From Value to Revenue: lighting the path to sustainability for independent media

A light is illuminating Europe – the light of independent media. In the last decade new forms of public interest media organisations have flickered into existence across Europe, beginning to fill the darkness left by the retreat of legacy media. But outside of their devoted audiences, they often lack recognition for the value their journalism provides – to their communities, and democracies – and also lack sustainable funding. Without more understanding and support, this kindling future of journalism risks being blown out.

This is why we are embarking on a major new project to address these challenges. Through Monetising Value, we aim to support European public-interest media to become financially sustainable through better monetising the value they provide to society. And through nurturing a network of resilient independent media organisations, we aim to transform the political and economic consensus on journalism’s social value, in the light of this new constellation.

What will we do?

The project will involve three key strands:

  1. Research and analysis of the context and opportunities for European independent media;
  2. Facilitating peer-to-peer collaboration between the 26 members of Reference – the European Independent Media Circle, on concrete business challenges;
  3. Changing the conversation on the agreed social value of public interest journalism.

The consortium carrying out this project consists of four Reference members (Arena for Journalism in Europe, the project coordinator – which is currently incubating ReferenceFumaça, Átlátszó Erdély and Investigate Europe) and the journalistic research organisation Netzwerk Recherche. The project will be delivered over the next two years, and is made possible through a grant award of nearly €520.000 from the European Commission as part of the call on Journalism partnerships. You can read more about the project details here.

Why now?

We believe it is an ideal moment to deliver this project. The independent public-interest media sector is relatively new in Europe – with the oldest outlets being around for little over 10 years old – and currently in the phase of maturation and consolidation. Start-ups have become scale-ups, and business models are being put to the test. This is the moment where the sector needs to prove that it is viable and resilient, and can consolidate its relevance in the larger journalism landscape.

Why us?

We believe we are uniquely positioned to deliver this unique opportunity. Reference, currently being incubated by Arena, is a self-organised network bringing together a diverse range of 26 public-interest media organisations from across Europe. Existing since 2021, we provide a supportive space for the managing directors of these organisations to come together to support and learn from each other with their key business and operational challenges.

Reference members are defined by their commitment to serving the public interest with high-quality journalism, produced in close interaction with their audiences, with social inclusion, democracy and radical transparency as key values in many of their organisations. They represent a cross-section of the new sector of public interest independent media from across Europe, with a diverse range of organisation sizes and business models.

What next?

By focussing on sector-wide exchange and fostering a network, we aim to create beacons lighting the way for systemic change across the sector. And with a deeper understanding and stronger evidence of successful business models and powerful value indicators in hand, we will share relentlessly to support the wider European independent media sector, aiming to kindle a new era of resilient, thriving public interest media in Europe.

Good journalism has value. But how to appreciate it properly, and how to make it sustainable? With this project we hope to gain important insights and develop practical approaches to this eternal challenge.

This group of partners brings together a strong mix of innovative journalism practice combined with insights into the struggles and the strengths of getting support for public interest journalism. The practice oriented approach in this team promises the development of workable models.  
Brigitte Alfter
Founder and editorial director, Arena for Journalism in Europe
Investigate, experiment, iterate and communicate – these four fundamental elements come together in the Monetising Value project in synergy.

Not only will we look at the current financial make-up of the independent media sector, we’ll also strategise as to what are the most sustainable solutions in various country contexts. In crossborder bilateral exchanges we will put these solutions to the test and document our findings so we can also inform the wider sector.

I strongly believe that this powerful cocktail of approaches, combined with the multidisciplinary skill set of the consortium will be instrumental in advancing the professionalism and sustainability in our sector.
Maike Olij
Coordinator of Reference, the European Independent Media Circle
When we co-founded Fumaça, we had no idea what we were doing. None of us had ever created a journalism project, and none of us were even journalists back then. So, for the past seven years, our road to sustainability has been one of trial and error, learning by doing. It has been working for us so far, but to create a healthy environment for independent journalism in Europe and around the globe, that’s not enough. We need to share the accumulated knowledge that is present in our newsrooms with the ones coming next.

