Accountability, Effectiveness, and Independence — Striking the Proper Balance

Democratization and the Dilemmas of Media Independence

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 8, Issue 4, August 2006

By Craig LaMay*

No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand.
– Bertolt Brecht

Since about the mid-1970s, democratic transitions in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe have occurred with important contributions from the civil society sector, including a broad array of media, not just news organizations but also entertainment and public relations media. The questions still confronting many of these countries is whether their transitions are permanent or passing, and if the former, what obstacles lie in the way of democratic consolidation. Perhaps the largest obstacle, writes Samuel Huntington, is the recognition that “democracy is a solution to the problem of tyranny, but not necessarily to anything else.”1 Poverty, ethnic and racial conflict, inadequate economic development, chronic inflation with substantial external debt, and political leaders – many of them former dissidents – who are not fully committed to the democratic ideal of lawful and peaceful transitions of power, all militate against successful consolidation. In transition countries as varied in their political, economic, and cultural experience as Russia, Indonesia, and Guatemala, democracy’s hold has been irresolute.

Media assistance is intended in some way to address these problems. For journalists, the idea behind media aid is both obvious and uncontroversial – if a people are to be sovereign, they must be able to receive a wide variety of ideas, to criticize the government and, more generally, to circulate information related to public affairs. “Free elections” do not mean much if the government’s opponents have been gagged and their platform banned from public discussion. News media make sovereignty meaningful by acting literally as the medium through which actions taken in civil society find their expression in political and economic society and, eventually, their manifestation in public policy. Official assistance providers – such as, in the case of the United States, the Agency for International Development (USAID) – also endorse the idea that press freedom is a “fundamental” democratic goal,2 but in practice view media assistance as a more instrumental good. Historically it has been associated with efforts to organize and hold free elections, in which the role of media is to provide voters with information about parties, candidates, polling places and times, and so on. More broadly, the purpose of media assistance (and other forms of democracy assistance) is to ensure that other, more traditional forms of development aid are used productively and not siphoned off by corrupt or incompetent governments. Official democracy aid, in other words, is supposed to provide at least some measure of transparency and accountability in international economic development. Private providers of media assistance – for example, non-governmental organizations such as the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) – will often work to advance these goals as contractors with government aid agencies, but they will also emphasize goals of their own, such as promoting civil society, advancing women’s rights, and securing the rights of free expression and a free press.

The recipients of media assistance – journalists in developing and democratizing countries – will typically describe “democratic” media as serving two broad goals. The first is “building a culture of free expression,” to which end journalists will talk about a range of issues associated with the “watchdog” role of the press and the need to provide citizens with access to news and information. This conception will often compete with another, quite different one that emphasizes providing citizens access to the instruments of communication, perhaps even against the prerogatives of those who own them, and especially where ownership is concentrated in the state or in private centers of economic power. This conception links media firmly to civil society promotion – “enhancing the bonds of community, building citizenship, and promoting individuality,” as one Filipino journalist and educator explained it to me.3 These conceptions are not mutually exclusive, and they are joined in a common inquiry: How does a society create and sustain media that engage the public in democratically centered discourse? From this follows several related questions: What is the role of the state in creating and sustaining an independent and diverse press? What about the seemingly intractable problem of inhospitable environments – from coercive governments, antiquated press laws, and marginalized populations, on the one hand, to public apathy and unfavorable markets, on the other? What strategies can journalists in developing societies realistically employ to circumvent, if not overcome, these obstacles free press development?

Unfortunately for the would-be media system architect, there are no good answers to these questions. There exists great disagreement even in established Western democracies about what “free” and “independent” media look like, what purposes they serve, and to whom and how they are held accountable.4 Despite this, it is easy to find, in even the academic literature, breezy proclamations about the global “triumph” of “Western” journalistic standards.5 This makes no more sense than it does to talk about “Western-style” democracy. The United States and the United Kingdom, for example, have both very different media systems and quite different ideas of what makes a democracy work. Thomas Carothers has written that “the principles of democracy are quite clear,”6 but the principles of democracy are also breathtakingly few. “Democracy has no theory to export,” Jacques Barzun wrote in 1989, in advance of the democracy aid soon to flow to Central and Eastern Europe, “because it is not an ideology but a wayward historical development.”7 At best, he said, democracy has a theorem: that for people to be free they must also be sovereign, and the necessary conditions for sovereignty are political and social equality. How they exercise that sovereignty, what mechanisms they use to ensure equality and to distribute freedoms, is left to them to decide. As a result, institutional forms of democracy vary significantly. Americans, for instance, would find the social regulatory regimes in Switzerland or Sweden oppressive, the coalition governments of Germany, France or Italy a hindrance to effective decision-making, and Holland’s non-majoritarian, proportional system of party representation incomprehensible. One might seek to copy any of these as a device for the expression of popular will, or invent something completely different.

