“When a news outlet’s business model is designed solely to serve an audience of means, they ignore worthy audiences who could profoundly benefit from high-quality journalism, but lack the means to pay for it.”
Monetization and the push for traffic still drive most business decisions in the media industry. Whether publishers seek to generate subscription revenue directly from readers or indirectly monetize reader attention through advertising or sponsorship, their target audiences are shaped through the lens of profitability. This is not necessarily a bad thing — monetization can serve a useful purpose by aligning what readers demand with what journalists produce.
But when a news outlet’s business model is designed solely to serve an audience of means, they ignore worthy audiences who could profoundly benefit from high-quality journalism, but lack the means to pay for it. In 2024, nonprofit newsrooms have an opportunity to address this challenge by designing audience engagement campaigns that intentionally prioritize audiences that can’t be monetized.
We’re doing just that at Global Press, an international news organization that trains and employs local women reporters around the world to produce representative journalism about the communities they cover. Thanks to our philanthropic supporters, we’re able to freely prioritize audiences we know will never pay for our content. We are acutely aware that our stories can only achieve maximum impact in the world if we reach the audiences that need the stories most — monetizable or not.
For example, consider senior reporter Linda Mujuru’s investigation into the toxic legacy of gold mining in Zimbabwe. The story revealed that even though the Zimbabwean government has committed on the international stage to phasing out the use of mercury in gold mining, it does not adhere to those commitments at home, turning a blind eye and serving as a purchaser to thousands of artisanal miners who use beads of toxic mercury to sift gold. Those miners are typically unaware of the health risks of mercury, which leads to brain and kidney damage and can be fatal.
Producing this story was only the first step to achieving its potential for impact. Our priority audience was the half a million artisanal miners who live in poverty, speak Shona, and do not consume news online. To reach them, we created an audience engagement campaign that prioritized serving miners by placing the story with a myriad of local partners that could reach the miners where they were. Linda conducted extensive interviews with miners to learn where and how they get their news. It was a popular radio show that aired at 11 a.m. that miners tuned into with portable radios while on site during the workday. So Global Press purchased airtime during that slot from the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation, and Linda invited her sources on air for a discussion in the Shona language about the dangers of using mercury and detailing the findings of her investigation. We also shared the story across local WhatsApp groups popular among mining communities, aired a local television program on the topic, and partnered with local radio networks and the Voice of America to blanket popular social media channels with the investigation. The results will be potentially lifesaving as miners now have more information about what it means to use mercury by hand.
Another example is reporter Amrita Jaisi’s story about students in Nepal who speak the Awadhi language and face discrimination in school. Because their first language is not as widely spoken as Nepali, they are more likely to drop out of school early, and to face limited economic mobility as a result. Their plight is well-known within Awadhi-speaking communities, but it is a poorly understood issue beyond. So, this distribution strategy aimed to reach Nepali-speaking readers who may not know about this discrimination, but could provide valuable support for reforming educational practices. Again, we launched a multimodal engagement campaign across a range of channels. Amrita appeared on a popular local radio station that reaches 20 million Nepalis across 12 districts in order to reach Nepali-speaking parents and educators across the country. The same show was broadcast on Facebook. We also partnered with local Nepali organizations to maximize the social media reach of the story.
In both examples we targeted global audiences too. International audiences are also keenly interested in high-quality and representative international journalism that sheds light on issues facing communities around the world — I wrote my 2023 Nieman prediction about the vast reservoir of untapped demand from American audiences for better international journalism. And these stories found eager global audiences. For example, we partnered with PBS NewsHour to bring the Zimbabwe gold mining story to viewers across the United States. And the education publication, The Hechinger Report, featured the Awadhi education piece, highlighting the global challenges of multilingual classrooms for their niche audience.
We tailor our distribution strategies for each story to ensure they reach the local audiences who most need the accurate information our stories provide, knowing all the while that they are difficult or impossible to monetize. Offering these stories for free to the partners who can best reach these audiences ensures we’re meeting our audience where they are, rather than proceeding with the unrealistic expectation that they will consume news online. Critics often say this strategy is unsustainable or comes with negative consequences, like brand dissolution or ceding control of a story on a partner’s channel. But these risks are well worth the benefits. There is beauty, equity, and long-term community impact opportunity in an approach to audience engagement that prioritizes readers we aren’t seeking to monetize. And in the process, we’re fostering a more collaborative and impact-oriented ecosystem for high-quality international journalism.
Laxmi Parthasarathy is chief operating officer of Global Press.