IGF 2022 Session: Unbreaking the news: Media sustainability in the digital age

DC-Sustainability Session Key Takeaways, Report and Recording (IGF 2022)

Key Takeaways

The digital sphere offers many new opportunities for digital media, however, issues such as monetisation of content, access to data or platform’s content and account moderation policies are threatening the sustainability of the information ecosystem. These issues are exacerbated in those regions where English is not the main language of communication as well as those in which the exchange rates weaken the value of their local currency.

Governments and tech platforms need to take into account the challenges faced by journalists and media in the “Global South” when devising digital regulation. Greater transparency on data collection, content/account moderation, and revenue and monetisation of content are essential to understand the scope of the problem, devise creative solutions and empower a viable and sustainable journalism sector in a constantly evolving digital ecosystem.



The nexus between long-term news sustainability and internet governance is undeniable and more important than ever. How are Internet policies affecting the ability of news organizations and journalists to sustain public interest journalism in the post-pandemic world? What can we expect from proposals to tax technology platforms to fund news media? How does the online advertising business model affect both Internet governance and digital journalism?

The session “Unbreaking the news: Media sustainability in the digital age” approached these questions and identified some of the challenges for the sustainability of journalism and media online, both looking at the trends and practices of digital media natives, regulatory frameworks and their potential impacts outside the borders they were conceived and the influence (and effects) of platforms’ internal policies on the sustainability of the media around the world.

Sustainability of independent digital native media organizations

SembraMedia’s report, Inflection Point International was launched in 2021 with the goal to give better understanding of challenges and opportunities faced by digital media. Mijal Iastrebner, co-founder and Executive Director of SembraMedia affirmed that “diversification of revenue is key to sustainability especially for digital business models” since they are built in an ecosystem where the rules and users’ behavior change really fast. It is also essential for the media to have a strong strategy and a strong mission that can be carried from one platform to the other. This mission needs to be also connected to a social purpose, as Iastrebner warned: “reach can be momentary, impact is everlasting. Working around your community needs and challenges is and will always be the most effective development plan for media

Startups, especially in the Majority World or so-called “Global South” are usually the ones focusing on public interest journalism, reporting on minority or marginalized communities. Their social purpose is, in fact, especially relevant considering the impact these digital natives have as key actors in countering mis- and disinformation and improving their communities’ access to trusted and quality information. Essential to the sustainability of these journalists and digital media organizations is the regulatory framework or policies that need to be designed for them to grow and thrive in the digital information ecosystem.

Rebalancing the digital ecosystem: Regulatory Frameworks and their impact beyond borders

News organizations are dependent on platforms to reach their audiences and monetise their content which, especially for digital natives, is essential to ensure their existence and economic sustainability.

In her study “Making Big Tech Pay for the News They Use” Dr Courtney Radsch, journalist and scholar at UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy, and co-coordinator of the DC-Sustainability, explores three policy interventions to rebalance the relationship between digital platforms and media: taxation, competition policy and intellectual property interventions. Examples presented were the Australian News Media Bargaining Code which gave news media the right to bargain and license their content to tech platforms or EU’s Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, which provides ancillary rights and frameworks for news outlets to negotiate with platforms at an individual or collective level.

The ethical dimensions of the money and how news organizations around the world would use it was a topic that also emerged among the participants. While some were wary of taking money derived from platforms and their collection and commodification of personal data, Anya Schifrin, director of the Technology, Media, and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, argued that all money comes with risks. While doing research for the report “Saving Journalism”, Schiffrin noticed that journalists in some regions were wary of accepting revenues that came from their governments. Iastrebner explained that in 2021 the leading source of revenue for digital native media continues to be grant funding, followed closely by ad revenue. While grant money abruptly leaving the sector is likely to have a negative impact on the media sector, Iastrebner affirmed that the problem is not being over-depending on grants, but over-depending on just one revenue source.

Advertising, government and even private foundations money can all pose ethical questions and compromise the independence of the outlets if safeguards are not put in place. But when it comes to tech companies, the reality is that many of them are trying to minimize their tax burden, when not avoiding it entirely.

On the other hand, small, alternative non-English speaking news outlets in the Global South are particularly struggling in the platform era because of constraints in a playing field created by dominant platforms in the Global North. Since governments in many countries around the world might not have the capacity to influence or rebalance this playing field, political powers with that capacity, like the US or the EU, should think outside their boundaries when developing meaningful policy to govern tech platforms. And, in any case, as Schiffrin mentioned, policies can help quality information and journalism no matter the situation of the country, as long as the regional context is taken into account.