So, though it is fine to talk in broad terms about rule of law, respect for human rights (including free expression), and civil society formation, “democracy” is not a theory but merely how the wheels turn. And at the level of machinery, theories about democracy can obscure more than they reveal. Consider the idea that cultural or religious values are the main impediments to democratization in Asia and the Islamic world.8 Maybe the problem stems from the way scholarly work gets reduced to television sound-bites by journalists and aid providers, but the effect is the same: to make simplistic what are complex challenges. For example, in Indonesia – an Asian country and the world’s largest Muslim nation – the values that pose critical problem for democratization are not Asian “culture” or Islamic “culture” but the many juxtaposed and overlapping “cultures” that coexist within the same political boundaries: tribal communities in Kalimantan and New Guinea; agrarian, semi-feudal communities in the provinces; a growing middle class; and the technology-adept capitalist elite in Jakarta. Add to this the fact that Indonesia stretches across one-eighth of the world’s circumference, in an archipelago of 17,000 islands containing more than 300 ethnic groups that speak as many or more different languages, and democracy promotion starts to look tricky. If a goal of a public-service media system is, at least in part, to link these many pieces into a coherent whole, how best to do that?

For our would-be architect of free and independent media, there is the additional challenge that media, unlike most other democratic institutions, are rooted not in political or civil society, but in economic society. As an industry, democracy promotion has tended (and still tends) to see media primarily as a component of civil society promotion, which is understandable and fine until aid is exhausted or withdrawn. Then it comes time to pay the bills – for salaries, newsprint, ink, transmitters, videotape, delivery trucks, telephones, software, presses, and all the rest. Other institutions of governance also have to pay their costs, of course, but many of those hold the power of taxation. It is certainly not unheard of for media to rely on tax support – the license fee that sustains many European public broadcasters is exactly that – but as a revenue source it is always troublesome, and in editorial terms its effects can be restrictive rather than liberating. Absent multiple layers of statutory and bureaucratic insulation, media that rely on government support will always be susceptible to government meddling, or worse. Rarely can even the most benign governments be expected to favor any interests but their own. More generally, the idea of government support for media, and thus entanglement with them, can be offensive to the idea of a speech market in which individual actors (and their ideas) are supposed to compete without unfair advantage. In real life, of course, some members of the speech market are hugely advantaged, usually by their economic power. Whether such a system is just or not, it is a principled question to ask whether that power should derive from the government purse. As a practical matter, too, the concept of government media is anathema to people in many democratizing countries, where past experience suggests a bad result, and by no means a “democratic” one.

The business of media assistance, now at least twenty years old, has thus come to recognize the central dilemma: how to find adequate and diverse sources of revenue while also providing a high-quality editorial product, one that contributes to democratic consolidation and maturity. This is at heart an economic dilemma, for the problems typically identified in virtually all democratic media systems – the lack of professionalism and even corruption among journalists, the tendency to favor sex, scandal, and trivia in print and broadcast – are best understood as economic problems. Public affairs media are, or at least have many of the characteristics of, public goods. Media are also experience goods. The cost of preparing a television news program, for instance, is the same whether it is broadcast to one person or one million, and no rational person will produce such a program if he cannot recover his average cost of production. (The irrational or altruistic person may do this, but not for long.) Recouping those costs becomes more difficult because consumers cannot evaluate a media product – in general, say, which of two newspapers is the higher-quality one, or in particular which newscast on a specific event is the more informative – without first consuming it. Consequently their decisions about what media to consume are likely to be poorly informed.

An additional economic problem for our architect is that the production of this consumption good is an inherently inefficient activity: News is not like automobiles, computers, blue jeans, or other products that fewer workers can now produce in less time than they could ten, twenty, or a hundred years ago. Put another way, good journalism is like good music, and inefficient in the same way. Two hundred years ago, for example, it took four musicians to play Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 4, and it took them about twenty minutes to play it. Today the piece still requires four people and twenty minutes. With some products, productivity remains flat (or nearly so) even when you add new technologies and other innovations to the production line.9 High-quality journalism – the kind that involves reporters who investigate and report, editors who edit and rewrite – works very much the same way. Whether it reaches the public on paper, on air or on line, good journalism is a hand-made product, and the only way to wring efficiencies out of it is, unfortunately, to eliminate reporters or avoid serious newsgathering, neither of which is apt to improve democracy’s chances.

