Striking a Balance Between Editorial Autonomy, Advertiser’s Influence

The influence advertisers put on media is growing by the day. Commercial broadcasters, newspapers, and magazines generate the majority of their revenue from advertisements. As this is the case, ad placers usually use their economic power to influence content production in favor of their interests. Striking a balance between the freedom and autonomy of media, on the one hand, and influence from advertisers on the other is one of the biggest challenges private press faces. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores the issue in depth.

Advertisements are the main source of revenue for private media in Ethiopia. Broadcasters, newspapers, magazines, and other media houses derive more than half of their revenue from ad placements. It is well known in the local industry that the contribution of advertisers to the finances of private media is much larger than revenue from audiences.

Capital is one of the few private newspapers currently under circulation in the country. Frehiwot Hailu, Marketing Manager at the English language weekly, says advertisers are central to the formation of private media players. “Without the revenue obtained from ad placements, there cannot be private media in Ethiopia.”

The same goes for The Reporter, a newspaper published in both Amharic and English, which generates most of its revenue from advertisers. “The role advertisers play is immense,” explains Endalkachew Yimam, Marketing Manager at Media and Communications Center, publisher of the newspaper.

True, private press in Ethiopia survives on ad revenue mainly because their income from subscription services and vending of copies is insignificant. The initial capital for currently active print media establishment ranges between ETB15,000 and 300,000, according to information obtained from the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA). Due to this low initial capital, these media organs usually start circulating with a few hundred copies, hoping to bring in ads in the ensuing months to increase circulation. The low initial budget hinders the hiring of critical manpower and the installation of a pertinent organizational structure. Some print outlets even do all activities from writing to editing and from marketing to distribution, by a single person.

Over the last decade, 132 newspaper and 337 magazine licenses have been issued. However, only eight newspapers and five magazines are currently active, according to incomplete EMA data that only recognizes periodicals which regularly archive their issues at the National Archives and Library Agency. Hence, there are publications—both existing and past—that do not make EMA’s report. On the other hand, there are 34 commercial television, 16 commercial radio, and 54 community radio stations in the country.

In terms of circulation, the top three newspapers in the nation—Reporter, Capital, and Fortune—don’t exceed 10,000 copies despite having existed for at least two decades. The Reporter newspaper’s Amharic edition published Wednesdays and Sundays leads with 8,800 copies, while the English weeklies Fortune and Capital newspapers follow with 4,500 and 3,100 copies, respectively.

As their circulation is small, private print media houses are forced to depend on revenue generated from advertisers. This opens the door for ad placers to use their economic power to influence content production in favor of their interests. This pressure seems to be growing by the day.

Samson Berhane, Editor-in-Chief of Fortune newspaper, says that in a number of print media houses, there are editors and reporters who tend to collaborate with companies to gain some benefit. “Some journalists establish informal and reward-based relationships with firms. I know print journalists who do not cover news that could expose critical issues about a company or government institution with whom they have unofficial relations with.”

Advertisers generally influence media both directly and indirectly. They interfere bluntly by controlling the images, language, narratives, and context of the ad they sponsor regardless of its true nature. Further, ad placers influence the content produced to attract consumers.

For Yohannes Anberbir, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Reporter Amharic newspaper, the biggest challenge for private media is pressure from international companies. “These corporations use media to market their products and services and also know of how to manipulate journalists to serve their interests.”

“At Reporter, we do not allow journalists to accept per diems from institutions that invite them for reporting purposes. Even when our reporters travel abroad, we cover their expenses,” explains Yohannes. “Yet, they might accept money and we cannot always control that.”

To operate in a competitive market and be profitable, private print media in Ethiopia will have to depend upon advertisers. Conversely, newspapers have to maintain their independence by offering balanced content to readers. In doing so, a sacred barrier between the newsroom and business departments is created. This can be attested by Endalkachew’s experience.

When Endalkachew recently tried to insert a particular ad in his newspaper, the editorial team reacted against his move. “The advertiser offered a good price and a yearlong agreement for the placement of the ad but the editorial team refused,” recalls Endalkachew.

This is just one of the many refusals Endalkachew has encountered from the editorial team. “They also declined to cover a graduation ceremony of a private university as they had placed an ad in the newspaper a while back. Another example is their refusal to run an advertorial on Ethio telecom’s LTE expansions, arguing it could confuse the reader as it was too similar to a news piece published earlier.”

For Yohannes, employed at The Reporter Amharic for the last ten years, maintaining editorial independence is above everything else, despite the usual pressures from the marketing department. “I see other newspapers running ads at the center of their front pages because they are desperate for finance. But for The Reporter, the front page is primarily where content is sold, not advertisements.”

Disagreements between marketing and editorial teams—common across media houses—largely emanates from the lack of written guidelines and policies that govern the fundamental principles and values of media which guides the relationship between departments and partners and maintains the balance of power between editorial and business aspects. “As far as I know, Fortune is the only private media in Ethiopia that has a written editorial policy,” says Samson. “Obviously, there are pressures from the marketing department and advertisers. However, we never compromise editorial autonomy.”

Tamirat Astatkie, General Manager of Champion Communications, publisher of Ethiopian Business Review (EBR) magazine and Addis Maleda newspaper and magazine, says that there is no undue influence on the editorial team from the management or marketing departments. “We might suggest news tips for the editors but the decision is left for the editorial team. Although big companies try to bend editorial independence, we do not permit such attempts. There is a clear line.”

However, Frehiwot says that there can be no clear line between editorial and marketing departments. “The content cannot be produced and published if there is no ad on the paper. At the same time, an ad cannot be run if there is no content on the paper.”

For Ethiopia’s private press, maintaining a delicate balance between editorial content independence and the influence of advertisers is not only a professional issue but rather a matter of survival. Compromising editorial independence and siding with certain advertisers is the underlying contributor for the perishing of many Ethiopian media houses shortly after emerging on the scene.

Terje Skjerdal, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the Norwegian NLA University College, argues financial viability is a challenge for most media operations in Ethiopia. “Since, the overall media economy is weak, changing the finance model will be one of the most important tasks for media—both public and private—in the next decade,” Skjerdal stresses. “Any outlet should depend on a viable audience base to be able to sustain itself financially.”

Tamirat agrees with Skjerdal by saying that independent media cannot grow while its survival depends upon few advertisers and partners. “Even the long-serving private media houses could not substantially increase circulation over their decades of existence and become vibrant enough because they depend too much on advertisers,” he argues. “Ad revenue should be just one component of a diversified revenue platform.”

The dark side of depending too heavily on advertisers was revealed when Covid struck last year. The pandemic challenged the survival of the leading media establishments, even.
“Due to Covid-19, the revenue of private media houses, including ours, declined drastically because advertisers were less interested in advertising,” explains Endalkachew. The Reporter used to generate up to ETB16 million in annual gross profit before the outbreak of the pandemic.

According to Tamirat, commercial advertisers, including banks, hotels, and importers, are shying away as Covid-19 affects business and the global economy at large. “Many long-term advertisers refused to renew their contracts after the outbreak,” he reveals. “As a result, many media organizations, including us, are surviving on the financial assistance of institutional funders and media-related foundations.”EBR

9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100

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