Monetising Value comes from that will to share what dozens of public interest media newsrooms have been learning that works and doesn’t work for them, mapping the techniques and strategies they use for their sustainability, in the hopes that by doing so, others can learn from them, and we can all learn from each other.
Ricardo Esteves Ribeiro
Journalist and Co-Founder, Fumaça
Investigate Europe (IE) started in 2016 as a pilot project led by a group of European journalists who came together to try something unheard of – a journalistic collaboration that runs across borders, national discourses, and the rapid news cycle of legacy media. Today, IE is registered in Berlin as a European Cooperative Society with a recognized charitable status and owned by its team working on collaborative public interest cross-border journalism.

We joined the consortium behind the Monetising Value project because we believe that journalism is and should be public interest based. We see value in providing citizens with verified information, insights and opinions from a multi-angled perspective and in diverse types of formats. We are therefore excited to work along other partners who share our vision but have a different experience, approach and know-how, to demonstrate the value of such journalism and explore how to best monetise it to help sustain the ecosystem of public interest media in Europe.
Peter Matjašič
Executive Director, Investigate Europe
With this outstanding team, we want to learn more about how to put investigative journalism on a solid financial basis. The knowledge that we collect in our research should help journalists across Europe to lead a media start-up to success.
Thomas Schnedler
Head of Grow Greenhouse, Netzwerk Recherche’s Center for Nonprofit Journalism
Átlátszó Erdély is a small investigative journalism outlet covering local stories in the Hungarian community living in Romania. As we are doing in-depth, public interest journalism in a “news desert”, we are forced to explore alternative ways towards financial sustainability and audience engagement.

This project enables us to learn from the real-life practices and experiences of the members of the Reference network. Our hope is that the mutual exchange facilitated by this project will be beneficial for the financial sustainability of the new European independent public-interest journalism sector as well.
Zoltán Sipos
editor-in-chief/manager, Átlátszó Erdély

You can read more about the project here and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date.


The project Monetising Value is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Voices of independent media from the 2023 International Journalism Festival

A few weeks ago, members of Reference went to speak, listen, learn and be inspired at the 17th International Journalism Festival in Perugia. Here we’ve collected some reflections on our experience, what we learned this year, and what we hope for next year’s festival.


Networking & inspiration

“If there is a paradise for journalists, it might look very much like this” – Jabuk Patočka

There’s no doubt that members felt Perugia was worth going to. It’s a place to find like-minded people, make new discoveries of organisations, projects, approaches and perspectives, as well as to catch up with colleagues and friends, and meet with funders and industry bodies.

People left with a better understanding of the currents and debates in the international journalism ecosystem, and inspiration from pioneering and brave work being done.

It was my first time attending the #ijf and the general feeling I had was a mix of excitement and feeling overwhelmed. It is a great place to network and catch-up with peers from the broader ecosystem of journalism and media on a global scale. Furthermore, it offers a platform to media outlets and organizations to present their work and foster collaborations.

However, most of this actually needs to happen in advance – either to ensure you send it a great pitch for a panel to allow you to travel to Perugia and mitigate the costs of accommodation and subsistence for your team or to arrange meetings with potential/existing funders.
Peter Matjašič
Executive Director, Investigate Europe
This is like my home-festival, I have attended it for over 10 years now, so I do feel that it is part of my working and networking experience.

This has been by far the most international edition, with tons of new names and faces and voices taking part in the conversations. I think this shows that the Festival is in great shape in reflecting what are the current challenges and also key topics, issues, and opportunities in journalism globally and as well as more locally.
Elisabetta Tola
It was my first time in Perugia and I was amazed by the quality of the event, beauty of the place, the density of like-minded friends per square acre. If there is a paradise for journalists, it might look very much like this.

I have seen many fantastic panels, but the one that stands out for me was the all-female panel on remote killing: what a fantastic line-up; what a manifestation of humble care for the sources — whistleblowers from the inside of the security-industrial complex; what a display of a sheer and unassuming bravery.
Jakub Patočka
Editor-in Chief, Denik Referendum
This was my second time in Perugia for the International Journalism Festival. Much like last time, I came home very inspired by the work and progress a lot of my colleagues around the world are doing.