Yet another problem for our architect is that the consumption of public affairs media is also inherently inefficient. As Anthony Downs posited long ago, the theory of “rational ignorance” suggests that for most people, time and money is more productively spent doing something other than becoming well-informed citizens.10 For this reason, economist James Hamilton has written, most media engage in “rational omission” with respect to public affairs and investigative journalism, which, in addition to being unappealing to audiences, is much more costly to produce than sex, scandal, and trivia, and brings lower returns.11

It is for these reasons that high-quality public-affairs media everywhere find it difficult to support themselves financially. In developing democracies, consequently, training programs for reporters and editors, funding to support particular types of coverage, and other well-intended and potentially valuable assistance activities are apt to have little or no enduring value in and of themselves. Someone must pay a news organization’s operating costs. Government or private subsidy is one solution. Another is the market, where media can compete for audiences and revenues. Neither solution is perfect; under either scenario, media can be excellent, or they can lose their public good character altogether and even hinder the democratic project. As an economic proposition, all that can safely be said is that the availability or unavailability of any revenue source will have implications for editorial mission. And editorial mission matters. As a larger popular and academic literature argues, both developing and developed countries contain many media that are not only financially self-supporting but hugely profitable, but they add little or nothing to democratic decision-making and in some cases even undermine it.12

The problem for media assistance, then, is to identify worthy editorial missions and then to figure out how to build self-sustaining businesses around them. Unfortunately, this kind of long-term approach is not the norm in democracy assistance, which is often criticized for the attention-deficit disorder of donors. Here also lies another dilemma for our democracy architect. What is a “worthy” editorial mission? Again, economic theory about the impossibility of defining the “public interest” suggests that any meaningful answer will be freighted with political assumptions and preferences shared by some members of society but not others. The plausibility of a one-size-fits-all editorial mission shrinks further when we consider the rights of the press and of free expression generally, the mechanisms for enforcing those rights, and the proper role of, the government in producing, packaging, and disseminating information. One can dodge these problems entirely, as some media training organizations attempt to do; characterize the goal in broad normative terms, as some media NGOs do; or, regardless of local conditions, try to impose one particular Western approach, as some international organizations (including the UN and the OSCE) have been charged with doing in post-conflict regions such as Bosnia and Kosovo. The solution in any case will always be in some way flawed. As with the problem of financing, there is no straightforward answer to the problem of editorial mission.

A final challenge facing the would-be democracy promoter, beyond the ambition of this article, is that the very nature of democracy is changing. Even as democracy has become the only normatively acceptable choice at the level of the nation-state, it has arguably been cheapened by its ubiquity. The relationship between decisions that average citizens take at the ballot box and the circumstances of their daily lives grows ever more tenuous in a global economy. For journalists and those who wish to assist them, this paradox represents both an editorial challenge and a financial one. On the one hand, it prompts the question of how journalists are to understand and explain the challenges facing their countries and communities within the larger framework of global governance. On the other, it exposes news organizations everywhere, but particularly in developing societies, to additional competition in the markets for content, production, and distribution, and of course for audiences, too.

There is little discussion about the so-called “democratic deficit” in the democratization industry, and to be fair, the deficit is not its concern. Overwhelmingly the industry’s practitioners work in and care about places where, against the experience of political repression, ethnic conflict, and war, people are trying to reassert control over the conditions of their own lives, and in many cases to reclaim their dignity as human beings. And at its best, the industry is not much interested in the institutions and processes of formal democracy unless they make participatory democracy real – that is to say, they give citizens a voice in government decision-making and provide some measure of social and economic equality. Where the democratization industry focuses on these kinds of places, people, and problems, it is hard not to be impatient both with realists who argue that it cannot be done and with moralists who underestimate how long and hard the work will be. Though the industry, in its thinking and behavior, is frequently paternalistic, anti-intellectual, and even faddish, it deserves credit for its emphasis on public participation of a kind which has largely disappeared from advanced representative democracies (what Robert Dahl, in fact, calls polyarchies13), and which is increasingly difficult to resuscitate anywhere, never mind in states struggling to escape authoritarian or violent pasts. At least some of the uncertainties that bedevil media assistance thus derive from those that bedevil democracy generally.

A Guatemalan Apologue

In late 2004, I was doing field research when a colleague’s email referred me to a trade magazine article about the Media Management Center, a journalism research and training organization whose home offices in Evanston, Illinois, are upstairs from my own at Northwestern University. The Center is the gold standard in media industry executive training programs, affiliated with both the Medill School of Journalism and Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Its research is widely praised and its recommendations carefully noted in the media industries it serves, not only in the United States but around the world. In visits to news organizations in developing countries, I have frequently referred editors and publishers to the Center’s web pages, where it generously makes its research findings freely available.14 The article in Editor & Publisher was another in a series of accolades. The success story in this case was a Guatemalan newspaper, Nuestro Diario, which since its founding in 1999 has enjoyed singular commercial success in a market where it competes with five other dailies. Nuestro Diario is especially popular among younger and less-educated readers, and the article quoted several 14-year-olds in the tourist haven of Antigua, about 40 kilometers out of the capital city, who claimed to read it “cada dia,” every day. “I like the sports, the stories about soccer, the crime stories, but the main thing is, it’s entertaining, a way to pass the time,” said one young man.15

Nuestro Diario,” the article went on to conclude, “is an ironic instance of the student turning teacher, the hottest case study on the international newspaper circuit.”16 For the paper’s rapid growth in the six years since it opened, the publisher credited marketing and editorial strategies he had learned at Media Management Center seminars.17 According to Editor & Publisher, Nuestro Diario had applied a “rigorous readership formula with steely discipline,”18 and it quoted Mike Smith, a principal in the Center, to the effect that U.S. publishers were already seeking to replicate Nuestro Diario’s success with young readers in such products as the Chicago Tribune Company’s Red Eye. And for good reason: Nuestro Diario, with a circulation of about 300,000, has nearly doubled the number of Guatemalans who read a daily paper. It is the largest-circulation newspaper in Central America, distributed almost entirely through street and newsstand sales. Compared to its competitors it has relatively few advertisements (with only 8 percent of the national advertising market), but its circulation is more than twice that of its closest competitor, Prensa Libre.