The missing pieces

In order to empower journalists, media organizations and other public interest content creators worldwide, participants were nearly unanimous: transparency is essential. The question of what kind of transparency and the lack of it in the digital advertising, publishing and content moderation domains were quite important in the panel discussion, especially transparency regarding algorithms, advertising, revenue and content moderation. Relatedly, the question of how “transparency mandates” could address the lack of transparency arose, particularly since the Digital Services Act in the EU addressed some aspects, but focused primarily on content moderation. The Australian approach, as illustrated by Dr Radsch, included an “algorithmic transparency” requirement for tech platforms to share advance notice with news organizations which is a critical development since major policy shifts have an outsized impact on news media sustainability. There is also a lack of transparency by media organizations and tech companies involving licensing deals.

Transparency is crucial to know how to rebalance the digital advertising system. Google and Facebook control 90% of the ads market and own the complicated infrastructure. This raises the question of “antitrust” laws and how to give news organizations the possibility to earn from the ads going to the platforms. In Europe the has been on copyright policy and what the critics have called the so called “link tax”, which would give news organizations some of the income from platforms ads. Tech platforms’ advertising policy also creates challenges for journalists and other content creators. An example of that was the case of sex education content being rejected because it was flagged as pornographic content, as raised by one participant. Others were simply asking for basic data: data that media outlets could use to try to understand and connect with their audiences, develop feedback loops and monetize that relationship, which is also essential for the media business sustainability.

Content and account moderation issues were also raised, especially regarding its inconsistency, particularly for content in low resourced digital languages, which impacts the ability of media organizations to serve their audiences and by extension, the public good. Issues regarding the transparency of advertising, algorithms, content and account moderation practices, highlight the outsized influence that tech companies and their internal policies have on the sustainability of news media, as noted in the discussion.


The digital space offers many new opportunities for alternative and digital media, however, to fully achieve the Internet's potential as a channel to disseminate public interest information, facilitate public service and community journalism, and enable community building, the impacts of technology policies and practices on journalists and media organizations needs to be centered in more internet governance and data governance discussions. The lack of consistent policies by both tech companies and governments and the lack of channels to effectively address issues such as content monetisation, access to data or platform’s content and account moderation policies are threatening the sustainability of the information ecosystems worldwide, with an outsized impact in non-English, or smaller “markets” worldwide. Creators of public interest content often lack the capacity to bargain for the appropriate remuneration of their products or to address unjustified content moderation decisions that lead to account suspensions and content takedowns of legitimate public interest information.

Participants highlighted the importance of building networks, communities to exchange information, knowledge and data, bring support and do joint advocacy. As one of the participants stressed, “network building is essential for the sustainability of media organizations: a global network is a place to share experiences and skills.” Networks have power: going back to the example of sexual education content, a big campaign succeeded in pressuring the tech company to update its advertising policy. Moreover, these types of communities are specially relevant to think globally, and go beyond boundaries: when connecting experiences from people in different places, more data is collected and stronger arguments are put together. And the more stakeholders involved in these communities, more lines of communication are opened to identify opportunities to collaborate, understand the issues and try to create remedies. The DC-Sustainability was created with this purpose:

When we started [this Dynamic Coalition] it was difficult to convince people why a Dynamic Coalition on journalism and news media sustainability belonged at the Internet Governance Forum and trying to explain why Internet Governance fundamentally shapes the sustainability of news. [...] We've always realized that the way we govern these platforms and the Internet more broadly has a fundamental impact on news and journalism, which is a public good. And which is fundamental to democratic governance and to accountable governance.” Courtney Radsch, co-coordinator of the DC-Sustainability.

As Radsch stressed: humanity needs reporting, it needs the accountability that independent media bring. The digital age has shown that information barely has boundaries, and while policy making needs to take into account regional particularities and needs, a fragmented approach would weaken the goal to ensure a sustainable information ecosystem worldwide.


Radsch, C. (July, 2022) Making Big Tech Pay for the News They Use. Washington DC: Center for International Media Assistance. Available at: https://www.cima.ned.org/publication/making-big-tech-pay-for-the-news-they-use/

SembraMedia, (November, 2021). Inflection Point International: A study of the impact, innovation, threats, and sustainability of digital media entrepreneurs in Latin America, Southeast Asia,and Africa. Available at: https://data2021.sembramedia.org/reportes/executive-summary/

Shiffrin, A.; Clifford H., Adjin-Tettey, T. D. (January, 2022) Saving Journalism 2: Global Strategies and a Look at Investigative Journalism. Washington, DC: Konrad Adenauer Stiftng Foundation. Available at: https://www.kas.de/documents/283221/283270/Saving+Journalism+2+-+Global+Strategies+and+a+Look+at+Investigative+Journalism.pdf/a8ec2655-5636-8d69-00e5-e698e76c3845?version=1.1&t=1643317826159

Shiffrin, A. (August, 2022) Australia’s news media bargaining code pries $140 million from Google and Facebook. Poynter. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/business-work/2022/australias-news-media-bargaining-code-pries-140-million-from-google-and-facebook

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