It is absolutely wonderful to hear how journalism is being reinvented in so many ways: in membership models or crowdfunding, in podcast production, in involving audiences to produce journalism, in investing in investigative journalism, in pushing the boundaries in fact-checking practices, in using newsletters to drive conversions, in using chat platforms to engage with communities.
Ricardo Esteves Ribeiro
Journalist and Co-Founder, Fumaça

Independent media has arrived

“The happy takeover of the independent media” – Catarina Carvalho

This year there was a good presence of growing and maturing independent media projects, not least from the dozen Reference members there. Members took part in six panels or workshops, including a panel exploring how to monetise the value of independent journalism led by four members of Reference. This all provided opportunities for constructive conversations and exchanges that are crucial to developing this thriving community of independent media.

The panel we organised with Reference members Arena, Investigate Europe, Divergente and Follow the Money was definitely a highlight. It was a constructive conversation with the panel and the audience to look at the challenges and opportunities of monetising the value of our sector.

Seeing other Reference members take part in panels, running into one another in the street and seeing our community thrive, that is really a wonderful thing to see. Seeing how we can lift and support one another is another ‘proof of concept’ of what the Reference Network can be and I am so glad Arena has been able to incubate this network until it’s ready to spin off.
Sanne Schim van der Loeff
Managing Director, Arena for Journalism
One of the highlights was definitely the exchange with all the Reference members – on the one hand just to meet up and enjoy a moment of get-together but on the other hand definitely because it allowed me to have first bilateral exchanges with some members of the group and to identify first topics that are of common interest for our media projects, such as how to manage the division of roles and tasks within a twofold directorate/management or how to make use of the board members of our initiatives as well as first funding-questions.
Johanna Weidtmann
Head of Office, REFLEKT
The happy takeover of the independent media. Let me explain this: for years, big and medium sized media sectors were totally wrecked but there was no solution in sight. It almost seemed journalism would be doomed. This year at Perugia we watched the growing of the independent, small, “start-uppy” sector, with a lot of ideas popping up, but most of all with a very good sense of what we are all doing here, serving the audiences.
Catarina Carvalho
Founder and editor, A Mensagem
Photo of Reference members at #IJF23
Photo of Reference members at #IJF23

Much needed perspectives

“There were some very honest, alas at times uneasy discussions” – Elisabetta Tola

There were some striking panels and topics, from conversations on the lack of working class journalists, to decolonisation, and the shifting focus to the centring communities and the role of journalism in society. There’s a sense that perspectives are beginning to shift and conversations moving forward on important issues.

I was truly blown-away by the experience shared by Juan Camilo Maldonado, from Mutante project in Colombia, in “Young people and the news: where is the disconnect and how can we fix it?”, who walked us through his vision on how journalism is not only an end in itself but a tool to leverage social discussion.

Personally, we share the same vision at DIVERGENTE and it was inspiring listening to a project that assumes that posture; that doesn’t mean that journalists become activists or that the journalistic work becomes tainted by bias or taking ideological political stands.
Diogo Cardoso
Co-founder and Reporter, DIVERGENTE
The audiences, communities, whatever you call them, those we are here for. There used to be a kind of an alienation in the journalistic bubble. What I see every year is that people are more humble and more aware that this is a transactional business and if it plays a part in society and democracy it’s because people need it. I love to see panels on “the missing working class journalist”, global south, minorities, younger people and so on.
A lot of different storytelling ideas and ways of engaging audiences like solutions journalism (or constructive) give different perspectives on things we all took too much for granted.
Catarina Carvalho
Founder and editor, A Mensagem
I have particularly liked the sessions that discussed new systemic approaches to overcoming inequalities and discrimination. I liked that discussing over decolonization, there was not the mere idea of face-lifting the media environment and maybe out a few more quotas just to seem correct, but there were some very honest, alas at times uneasy discussions, over what it would take to truly and honestly decolonize not only journalism but the overall cultural and social environment
Elisabetta Tola
I would like to highlight two panels — “What donors need to hear from Global South” and “Media as an extractive practice: tackling the Western media’s effect on Global South journalism”— because I think there is a lot to learn from them to understand internal relations between different countries also in Europe. Those panels give us tools to be critical about the internal colonialism we also experience in Europe.
Sofia da Palma Rodrigues
Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, DIVERGENTE

Next year

Practical conversations about funding

“There is an evident need for independent and reliable journalism, but it is equally evident that support and funding are not sufficient” – Elisabetta Tola

Looking ahead to next year’s Festival, one of the big hopes is for more conversations about funding, both on the practical side of what’s available and how to access it, and also the bigger picture of there not being enough funding available, and how philanthropy and funding needs to adapt.