What appeals to Nuestro Diario’s readers, said Editor & Publisher, is the paper’s “predictability.”19 Part of that predictability is the number of pages, which on most days is 32, making it easy for readers to find favorite features while also making limited advertising space more valuable. The paper employs numerous elements of design and presentation – such as leaving the first six pages of the newspaper ad-free – that MMC research has shown are reader-friendly and thus promote sales. The reporting style of the paper, said Editor & Publisher,

is to tell stories with a mix of text, photos and graphics. There are lots of short captions, giving information that is not repeated anywhere else. The main story, always short, almost never quotes anyone. Instead, there are snippets under headshots of the sources, who may be witnesses to a crime or giving an opinion about what happened…. In a package of text and graphics occupying just a third of a page, there might be more than a half-dozen ways to enter the story. On the big story that stretches across pages 2 and 3, there might be 25…. Every page is produced separately and reporting teams compete just to get on it…. Nuestro Diario is also filled with pictures of ordinary people – exactly what readership studies say readers and non-readers want to see.20

The article then quoted Smith: “The first challenge you hear to this is that it’s ‘dumbing down journalism.’ I often say to people, well, you try to get that much information in a half-page of text. I don’t think that’s dumbing down – I think it’s smartening up the presentation.”21 Perhaps so. I have worked with and written for the Media Management Center on occasion, enough to know that it mixes scholarly expertise with industry needs in a way that its clients value highly. It has made a science out of the news business.

But of course the news media are more than a business. Their products affect how people perceive their choices in a democratic society, and the quality of those products is critical if those choices are to be meaningful. Few would dispute this proposition, even those who honor it in the breach. Beyond that, the implications of the proposition are not clear. Quality is a subjective measure, though presumably it has something to do with the balance of public-affairs information and entertainment available in any one medium. If so, there is the added difficulty that is very nearly impossible to disentangle the “entertainment” aspects of media goods from purely “informational” ones. A soap opera, for example, can be more effective in educating people about a public health issue than years of news articles or a barrage of government public-service announcements.

Viewed as an economic proposition, the problem of quality is that the overall character of any good, and particularly media goods, will be dependent on, if not inseparable from, the business constraints put upon it. One such constraint is revenue source, but here, too, evidence about outcomes is mixed. Advertiser support, for instance, is often assumed to be inimical to public service, but with the exception of public broadcasting, the world’s exemplary public-service media earn the majority of their revenues from advertisers, not readers or viewers.22

The problem of media goods and business constraints has been a matter of debate in developed democracies for a long time, and has been resolved in a variety of imperfect ways. But in developing democracies the problem is new. And where democracies are immature, or where political, social, and economic reforms co-vary in potentially destabilizing ways, the problem is especially significant. It is arguably the case, for example, that in a country such as Guatemala, Nuestro Diario makes few or no contributions to public discourse and democratic transition. Put another way, democracy may continue to mature in Guatemala, but the success or failure of Nuestro Diario will have little effect on its chances. The paper’s business success is remarkable, and that success may be a sign of social stability in a country where the national psyche is scarred by 40 years of military dictatorship, civil war, and genocide. But Nuestro Diario is by any reasonable editorial standard a bad newspaper. It is engaging in its way, but to call it a work of reporting is charitable. It is a collection of “captions” and “snippets” and “headshots” that substitute full-color, garish graphics for narrative context and editorial explanation. Its “predictable” editorial features include cartoon-style reenactments of gang killings and political executions (sans the blood and corpses), and lots of sex. Perhaps its most distinctive predictable feature is a daily pin-up girl, printed as a centerfold.

Nuestro Diario is one of five independently published tabloids that constitute the newspaper market in Guatemala. (There is also a government newspaper that publishes official bulletins and announcements, Diario de Centroamerica.) Prense Libre, at more than 50 years old, is the politically conservative dean of the group and controls 45 percent of the newspaper advertising market. Nuestro Diaro is of course the readership leader, with total sales nearly 12 times that of El Periodico, an erudite and aggressive investigative paper, and also of Siglo Veintiuno, the other elite paper in Guatemala. The fifth paper in the market, Al Dia, is aimed at the same poor and mostly young demographic as Nuestro Diario, but has not enjoyed nearly the same success, with daily sales of fewer than 45,000 copies. All the papers distribute nationwide, but distribution is spotty, and readership is concentrated in and around Guatemala City, where all the papers publish.

