Lessons learned from delivering business support to media outlets

Lessons learned from delivering business support to media outlets

For almost two years, I had the opportunity to work with the media and mentors through the Media for All project. Initially, I developed an online course that dealt with the development of  business model for the media, and then I worked as a mentor with several media. I learned a lot during this process and had the opportunity to take a deeper look at the challenges the media is facing. This text is my attempt to articulate and document in written format some of the lessons learned and observations.

Of course - disclaimer at the beginning: the views expressed in this text are my own, and do not represent the official views of the Media for All project, or the donors/implementers of the project.

If you are interested (and you hate to google) in details about me - my experience is mainly in the domain of business and creation (and monetization) of niche media, as well as in the domain of managing civil society organizations. Throughout my career, I have been a journalist, founder of companies and civil society organizations, a business mentor, an innovation consultant...and probably several other roles that have shaped my skills and mindset.

On the Media for All project, I also created an online course (Business models and monetization models for media) and tried to help the media on the way to product creation and monetization.

I believe that all organizations (businesses and civil society) must change and adapt to the development of the local and global environment. If they do not evolve and adapt - they disappear or become irrelevant. This is also how I look at the media - which are generally inert to changes in the environment and tend to persist in dealing with the media business in a traditional way, which is not suitable for the digital age.

The focus of the media is often exclusively on creating content and servicing its readers - which is the essence of the media, but the reality both locally and globally has changed in such a way that this is no longer enough.

Because of these changes, all programs that support media to develop (or improve) business models and to test them, are extremely important. They are points on the path that leads the media to self-sustainability and connecting the real needs of their readers with what they can provide. In order to maybe make some subsequent programs to be even better and take the media further on this path, I tried to record some of the things that I classified as good and bad. As much for donors and implementers, even more for those who have to keep changing in adaptation - the media.

Program structure

Program structure

First of all, the structure of the program itself. Project idea to support media outlets to develop new business models in order to secure long term sustainability is great, but there are some conceptual issues with it. 

First, media outlets have applied with their business idea, which couldn't be significantly modified during the business plan creation phase. Additionally, business ideas need to be validated before significant resources are invested in developing it. This programme was created in a way which does not enable the true process of business idea testing - it is not realistic that a media outlet tests the idea and “discovers” that it is not feasible, as it would mean that the media outlet will not get funds secured by the project.

This situation should be somehow changed in the future instances of this or similar business support programmes.

Media outlets should go through the idea validation phase, but they should not be afraid to invalidate their idea - the opportunity to change the idea should be given by the donors. This also means that during the initial phase of the programme (before business plans are approved), there should be enough time (minimum one month) to test the business idea in the field and conduct “Mom test” (or similar) methodology for validating business ideas.

Media outlets should be able to change their business plan (and the idea to a certain extent) to reflect learnings from this activity. Also, media outlets should be encouraged to admit if they fail to validate the need for their business idea, but this should not bar media outlets from getting the funds - it would require them to evolve their initial idea, or quickly come up with another one. This part is tricky, and some sort of external supervision would be required for media outlets in order to objectively track if an idea was validated or not. 

Based on my experience, media outlets are very likely not to be honest if they discover that there are issues with their business idea, as they see that as a threat to them getting access to funds. This attitude is one of the main blockers of developing business mindset in media outlets, as no business person would waste time and money in developing idea which has proven to have no chance of success; while majority of media outlets look for whatever source of income which can cover their operational costs - even if it is a dead-end business.

03 media outlets

Media outlets

The programme was overwhelming for media outlets - they were offered a lot of opportunities, but the majority of media outlets struggled to keep up with the pace and to utilize every type of offered support. Additionally, media outlets were concerned that if they miss an opportunity, it will be noted by donors and they could potentially be excluded from some future activities and projects. This made media outlets keen to accept new opportunities, even if they were not 100% match for them and they don't really have capacity to handle those additional activities. 

Avoiding these kinds of situations should be done in the future, and some key activities which could improve this situation are:

  • Making sure media outlets have sufficient human resources for additional activities
  • Making sure that budgeted new human resources by media outlets are actually working on the project
  • Reducing number of opportunities on the project
  • Doing extensive research and analysis on real needs and capacities of media outlets, and avoiding bombarding them with new opportunities

My observation while working with media outlets is that the management/leadership of the media outlet plays a crucial role in accepting/rejecting long-term development of new media products which can ensure new income streams and sustainability.

Supporting media outlets who don't have capacity to embrace new business models and develop new revenue streams due to lack of management capacity should be avoided or mitigated by requiring them to hire/delegate work to colleagues who are more business oriented (or open-minded) and who have capacity to embrace new technological trends.

If donors continue to support the same media outlets who fail to deliver true and meaningful results from business-based support programmes, and who obviously struggle during implementation and regard business-support programmes and grants not as development, but as sustainability, I fear that some other and new media outlets who are better fit for these programmes will be the long-term losers of this situation.