Like last time, I came home quite frustrated. When I look at the current opportunities for core funding to independent journalism in Southern Europe, I see a desert. As the main foundations supporting journalism have been divesting from Europe (especially Western Europe, where, ironically, Portugal is placed) to being focused on supporting more underprivileged regions instead, Southern European journalism projects, regardless of their own path towards self-sustainability, see themselves in a fundraising limbo.

They are not rich enough to have philanthropy at a national level; they are not poor enough to be considered an underprivileged region. And that hasn’t changed at all from 2022 to 2023. I hope next year we see a shift in this strategy. Otherwise, there’s a real threat that we’ll start seeing a decline in public interest media, and we can’t afford to let it happen.
Ricardo Esteves Ribeiro
Journalist and Co-Founder, Fumaça
In general, I think – given the rapidly accelerating deterioration of democracy, global ecosystems, social cohesion, international peace – I would like to see even more urgency and focus on those chosen subjects. This multiple crisis after all is reflected in the crisis of our own profession.

That is why I would also like to see more debate on what reforms should be made to really reverse the terrible overall situation of journalism after the collapse of the so-called traditional business model. It is quite obvious that the solution will have to come from public money, and I would like to see the journalism community discuss how this can be achieved as quickly and robustly as possible while avoiding the dangers that are quite obvious when we move in this unavoidable direction.
Jakub Patočka
Editor-in Chief, Denik Referendum
There is an evident need for independent and reliable journalism, but it is equally evident that support and funding are not sufficient, and I keep finding the issue of competing for funders a real challenge for us. I would love to see a common effort to find ways to access structural and longer-term funding for our organisations.
Elisabetta Tola
I hope to see even more interactions between organisations and funders next year. The session ‘Funding with Purpose’ was a really good concept, and I think having conversations where we can learn from one another is what will help this sector thrive in a challenging environment.
Sanne Schim van der Loeff
Managing Director, Arena for Journalism

Independent media continuing to share challenges and successes

“It would be great to see more such discussions on how to manage and further develop small, independent media projects” – Johanna Weidtmann

There’s big opportunities to build on the success of independent media coming together at Perugia this year. In particular, having more organisations meet and discuss, opportunities to be vulnerable in sharing where mistakes could be learnt from, speaking up about the needs of our sector, and focusing on exploring the specific challenges we face.

Next year, I really would like to see a panel about the specific challenges and issues southern European independent media outlets are facing, listen to journalists from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, because, as I stressed before, we have very specific environment that should be analyzed carefully in its specificity
Sofia da Palma Rodrigues
Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, DIVERGENTE
It would be great to see more such discussions on how to manage and further develop small, independent media projects – apart from the funding-questions, which are of course very important as well and which were already well covered this year.
Johanna Weidtmann
Head of Office, REFLEKT
IJF should keep doing what it’s doing and the members of the Reference Network should too: continue to speak out, speak up about the opportunities and needs of the European independent media sector. Hopefully there will be even more of us on the stage next year, representing our organisations and networks.
Sanne Schim van der Loeff
Managing Director, Arena for Journalism
I believe there is a lot that we could learn from mistakes. What did we do wrong, failed enterprises, things that have gone wrong. We could also do this inside Reference.
Catarina Carvalho
Founder and editor, A Mensagem

Speaking up about Julian Assange

“I feel disappointed that Julian Assange was missing from the programme” – Nikolas Leontopoulos

For some there was a notable lack of discussion of Julian Assange from the programme, and a sense that more needs to be done to highlight his case.

I feel disappointed that Julian Assange was missing from the programme. (I was told that there were sessions last year but I think this is not a reason not to debate or highlight his case this year.)