In 2004, I visited El Periodico because of its reputation as the country’s most vigorous investigative paper, the winner, along with its publisher, of numerous honors from international press freedom groups. It has also survived repeated rhetorical, legal, and physical attacks on its reporters as well as assassination attempts on its publisher, José Ruben Zamora.

El Periodico’s newsroom and business offices are in a renovated home in a middle- to upper-class residential neighborhood in Zone 13, near the airport. No sign identifies the place as a newspaper office, but there are always a few motorcycles and several conspicuously armed men standing at the front entrance. One wears the uniform of a private security service; the others do not. The entrance doors they guard are heavy steel, with a magnetic lock. Like every other building on the block, El Periodico’s offices lie behind an 8-foot concrete wall topped with coils of razor wire. Exterior windows are covered with iron bars. Here and there, other buildings on the street have signs on their doors announcing themselves as private residences. El Periodico draws the attention not only of the authorities but of thugs with the potential to harm both people and property. Neighbors want to be sure that anyone looking for El Periodico does not get the wrong building.

As a business, El Periodico struggles. It has tried in various ways to appeal to younger readers, so far without much success. Its staff, ironically, is on the whole young, in their twenties and thirties, about 70 percent of them women. Some of the more senior editors, and José Ruben himself, are in their late thirties or forties, and all began their journalism careers at other papers. Zamora, 48 when I met him, is a civil engineer by training. He was a founder of Siglo Veintiuno in 1991, but left that paper with his investigative editor, Sylvia Gereda, to launch El Periodico in November 1996, shortly after civilian rule returned to the country. The editors and reporters I met at El Periodico work there because the paper does what editor-in-chief Anna Carolina Alpirez characterizes as “journalism that matters.”23 Alpirez, like many others on the editorial staff, came to El Periodico after having established a reporting career elsewhere. For some on the staff, it is a last stop; if El Periodico fails, they say, they will leave journalism and do something else. Several of the reporters said they would not work at any other paper, even as they acknowledged that El Periodico’s editorial policies and some of its more pointed editorial features cost the paper both readers and revenues.

On the editorial side, El Periodico is two papers in one. The majority of staff work on producing the daily product, and a much smaller group is devoted, full-time, to doing long investigative pieces. In its daily reporting, El Periodico covers national and local news, including the country’s growing importance as a conduit for illegal drugs and immigrants into Mexico and the United States, and the consequent rise of Guatemala’s political and drug assassinations. It also covers sport and entertainment, but neither at length, and it does some business reporting. El Periodico’s cultural reporting includes reviews of pop music, movies, and nightlife – but also reviews of high-brow entertainments, including books, a rarity anywhere. And like Nuestra Diario, El Periodico has a daily “girl photo,” though usually a modest one (that is to say, fully dressed) that takes up a half page or less. The girl photo is a fixture in Latin American newspapers, even this one. José Ruben believes the feature helps to sell the paper. The women on the editorial side see it as incongruous with El Periodico’s style of journalism. Marketing Director Carolina Marquez thinks it hurts the paper’s brand identity. José Ruben also elects to publish regularly a columnist whom the entire staff considers politically and socially regressive, a throwback to the country’s militarist past. José Ruben publishes him for reasons that no one could fully explain or which, if they did, I could not understand. The idea seems to be that the columnist represents a social and a journalistic value the paper wishes to promote, opinion diversity.

El Periodico competes for readers in a small market – the 20 percent of Guatemalans who do not live in poverty. These are educated, middle- to high-income readers who work in government, business, and education. The paper’s signature work is investigating corruption in the national civil service and federal government, stories that are accompanied by a strong and reported editorial page. Special sections, done several times a year, examine the history of political violence in the country and its continuing legacy. José Ruben writes most of the lead editorials, and his voice stands out as the editorial identity of the paper. In 2003, when former Army General Efrain Rios Montt ran for president as candidate of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG) party, despite a constitutional provision barring former military officers from holding that office, El Periodico was the paper that most vigorously reported about and editorialized against his candidacy and the court that authorized it. The law notwithstanding, Rios Montt was hardly the ideal chief executive for a country on the mend. A former Army chief of staff, he had seized the presidency in a 1982 coup and ruled Guatemala for a little more than a year until he was himself deposed in August 1983. In his short tenure in office, Rios Montt had implemented a counter-insurgency plan modeled on the French experiences in Algeria and Vietnam, destroying hundreds of rural villages and often slaughtering their civilian inhabitants. By the end of 1982, the policy had driven approximately a half million refugees either into Mexico or into Guatemala’s slums.24 More than 200,000 had died or disappeared.25