Media outlets who were trying to develop a new digital product, and to use it as a new revenue stream were generally missing human resources with specific skills for these tasks. It was left more or less to a lucky choice of a technical implementation partner (an IT company or individual with tech background) to drive product development and decide on product features. This is far from the ideal approach and is generating a lot of issues in the production/monetization phase. Majority of media outlets had reasonable luck with choosing these technology partners, but still, not doing a detailed product specification and leaving it up to the implementing partner to make a business decision is not advised. For the future projects, it would be good to either require mentors to focus on this (but in this case they need product experience) or have a set of dedicated mentors for this task.

mentors

Mentors

Media for All was a big project, a lot of media meant a lot of mentors. The advantage of a situation with many mentors is the ability to assemble a team that has diverse knowledge and skills. It is highly likely that any problem or dilemma that a medium has, someone from the network of mentors can help with advice or a concrete solution. Of course, in order to capitalize on such a situation as much as possible, it is necessary to have good channels of communication between the mentors, either through some kind of technological platform or through a team of people who take care of this.

With programs that last a long time (such as Media for All), it is important to find a good formula for timing the mentoring form and ensuring the focus and dedication of the mentor. Mentors are mostly professionals from different fields who have some connection with the project topic. They almost certainly have their own full-time jobs or businesses, and no matter how motivated they are initially to work on the project, their enthusiasm will fluctuate, with a continuous decline during the project. Therefore, it is a good idea to think about value-propos cavans for the persona of the mentor, and map the dominant gains/pains that the mentors have. After that, to think about what the program can do, so that through various activities and approaches during the project, the level of motivation and involvement of the mentors will be as high as possible.

It also makes sense to mention the essential difference between mentors and experts/consultants. This (and similar) projects mainly provide the media with experts/consultants, who use their knowledge and experience to help the media achieve a defined goal. This is a (at least on paper) rather transactional relationship, that is, it implies that primarily the expert shares his/her knowledge. In contrast, the relationship between mentor and mentee is much deeper, it goes beyond a classic business relationship, and implies a two-way sharing of knowledge. Both approaches (expert and mentor) make sense, and one cannot simply say which one is more adequate for such projects. During the Media for All project, my impression is that the media built a relationship with their mentors, i.e. experts/consultants that best suits their business needs and personal capacities.

Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy

The sheer volume of administration and bureaucracy required by this project was overwhelming. This should somehow be reduced, as it is very demotivating for mentors to spend large amounts of time on writing reports and filling tables. Working with high profile mentors usually means that they are either full time employed or engaged in many consultancies, so spending considerable amounts of time on administration makes no sense. This can be resolved by reducing the number of reports, notes and other administrative deliverables from the donor side, or by providing a person from the donor side who would handle these activities.

Additionally, tech solutions for tracking project activities, media outlet progress, reporting, etc. were subpar for the project of this size and for the amount of data which needed to be recorded. Developing a custom solution for these activities or implementing and customizing an out-of-the-box solution is advised for the next similar projects. The Thomson Foundation team tried to mitigate these shortcomings by pre-filling tables and generally being supportive during the process, but the core solution was lacking.

Communication with media outlets was often challenging - they are not used to function remotely, and often do not show up for meetings. While monthly meetings were scheduled for the whole period of 12 months in advance, media outlets often failed to show up on them. With a large number of media outlets to mentor, this situation becomes tiresome, as enormous amounts of time are spent on scheduling, communication, rescheduling, etc.

Conclusion

Conclusion

Business support programs for the media are needed, but only if they succeed in being truly business-oriented and contribute to directing the media towards designing and developing their own media business.

What should be avoided by all means is that the media enter such programs for "free money" (because free money does not exist) and fear that if they miss this program, they will lose donors and some future projects.

Both for the media and for donors - it is necessary to ensure that the business capacities of the media are really raised and ensure the organizational memory of acquired skills. It is pointless that every business support program covers the same topics and concepts over and over again. In particular, if the media once learned and did the business model canvas, I expect that the subsequent support programs imply that the media know the basic concepts. The new program should bring value through knowledge building, not repetition of already adopted concepts.

About the author:

Vladimir Trkulja

Vladimir Trkulja is a community organizer and media business planer with a decade of experience in creating, growing and supporting Serbian startup companies through different programmes, mentoring, coaching and public speaking. Strong background in technology, especially related to developing new products using lean methodologies and working with agile teams. Mentor and coach on many acceleration programmes & events, including Eleven Ventures, Startup Academy, InnoEnergy Primer, Climate KIC, UNDP CSDU Incubator and Google Launchpad.
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  • Vladimir Trkulja is a community organizer and media business planer with a decade of experience in creating, growing and supporting Serbian startup companies through different programmes, mentoring, coaching and public speaking. Strong background in technology, especially related to developing new products using lean methodologies and working with agile teams. Mentor and coach on many acceleration programmes & events, including Eleven Ventures, Startup Academy, InnoEnergy Primer, Climate KIC, UNDP CSDU Incubator and Google Launchpad.

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