Sustainable Business Models in Journalism 2.0

Clare Cook
4 min readFeb 4, 2021

It is fast approaching ten years since we authored the SuBMoJour database and we are actively seeking funding to carry out a longitudinal review of the cases we presented — and an update of what business models in the long tail look like

Storytelling and service oriented business models on the net: reimagined

The report is still available to download. Our international research project, Sustainable Business Models for Journalism (, built case studies of 69 startups in 10 countries and found only a handful startups where charging for content was a significant part of their business model. How things have changed. What is urgently needed is a review of the extent of this shift. What % of revenues are now made up from direct pay models?

So if it’s not paywalls, how are the world’s journalistic startups making money online? Our research project looked for answers from three continents. We found that revenue sources differed quite remarkably from country to country — an indication that there are lessons to be learned across boundaries. How has this pace of change differed in countries? How have governments helped or hindered the progress of independents in the long tail? What degree of diversification is optimum.

Our definitions were somewhat crude as this was one of the first exploratory studies of its kind. Since then, academics have plunged into much more detailed knowledge of business models and sustainability. Where does that leave us? What can we learn from more nuanced understanding of for profit and non profit models? Business model innovations and ingredients for success?

Both the U.K. and the U.S. had seen a considerable boom in community or ‘hyperlocal’ journalism. Openly Local lists and links to more than 500 of hyperlocal blogs and websites in the U.K. and Ireland, and J-Lab has listed over 1,200 American community news sites in its Community Media Directory. The new group LION aims to be a organizing force for U.S. hyperlocal online publishers. How has the hyperlocal sector in particular managed to survive — or thrive — in this digital and audience centric world. What can corporate media learn from their ecosystemic approach to survival?

Then there is the question of storytelling and service oriented models. It was a first in 2012 to categorise the long tail into two groups. But as my diagram suggests, having tracked the sector for more than ten years, I see other groupings of sustainable models. Can these be empirically modelled? What other groupings have emerged?

  • The network model All about distribution, sharing, speed and virality — content is produced in volume or the process for doing so is reproduced at scale. Digital advertising, programmatic ads, classified ads or directory listings, referral, affiliate, SEO optimisers
  • The member led Likely to have a strong content niche and high engagement with motivated or participating audiences typically hyperlocal or investigate or data journalism. Membership model, crowdfunding, micropayments pay as you go, pay what you want, print ads, classified, directory listings
  • The civic lab Learning from doing to reimagine journalism for social and civic good within a broader role in public good. Membership model, crowdfunding, innovation and project grants, training, industry knowledge sharing, speaking
  • The keystone species Understands themselves as a keystone in a business ecosystem so carves out core competencies based on who is dependent on them, who they can collaborate with — uses journalism to bridge public and private. Packages around Facebook live, data and analytics, hosting events as a communication solution for companies
  • The creative agency Strong emphasis on blurring the editorial and business boundary with plenty of flair for social media, multimedia formats with inhouse competencies in these fields. Native advertising, branding and marketing solutions, multimedia services and some training
  • The product model Emphasis on making new products and technology with much in house expertise around UX and code. Often strong entrepreneurial spirit and founder with a flare for startup culture/investing. White labelling or SAAS

The longitudinal perspective is rare. And urgently needed. Then, we saw a kind of development can be found in Italy, where journalists have founded digital news agencies. The Italian-founded company China Files operated in Beijing, offering in-depth multimedia coverage of China-related news for around 30 Italian and Spanish media outlets. Effecinque focused its content on media, innovation, and the Internet and serves as a subcontractor for large Italian newspapers and outlets seeking innovative news reporting and visualization products. As the company’s slogan, “Refreshing Journalism”, and its name (it means F5, the refresh key) imply, Effecinque also developed new web-native ways of digital storytelling.

The Irish company Storyful described itself as the “first news agency of the social media age,” employing more than 20 journalists who discover and verify newsworthy content (like videos from Syria) from the social web and deliver the vetted material to clients, mostly in traditional media. Storyful’s clients have included YouTube, Google, The New York Times, France24, Channel 4, ABC Australia, and The Economist. Let’s look at where it is now.

The CEO of the U.K.-based Demotix, Turi Munthe, described his company as “the citizen journalism AP.” Munthe says Demotix has around 5,500 paid contributors around the world. Demotix sells their photographs, videos, and stories to mainstream media, notably The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Wall Street Journal. The revenue from sales is split 50/50 with the contributors. “We’ve completely ignored the U.S. and are really focused on places like Iran and lots of African countries,” Munthe said. “Our understanding is that AP doesn’t have a staff reporter in 40 percent of the world’s countries, whereas Demotix is in almost every country.” (In November, Demotix was acquired by its main investor, Corbis.) Of so many of these case studies: where are they now?

If you can help fund this research please reach out to me.



Clare Cook

Niche revenue models for independent media. Business. Resilience. Diversification. Innovation. @cecook