In 2003, Rios Montt was serving as president of Congress, a position that provided immunity from prosecution. In 1990 and 1995 he had sought to run for president, but both times his candidacy had been barred by the Constitutional Court. In July 2003, however, a Constitutional Court packed with FRG judges approved his candidacy, a decision that a lower court stayed days later as an affront to rule of law. When it did, Rios Montt gave a radio address urging his followers into the streets. By then the campaign had already turned violent, with 22 people connected to political parties having been assassinated. It would soon get worse. Several hundred FRG supporters, many recruited from rural departments, came to Guatemala City wielding guns, machetes, and clubs. On July 24 and 25, approximately five months before the election, the capital city was the scene of violent riots in which masked and armed men sacked office buildings, fired machine guns from roaming trucks, burned piles of tires in the streets, took hostages, and attacked journalists covering the melee, killing one. Both the U.S. Embassy and the UN mission in the city were forced to close. The Guatemalan government, led by President and FRG party leader Alfonso Portillo, took no action to quell the riots, and indeed members of the Army and the police participated in them.26

Mayan peasants in the highlands, fearing the return of a military regime, began streaming toward the Mexico border, where they were either turned away or herded into refugee camps.

A month before the riots, on the morning of June 24, a dozen armed men had gone to El Periodico publisher José Ruben Zamora’s house posing as investigators from the public prosecutor’s office. They forced their way in, then stripped, tied up, and blindfolded José Ruben, made him kneel with a pistol to his head, and beat his children in his presence. Throughout the attack, the men took orders from someone by phone. According to Zamora, one of his attackers told him, “If you value your children stop bothering the people above. I don’t know who you’ve annoyed high up the ladder, but we have orders that someone up high despises you. Whatever you do, do not report this.”27

The attackers left after three hours. They demanded money and promised to return if it was not paid. Zamora sent his wife and children out of the country for the rest of the campaign and continued with his work. “We are all vulnerable to delinquency in this country,” he said, “and I have a duty to carry on.”28 International human rights and press groups rallied to El Periodico’s cause, and the World Association of Newspapers and the U.S.-based Media Development Loan Fund urged the State Department to lodge a protest over the attack with the Guatemalan government. It did so, with the result that police security around the newspaper’s offices increased. Three months later, in December 2003, General Rios Montt was eliminated from the ballot in the first round of voting after polling only 19 percent. He lost his congressional leadership position too, exposing him to prosecution both in Guatemala and in Spain. By contrast to El Periodico, Nuestro Diario remained steadfastly silent on the critical constitutional questions surrounding the general’s attempt to recapture the presidency, though it ran photographs of the riots and their aftermath, along with plenty of “snippets.”

To be sure, El Periodico was not the only news organization to suffer violence during the run-up to the 2003 elections. Other journalists covering the riots, particularly television reporters, were attacked, and one suffered a fatal heart attack while being chased. Journalism is a dangerous enterprise in Guatemala, and the more dangerous for those who take it seriously.

If El Periodico is on the hard road to independence, it has chosen to be there. The paper was at one time in a business partnership with Prense Libre, and together the two created Nuestro Diario. As part of the deal, Prense Libre held 60 percent ownership of El Periodico. Eventually the joint venture fell apart because El Periodico could not meet its financial responsibilities, leading Prense Libre to take El Periodico’s shares in Nuestro Diario as payment. In the deal, El Periodico also lost access to its printing press. Zamora and his partners could have solved their financial problems by selling El Periodico outright to Prense Libre, thus becoming the “high end” product in a group that would have served virtually the entire Guatemalan newspaper market. (Al Dia, for example, was created for this purpose, a joint venture of Siglo Veintiuno and Costa Rica’s La Nacion.) But had it done so, the thinking went, El Periodico might have had to abandon its commitment to investigative reporting; at any rate, a sale would have turned José Ruben and the rest of the staff into someone else’s employees. So instead they negotiated a loan from the Media Development Loan Fund and bought back their shares from Prense Libre. Though the three papers are no longer legally or financially linked, El Periodico and Nuestro Diario still occupy adjoining buildings. From the outdoor patio that separates El Periodico’s cramped newsroom from its business offices, one can look through several windows into Nuestro Diario’s spacious and well-appointed newsroom.

Somewhere in the wide editorial space that separates the two newspapers lies the dilemma that faces journalism everywhere, but that is especially acute in developing democracies: the more closely a media product takes on the social and economic characteristics of a public good, as El Periodico’s investigative reporting does, the less support it will find in the market; as a media product loses its character as a public good – as with Nuestro Diario’s murder-as-entertainment features and pin-ups – the more likely it is to be financially sustainable, but the less its sustainability affects the outcome of democratic transition.

Admittedly, this formulation of the dilemma is overdrawn. Nuestro Diario’s ability to engage young people, especially the many who are poorly educated and employed, can hardly be a bad thing – even if the content falls short of some desirable level of public affairs reporting. This is especially true in a country where genocidal wars have left a population that is overwhelmingly young. Moreover, one sign that a country has begun the process of democratic consolidation is that its media cease to be predominantly oppositional and begin to feature a broader array of choices, including lighter and more entertaining fare for more diverse audiences. Viewed in that light, Nuestro Diario may be more important for what it represents than for what it produces.

