofits, but 13 have a for-profit business model.

These five keys to sustainability are just some of those that could be mentioned. They fit within 10 new paradigms of quality journalism that I have written about elsewhere.

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash