Revenue Model

In this section of the resource guide, the focus is on the revenue model of media. A revenue model describes how a business generates income. Revenue models can be influenced by the type of product or service a business delivers, but also by the contexts in which the business works. The discussions and empirical research done on these topics when it comes to media businesses is outlined below. These have also formed the framework on which Free Press Unlimited’s research on this topic is based.

Changes in Media Revenue Models

Revenue models of media have changed drastically in the past two decades. As described in the section ‘Digital Transformation and Media Viability‘, the digital space has become more and more important. Free information is easily accessible for many people, and advertising space is dominated by big tech giants. Media around the world are continuing to experiment with ways to supplant the lost of the advertisement, sales and subscription models. The result is that many media are dependent on donor funding, and that revenue models become highly diversified, consisting of many different income sources that each generate little income.

Donor Dependency

As mainly ideologically driven organisations, media generally start with some small grant funding. The more successful media businesses are able to grow their grant funding; diversifying the donor base and building larger budgets. While there is an inherent value in supporting independent media, there is also a risk to journalism supported by grants. The donor dependency can lead to market distortion, and to donor driven behaviour. Often it furthermore reinforces the lack of business development; many of these media act and develop as non-profit organisations rather than as media businesses. In recent years, donors have increasingly asked the media they support to show their potential to generate alternative, commercial revenue. The extent to which media are successful in this effort varies significantly between media, also depending on the context in which they operate.

Many public interest media, and especially those operating in complex environments, appear to be are highly dependent on funding from foundations and (government) donors. Most of them do not generate any non-donor (commercial) income. A large majority is unable to commercially monetise their work to a substantive amount, maintaining their donor dependency.[1]

The publication ‘Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South’ reveals two opposing viewpoints in the media (development) community about donor dependency. One viewpoint considers donor funding unreliable. Donors tend to support media outlets for a short time span: after this, they expect media outlets to be able to sustain themselves financially through other means, or they focus their attention to other – politically defined – pressing issues. The supporters of this viewpoint believe that media outlets need to find revenue streams that allow them to decrease their donor dependency. Opposing this is a more ideological viewpoint. This view posits that independent media organisations with a public interest mission are hard to come by. Therefore, the founders of these outlets should not be expected to also perform well in non-journalistic skills, such as business management or technical savviness.[2] Often, supporters of this latter viewpoint also express the concern that media might be distracted from their core mission while exploring other ways to generate income. Consequently, donor funding is desirable to support media in performing their democratic function in societies.

On the European Journalism Observatory blog, Manuela Preoteasa and Andrei Swartz write: ‘(…) non-profit and freelance media are not truly financially viable in the longer term.’ As Stefan Cândea, the co-founder of CRJI explained ‘if they would be sustainable, then they would be commercial and not non-profit. If they depend on donations, then they are not sustainable.’ Some organisations are able to attract large grants or sponsorships, but these cannot be relied upon in the long run. The only way of becoming long-term sustainable is having a long-term commercially viable format. This negates, however, the entire non-profit/independent framework.[3]

Diversification of Income

The quote in the paragraph above posits that the non-profit mission of a medium is impossible to merge with financial viability. It is unclear which definition of financial viability is used by the writers. What is clear however is that they refer to the tension between commercial viability and producing content that speaks to the target audience of the non-profit medium, which is their ‘core business’. Media organisations tend to explore new ways of generating revenue, because they are seeking increased financial viability, or because their donor granters wish to see a minimum threshold of commercial income.

On J-Source, Business for Journalism Editor Kelly Toughill writes: ‘The new thinking is that news organizations should try a bit of everything and see what works. But if you think new business models are just about paying for your existing journalism, get over it.’[4] However, opinions differ whether exploring new business models to pay for your core business is indeed a bad idea or not. On the Wan-Ifra blog, Jean-Luc Breysse (deputy CEO of Le Figaro Group – one of the largest media holdings in France) is quoted saying that the media business is too fragile to stand on its own. His strategy for income diversification is to explore revenue streams that are outside of media, so that they stand independent from the media income streams.[5] Raju Narisetti posits in a different Wan-Ifra blog post that it is well possible for a digital medium to accumulate up to 15 revenue sources and through that build a sustainable and growing media business.[6]

This discussion lays bare an inherent complexity that public interest media organisations face in terms of their business models. Non-profit, or rather public interest media (in this resource guide the term public interest media is used, because these media can at times have different types of registration (non-profit, for-profit or dual) depending on the environment in which they operate) are founded with a mission that serves a public interest function. This also allows them to attract donor or foundation funding: these non-commercial granters strive towards a similar goal as the medium. In essence thus the organisation is not commercially or economically but ideologically driven. The ideology or mission is also the main determinant of the medium’s target audience. It seeks to fill a gap in the (information) needs of this particular target audience (segment). Thus, contrary to commercial businesses, a public interest medium generally selects its target audience not because it is able to monetise this audience segment but because it believes that this audience has a right to see its information needs fulfilled. It does so regardless of the financial viability of this mission.

