Funding and collaboration, strings attached

There are no rules on accepting external funding as a media company, but beware strings attached.

This cautious advice was the major takeaway from a World News Media Congress session on funding models and journalism guardrails.

A panel of four was introduced by Columbia University's Raju Narisetti, who set the tone by drawing audience attention to the number of billionaires buying up media companies across the world, not only high-profile money men such as Jeff Bezos (Washington Post) and Jack Ma (South China Morning Post), but several others who have managed to fly under the radar.

Speakers incuded Seema Singh, Vivian Schiller, Justin Arenstein and Sophie Gourmelen, all of whom agreed that "the best way of remaining independent was to be profitable".

Chief executive at USA's Civil Media Foundation, Schiller was firm in warning against accepting funding which came with strings attached or came from dubious sources, describing it as "bad money" and risky money, and including government funding which could lead to additional pressure on publishers.

South African journalist and media entrepreneur Arenstein warned the audience against funding of particular stories, but rather to convince donors to be part of a "funding basket" and go for infrastructure funding. And do consider audience donations too, he said.

Gourmelen is managing director and publisher of Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui en France, and described how she kept editorial and managing the business well apart, so there was less risk of facing influence.

As co-founder and editor of The Ken in India, Seema Singh described how her publication publishes one investigative story a day behind a paywall, but did not take any external funding.

Schiller said collaboration was growing in the USA, "and we are not in competition with each other any more". But he agreed with Narisetti that ownership of media was a "minefield" and the funding issue a "very complicated" one.

The unanswered question in the room was finally tackled as the session was closing: Should you accept money from Google and Facebook?

Yes, agreed all speakers, but with reservations. "Take their money, but don't be stupid," said Gourmelen.

Schiller argued you should "fight the leverage", and Arenstein said he would have no hesitation in accepting funding, "but do ensure they are not dictating terms. Facebook is no different from Ford or Rockefeller in their time."

Singh said she had no objection to taking Facebook and Google funding... "in theory."

- Maggie Coleman

Pictured (from left): Raju Narisetti with Seema Singh, Justin Arenstein, Vivian Schiller and Sophie Gourmelen

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