El Periodico, by contrast, is important for what it produces. Investigative reporting is what press freedom is for. It gives that freedom its raison d’etre, and it requires skill and tenacity. Done well it also requires money and time, sometimes a lot of both. That is why so few of the world’s news organizations do investigative work. It is cheaper and less risky to cover official statements, news conferences, and other events specifically designed for news coverage – Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudoevents.”29 Anywhere it is done, investigative reporting is based on the premise that real news does not happen on TV talk shows or in press conferences, but in places that are often mean and grubby, and sometimes dangerous. Reporting real news also invites recrimination and even revenge. In such a country as Guatemala, where rule of law and civil society support are still weak, doing investigative journalism requires extraordinary courage and ingenuity.

Of course, none of that matters a whit if one cannot keep the lights on. To survive or, better, to become profitable, El Periodico needs to be a well-managed business, one that where possible learns from its competitors. Juan Luis Font, the young managing editor of the paper, spends a great deal of time thinking about new editorial features or promotions that might attract readers or advertisers, all while protecting the core investigative and editorial functions of the paper. So does the paper’s sales manager, Juan Carlos Velazquez, an old university friend of José Ruben and with him a founder of Siglo Veintiuno. Like their colleagues at Nuestro Diario, Font and Velazquez have studied the findings from the Media Management Center’s “Readership Institute” study, and both believe that El Periodico could and should follow many of the study’s recommendations.30 But not all of them. One Readership Institute paper specifically questions whether investigative reporting is “relevant” to young adult readers, an empirical challenge that strikes at the heart of El Periodico’s editorial mission.31 Other Readership Institute reports say that stories that are “too long” or “cover too much” are “inhibitors” to readership.32 Obviously individual news organizations will decide for themselves what these findings imply for their business, but it is certainly possible to conclude that the kind of reporting that is central to El Periodico’s social mission is, simply, a poor business choice. Former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent and Chicago Council on Foreign Relations Executive Richard Longworth reports anecdotally that newspapers across the American Midwest construe the Readership Institute findings to preclude any international news or even national news; these papers instead focus on the sort of quick-hit local features than have made Nuestro Diario so successful.33

In 2004, according to Juan Carlos, El Periodico was in the red, though both he and the paper’s general manager, Carlos Gonzales Campo, expected the paper to become profitable soon. Another problem was cash flow. About 10 percent of the paper’s revenues in 2004 came from advertisements paid a year in advance, and though the paper grew in circulation in 2004, the growth was not that significant. In any case, Juan Carlos was tied to advertising rates he had negotiated months earlier. He believes El Periodico must grow its subscription to 50,000, almost double the current figure. When I ask how he would do that, he smiles and says, “I suppose we have to change the product.”34 Juan Carlos believes the paper needs more entertainment features – specifically, advice columnists and comics. In 2005, led by Juan Luis and investigative editor Sylvia Gereda, the paper launched a weekly supplement for kids. The paper’s young marketing manager, Carolina Marquez, is even more frustrated. She believes she can offer valuable guidance on what features readers want – and, as important, what they do not – but is rarely consulted. El Periodico’s mostly male and mostly middle- and high-income readers, she says, are insufficient to sustain the paper over the long term. Carlos Gonzales, a retired banker and an old friend of José Ruben, agrees. “Our ‘elite’ is not economical,” he says, “but it is an elite that likes to read. The biggest challenge is to increase readership, but we’re not getting anywhere. We’re stuck.”35

There is a third way to sustainability, but El Periodico has chosen not to take it: The paper could survive on grants from regional and international media and human rights organizations, official aid organizations, and other donors. In effect, El Periodico would then operate as a not-for-profit firm, on the implicit presumption (if not the explicit legal requirement) that its core activity is neither profitable nor self-sustaining. Given its reputation, the newspaper would not have a hard time attracting grants, at least in the short term. From the beginning, indeed, El Periodico has benefited from outside donations of money and technical expertise, and at crucial times it would have gone out of business without them. Such revenue sources, however, are unreliable, and they often come with donor expectations that the paper’s management believes could compromise – or could appear to compromise – its independence. And as a matter of principle, Zamora and his colleagues believe that if they can make the paper a market success, they will also make a statement about Guatemala’s progress toward democracy.

It is easy to find media in the developing and democratizing world that are supported by grants from nongovernmental or international governmental organizations (NGOs and IGOs), as well as media that are staffed and operated by NGO or IGO personnel for the express purpose of pursuing some other democracy-enhancing goal, such as developing civil society, promoting public health, or supporting national and local elections. Often, however, donor-supported media wither and die when aid is withdrawn, redirected, or exhausted – as eventually it always is. Some of these media firms are supposed to die: at least in the judgment of their funders, they have served their purpose. Other media firms have survived by becoming so aid-dependent as to have forfeited any meaningful claim to editorial independence. They constantly retool their editorial mission to appeal to donors. In the process, these media frequently lose public credibility, thus undermining the case for their continued existence, and they fail to develop the managerial capacity to survive on their own. In the meantime, their presence can have the unintended and undesirable effect of competing in the market for audiences and advertisers against other media that are trying to provide independent voices in a changed political, social, and economic landscape.

