A business environment that is averse to advertising, a clientele that frustrates media organizations through delays in paying bills, and a banking sector that is not in a hurry to give credit facilities to media organizations leave donors as the only option to provide capital assets to protect the editorial independence of Liberian media houses.
That was Prof. Wilson K. Tarpeh’s argument to USAID and INTERNEWS yesterday at a one-day seminar on media market forum (the second USAID program through INTERNEWS) with 67 Liberian media representatives and others in Monrovia.
Speaking on the topic ‘The Media’s Financial Sustainability and Business Growth in Liberia,’ Prof. Tarpeh, the owner of THE NEWS newspaper, said the independent media, like any other business enterprise in a free market economy, requires adequate funding and associated support to become and remain viable.
He defined media sustainability as “the media’s capacity to operate effectively under sound political, legal and economic conditions and in such a sustained environment, journalists operate without interference or fear of violence, censorship, and media organizations enjoy stable legal and business conditions that pay decent salaries, discourage media corruption, and promote sector-wide integrity.”
Prof. Tarpeh said there is a tendency to equate sustainability with financial sustainability or financial self-sustainability, which is understood as freedom from dependency on a particular donor or on donors in general.
“At its most basic level, financial sustainability is defined in terms of income and expenditure. If your income minus your expenditure equals zero or slightly more than zero, you are financially sustainable, to the extent that you can maintain this balance,” Tarpeh, who once served as Liberia’s former Finance Minister, said.
Using THE NEWS newspaper as a case study, Prof. Tarpeh said a recent survey of the newspaper’s aggregate revenues amounted to L$115.2m (U$1.2m) with advertisement revenues making up 80 percent, or L$92.2m (U$960,000).
“We found out that 35 percent of the income came from international organizations, 40 percent from government ministries and agencies, 25 percent from the business community and a tiny 10 percent from an assortment of personal related sources,” he explained.
The result is contrary to the average media income sources in the West African sub-region and identified the culprit as three fundamental areas. Quoting the Liberia Business Registry (LBR), Prof. Tarpeh said at least 90 percent of registered businesses in the country are owned by Liberians, while the remaining 10 percent is foreign owned and managed.
He said, however, that the Liberian owned and managed businesses account for a mere 12 percent of the total market share of the economy and non-Liberian owned businesses control a massive 88 percent of the economy, the first culprit. “The non-Liberian owned business sector does not advertise and when it desires to do, it assumes a dominant position in the negotiation and lowers the cost of advertising,” Prof. Tarpeh said.
Another negative factor or culprit is what he described as a troubled economy as a result of declining revenues in the public sector and its resultant hardship on the general population, along with the recent outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease.
The third factor is the unusual delays by the Liberian government in paying invoices for services rendered. “Generally, these billings are supposed to be paid within a reasonable time but the government subjects the media to undue delays that border on unintentional financial strangulation,” he said.
With all these prevailing stumbling blocks, Prof. Tarpeh said there should be a way forward, and applauded USAID, INTERNEWS and others for their support to ensure trained staff for media institutions (USAID funded projects involving INTERVEWS) and appealed for tangible investments for capital assets and the provision of reasonable working capital to assist media owners in meeting their operational needs.
“These interventions must also go to the community radio sector, the primary source of news and information in rural Liberia, and also to ensure that radio stations are financially independent to maintain their editorial independence, free of interference by political parties and other groups,” Prof. Tarpeh said.
The one-day seminar also discussed the topic: ‘How can the Media and Business Communities in Liberia Maximize on the Media Market Forum?’ The forum provided media representatives and other stakeholders ways to better understand media audiences and market trends and how to put the information to good use in the relevant social, cultural, economic and political media environments.
The first forum was held on July 12 this year.