Media executives in Belarus championing independent and web-indigenous journalism are faced with added challenges to the online revenue model. Not only do they need to combat squeezed ad revenues from dominant social media platforms but they exist in a weakened political economic market. From my work with 16 media in the country*, here are a few of the contextual issues being tackled — and some experimental solutions.
Russia’s increasingly assertive, or even aggressive, behaviours such as the disregard for international law, the continuation of coercive passportization, and other repressions against residents of the temporarily occupied Crimea, meddling in Ukraine, intervening in Syria and even more recently in the Central African Republic suggest a deliberate undermining of liberal values at a time of global retreat by powers such as the United States.
Happening especially in countries such as Russia and Mexico, where there are linkages between organised crime and the state, tactics are designed to keep journalists in line include surveillance and censorship as well as what authors such as Curran describes as escalating ‘informal’ intimidation — threatening phone calls, online warnings, car break-ins, arson attacks and personal assaults. Increasingly journalists are killed, usually with impunity, threatened and surveilled putting not only themselves but also their sources in danger. The goals are to intimidate, to censor and to ensure journalists self-censor. The government responds through heavy-handed regulation. The state’s backbone monopoly means that independent media can be shut down overnight, which undermines their long-term sustainability. A more recent challenge is the increasing threat of Russian disinformation and propaganda.
The penetration and commercialisation of global platforms allows Belarusian independent media to distribute their content more effectively but limits their financial viability. As a result, Belarusian independent media must innovate even more quickly to keep up with technological progress and the ever-changing consumption habits. They have to find resilience with small budgets and teams, a lack of bespoke technical support.
The Yandex ad placing system dominates the classified market as Google as does in the West for place paid search ads and display banners on desktop and mobile
Grants especially from foreign donors are illegal in Belarus, unless they are registered in the special state committee.
Belarus’ authoritarian government has repressed and marginalised the traditional media, therefore the independent press was among the first in the region to take full advantage of the Internet. Belarusian independent media are less isolated then a few years ago. They are now part of the global media environment, which presents both opportunities and challenges. Despite a repressive government, they are able to survive, thrive, and reach a majority of the population.
Media helping media: First movers in the landscape such as CityDog.by also share their expertise and “know-how” with other media outlets in Belarus and the post-Soviet space, especially since it is regularly ranked as one of the region’s most engaging publications. The magazine stays close to its audience; this was done initially through organizing offline events, such as film festivals, but now has evolved to working as partners with other NGOs and companies organizing events.
Creating content that is free and high-quality, relevant, and therefore
valuable and appreciated by audiences, resulting in a high degree of loyalty and trust. Many are experimenting with interactive formats, keeping audiences on the website longer and keeping them coming back.
Exploring how readers can be used to support media through direct payments, using decision making tools. Direct payments is a new thing in Belarus. It must be adapted to both legal requirements (which are contextually quite rigid ) and possible integration with the administration panel of sites. Several are exploring membership models, crowdfunding and pay what you want models.
Krama ad platform was created in 2019 through which users can place private and business classified ads in any online and/or print media, which have joined the platform as partners. Initially, the platform was designed as an additional monetization stream for regional media that are members of the Association of Regional Publishers. Currently the platform has three partners: two regional media outlets and one national online outlet. Every media outlet sets its own prices, which can vary for different types of classified ads (i.e. real estate, automobiles, clothes, etc.). Partners can also decide which ads are free of charge and which are paid. This is a bespoke classified ads platform, developed by and for independent media, especially regional and local. If it is able to attract more media partners and gain popularity with users, it might become an important alternative to Russian-based Yandex ad system, on which many Belarusian online media are dangerously dependent.
*Funded by IREX