It felt extremely awkward that activists were giving out pamphlets about Assange outside the venues, pamphlets which were exactly criticizing the absence of the issue from the programme. Normally, it should have been us journalists being critical!
Nikolas Leontopoulos
Co-founder, Reporters United
At the end of the panel of the remote killing Tatiana Bazzichelli mentioned she missed a panel on the situation of Julian Assange and what the journalist community can do more to get him out of jail. I think I would like to see this as well, but even more I would like to see Julian walking down the streets in Perugia with Stella in person.
Jakub Patočka
Editor-in Chief, Denik Referendum

More proactive networking

“I need to be more strategic in my preparation and aim to make new connections beyond my current circle of peers and funders” – Peter Matjašič

Being proactive in arranging meetings beforehand can help make the most of the festival, to ensure there’s the opportunity to have valuable in-person conversations. More organised networking opportunities at the festival would help facilitate more connections, and Reference will be looking at organising more fringe events next year to help bring together more people interested in developing the future of independent media.

There seems to be less space for chance encounters as most attendees have a super packed schedule. Whilst it pains me an important lesson was to not attend all the panels one would want as these are available afterwards online. Instead, it matters more to have in-person meetings with existing and new colleagues, peers, funders etc.

Ahead of next year I need to be more strategic in my preparation and aim to make new connections beyond my current circle of peers and funders. More targeted events that foster such exchange organised by Reference or others might help.
Peter Matjašič
Executive Director, Investigate Europe
Next year I will take some extra time to schedule meetings with those people I really want to speak with more extensively.
Jan-Willem Sanders
Co-owner & Publisher, Follow the Money

Sessions with Reference members at #IJF23

Almost a dozen members of Reference took part in at least seven panels or hosted workshops this year. You can watch back all of the sessions which featured Reference members at this year’s International Journalism Festival by following the links below.

Photos licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-ND 4.0).

Reference is going to Perugia

Do you want to know how we can truly monetise independent journalism’s value for society? Join Reference’s panel at the 2023 Perugia Journalism Festival!

With Sofia da Palma Rodrigues (Divergente), Jan-Willem Sanders (Follow the Money), Peter Matjašič (Investigate Europe) and moderated by Sanne Schim van der Loeff (Arena for Journalism in Europe).

It’s hard for the new public-interest, not-for-profit journalism sector in Europe to be financially sustainable. On the one hand, they operate in the realm of public service outlets – serving citizens and its members – while on the other, they are part of a competitive market – serving consumers. Each domain requires different metrics to prove their added value: funders are asking for impact and impact measurement; but where direct value in the market is concerned, sponsors and donors are keen on audience size as the main indicator for success.

Of course there are various routes that might lead to an answer. In our panel, the Reference members Divergente, Follow the Money and Investigate Europe share their experiences and challenges, and discuss what lessons can be learnt to collectively bring the public-interest sector forward.

Talking HR

In May 2022, the Reference circle got together in Mechelen, Belgium, together with a few Civitates grantees. In a session, the participants discussed the challenges they face in Human Resource management. In three rounds they exchanged best practices, tips and questions in small groups on the following questions:

  1. How to combine finite projects with activities that need to be carried out year-round ?
  2. How to find and train the best editorial ánd non-editorial people?
  3. How to keep your staff happy and healthy?

Throughout, the participants encouraged each other to take the non-editorial seriously and to scale up early: “Dare to take that step and give serious attention to the non-editorial tasks at hand. Think a little bigger and you will grow from there.” At the same time, it is essential to connect these non-editorials with the rest of the team: “Educate all staff about each other’s responsibilities and contributions to the bigger cause. Respect the professions by expressing their added value.”

Reference will continue to support the members in their efforts to make the non-editorial part of their organisation just as important and vital as the editorial.

Reference argues for infrastructural funding

In a recent Consultation the European Commission is gathering information on the current and emerging problems related to media freedom and pluralism. The Commission asks stakeholders to submit evidence and concrete data underpinning the problems identified, and their views on the potential policy approach, options and impacts. As Reference, we submitted the a position paper arguing for – among other things – infrastructural funding of independent media.

Independent media in Europe sticking together

Being the head of an independent public interest medium can be quite lonely. Especially when it comes to handling managerial issues in the organisation. At the same time, more and more of these independent outlets have been established throughout Europe in the past years. In order to solve organisational problems that nobody can solve alone, twenty European independent media have decided to join forces in the self-organised exchange network Reference, the European Independent Media Circle.

How the network will function, what the exact offering will be, and how membership can be expanded is currently the focus for the founding group. For the coming two years, Arena for Journalism in Europe will function as an incubator and will support the coordination of Reference.