The Viability of the Media Sector

Clearly, there is concern about the viability of media around the world. But what is the state of the media sector and individual media businesses according to recent research?

Media Viability in Difficult Contexts

Independent media in less-developed economies and repressive environments face – because of the nature of these environments – many threats to their survival. The safety of media workers is jeopardized, media outlets are forcibly closed down, or the medium can simply not generate enough revenue due to low purchasing power of the audience. The concern that audiences in these contexts do not have access to quality, reliable information is already very real.[1]

Nevertheless, structured, comparative research about the struggle for continued existence of these media businesses in these contexts remains limited. The available studies do find that – unsurprisingly – media operating in difficult contexts are fragile. For them, the digital transformation forms an extra complicating factor in addition to the challenges originating from the overall political or economic environment (or both). Despite some efforts[2] to ascertain which factors have the most effect on the viability of media outlets (political or economic), this remains unclear.

Despite the limited availability of comparative research, there are several initiatives to capture the environment in which media operate – and the effect of the environment on media viability – in media landscape reports. These reports generally provide a description of the political and economic environment in a country and whether this environment is conducive to the media sector or not.[3]

Media Viability in Relatively Rich and Democratic Societies

Media in the economically more developed and democratic societies have faced increasing difficulties to sustain themselves financially in the past few years. This is also one of the main reasons that media viability has become a well-researched topic in these countries. Much of what is said above about the state of media in difficult contexts is also true for these media. Traditionally, they have had very little need to adjust their business models to changing audience needs. This, combined with the idea that journalists and editors know best what the audience wants to and should know, has led to a lack of business acumen. 4

For the media sector as a whole, the trends are quite clear. The lack of advertisement income has resulted mainly in the decline of public interest media, and especially those operating on a local level. These media perform a vital function in democracy by holding powerful actors accountable. Local news reporters, for example, monitor decision making processes in local councils. However, since they target a small audience segment, advertisers are not interested to publish in these media. Another often mentioned public interest media example is investigative journalism. This type of journalism also targets a niche audience, and is very resource-intensive. As such, local media and media conducting investigative journalism struggle the most to survive financially.


[1] Haider, H. et al., Topic Guide on Communication and Governance
[2] Such as the Media Sustainability Barometer
[3] For example: Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS), Media Influence Matrix; European Journalism Center (EJC), Media Landscapes

[4] More than Money, Deutsche Welle Akademie.