Aside from the discussion of donor versus non-donor funding, there is also no consensus about whether organisations receiving donor funding are more or less likely to generate non-donor funding. In Funding the News, Nisbet et al write that an accumulation of ‘funding investments’ allows media to diversify their income sources. This seems to be based on the notion that start-up or seed funding helps outlets to experiment with new revenue streams.[7] However, the Inflection Point study found that start-up funding is not a condition for a successful business model.[8] Also, an opposing theory is that media that are used to receive donor funding act more like NGOs than as businesses. The lack of business skill capacity at the managerial layer of many media, that shows in several studies, can be seen as confirmation of this theory.[9]

The discussion reflected above also surfaces quite some assumptions, some of which have been subject of study in previous publications. One of these assumptions is that income diversification of media business models make media financially more stable. Another is that income diversification is possible in every context. These assumptions are discussed in more detail below.

Commercial and Diversified Income Streams

The lack of business skills of many independent, public interest, media start-ups is reflected in their donor dependency. There are few studies into the diversity of income streams of media. Brian Massey for example, tested the conventional business wisdom that states that more revenue sources is always better. Massey collected data through a survey among independent news sites in the United States. He found that for-profit sites performed better with few revenue streams, and that non-profit sites did not perform better at all with diversity. Also, the for-profit media were mostly dependent on local advertisement income, and non-profits on donations and grants.[10]

However, Massey measured performance based on ‘for-profit’ criteria, assessing whether the media organisation ends a financial year with a break even, budget surplus or budget shortage. In other words, his work is based on the assumption that grant income is equally valuable as non-grant income. Also, other studies suggest the contrary: that more diversity in income streams is beneficial to media organisations. How many revenue streams are optimal for media thus needs to be studied further.[11]

From the research conducted by Free Press Unlimited, it is clear that while diversified revenue models are possible for media, that this does not necessarily mean that media with diversified revenue models are less dependent on grant funding. Also, diversification of revenue takes most media many years, requiring a long-term grant investment in the mean time.


Most literature about successful business model cases discusses media organisations from the developed economies. There is however one consistent trend of highlighted cases that is also confirmed by the report Lessons in Innovation, which takes three cases studies from the Philippines, India and South Africa. In these cases, media outlets have a strong and clear mission to conduct investigative journalism in their countries. They do this with full transparency towards and through engagement with their audience. This approach appears very successful to build trust among their audience members.[12] In effect the audiences of these media grow. Audience growth is generally monetised through a combination of donor funding, membership models or donations, sponsored content and advertisement, among other revenue streams.[13]

However, there are a few common factors among these case studies that cast a doubt over the transferability of this success. All three countries feature in lists of emerging economies, and all three outlets are digital born with a focus on background analysis or stories. The report Fragile Finance, with a focus of media in repressive environments or in exile, does provide a few indications of what does, and does not work. The findings of the report suggest that there is potential in generating income by pooling media together into a global advertising network. Through this, the media achieve global reach. Another indication from the report points out that, audience donations are not an option for media working in these difficult circumstances. Audiences cannot safely donate or simply do not have the resources to afford paying for news.[14]


[1] Schiffrin, A., Fighting for Survival: Media Startups in the Global South
[2] Ibid.
[3] Preoteasa, M., & Schwartz, A., Romania’s Hybrid Media Model (European Journalism Observatory)
[4] Baluja, T., Three Rules for Supporting Journalism with Multiple Revenue Streams (J-Source)
[5] Veseling, B., ‘Brand extension, diversification are crucial’ – Figaro Group Deputy CEO (WAN-IFRA)
[6] Flueckiger, S., Raju Narisetti: Multiple Revenue Streams Neeeded for Success (WAN-IFRA)
[7] Nisbet, M., Wihbey, J., Kristiansen, S., & Bajak, A. (2018). Funding the News: Foundations and Non-Profit Media. Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy, p. 14.
[8] Ramos, D., Melendez, J., Aroche, E., Jaramillo, M., Ludtke, S., & Alvarez, M. (2018). Inflection Point. Impact, Threats and Sustainability: A Study of Latin American Media Entrepeneurs. SembraMedia.
[9] Bittner, A. (2019). Digital Journalism and New Business Models. European Federation of Journalists, p. 16-17; Nisbet et al. (2018).
[10] Massey, B. (2018. Testing the Revenue Diversity Argument on Independent Web-native News Ventures. Digital Journalism, vol. 6(10), pp. 1333-1348.
[11] Ramos et al. (2018).
[12] Bittner. (2019), p. 18.
[13] Posetti, J., Simon, F., & Shabbir, N. (2019). Lessons in Innovation: How International News Organisations Combat Disinformation through Mission-Driven Journalism. Reuters Institute.
[14] Cook, C.E. (2016). Fragile Finance: The Revenue Models of Oppositional News Outlets in Repressive Regimes. International Communication Gazette, p. 16; p. 24.