Of course, donor-supported media do not have to collapse into editorial irrelevance. Some are excellent, far superior in quality to anything else available, especially in societies where legal protections for the press are weak or nonexistent. In Cambodia, for example, where hopes for democracy collapsed after the 1997 coup, the not-for-profit Cambodian Daily has emerged as one of two papers of record (the Phnom Penh Post is the other); it survives on donations. Such a paper is sustainable until the donors’ money runs out, and then the calculus changes.

The dilemma of sustainability was first summed up for me in 1999, in a conversation with Sheila Coronel, a distinguished investigative reporter in the Philippines who is now the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in Manila. Good journalism that survives the worst political and social conditions, Coronel said, may have trouble when it faces competition from a variety of other outlets, including many that trade in entertainment and sensationalism, and others that are subsidized by governments. Reflecting on her time working as a journalist during the Ferdinand Marcos era, she said, “Tyranny of the state may be better than tyranny of the market. As journalists we knew what to do with the state – you topple it. But what do you do with the market?”36

The same problem exists in other democratizing regions. A 2005 article in deScripto, the professional journal of the Southeast Europe Media Organization, notes that

since the media requires two markets to survive economically (audience and advertising), it has to be interested in financially successful management, but at the same time it must irritate the economic status quo because of its duty to research such themes as part of investigative journalism. So it may and often does happen that journalists are challenged to research subjects that may not be in the best interests of people or organizations which are stake or shareholders in the media. Economically speaking, media ownership is not an easy position. On one hand, media entrepreneurship is encouraged in a very difficult and complex market, and on the other hand, it is the source of independence problems, often negatively impacting freedom, the open media market, and above all, media culture. Ownership is the position at which economy, quality, money, and public communication values meet and where all those factors come into a difficult crux in a democratic culture.37

This “crux” is of course not unique to developing and democratizing states. Western journalists confront it daily, if in a different context. In a 1997 speech to a roomful of Russian journalists (then still enjoying freedoms that have largely eroded under President Vladimir Putin), Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland talked about the erosion of Western journalism standards under the onslaught of financial pressures that he said were “redefining the market – downward.”38 In the United States, “our lowering of standards and refocusing of reporting is being subliminally, subtly dictated by market concerns in a rapidly and at times violently changing global economy.”39 Exempting only the Public Broadcasting Service – a not-for-profit – Hoagland charged that the financial markets’ demand for steadily increasing quarterly profits had gutted news organizations of their core purpose and most editorially important features, and in the process posed a “threat to democracy.”40 And then he corrected himself: “I realize to my Russian colleagues I must sound something like a cry-baby. Here I am, complaining of the problem of too much money while they strive to find enough resources and moral support within their own society to establish and pursue independent reporting and editing. If they are successful, perhaps years from now they will get to the point of having the problems I have complained about today.”41

In fact, they already do. Though a host of factors affect the sustainability of a news organization, the economic dilemma in news production is much the same in both developed and developing states: The character of some information goods is such that few if any for-profit firms will choose to produce them, with the result that they may not be produced at all. Put another way, media independence in an open and free society is largely a function of revenue sources, and revenue invariably colors one’s definition of “independence.” And where markets have greatly liberalized but press freedom is still restricted, as in Guatemala, the twin goals of financial and editorial independence can be especially elusive. Nuestro Diario is a market success largely because it avoids the high expenses and low returns of serious news production. El Periodico has won international editorial acclaim, but struggles for audiences and revenues in its own market.

What is Press Independence For?

Framed as a question, the dilemma faced by El Periodico – and for that matter by Nuestro Diario – is this: How are professional news media supposed to sustain themselves financially without giving up or deeply compromising their editorial independence? Again, the dilemma is not unique to developing states; the economics of high-quality journalism currently receives much professional and academic commentary in the United States and Western Europe. What that discussion suggests for developing democracies will depend in the first instance on how one characterizes media “freedom” or “independence.” But the social consequences of the dilemma may be particularly worrisome in states where civil society is weak or impaired, where economic stability and security are fragile, and where rule of law is a work in progress – in short, where democratic consolidation is incomplete and large segments of the population have yet to see their lives significantly improved by political transition.

For these reasons, official and private sources of financial aid to media development often link their support, rhetorically if not also programmatically, to civil society development. The assumptions behind that linkage are interesting for what they imply about editorial mission and the meaning of editorial “independence.” Another such linkage exists as well: the aftereffects of political transition on the media sector mirror those in civil society generally. For the media, the most important effect is a shift in purpose. Media that once existed as sources of political opposition must now contend with the practical challenges of democratic governance, as well as the immediate challenge of running a business. The news product may in turn change substantially. Speaking in Chicago in early 2005, South African journalist Mathatha Tsedu said that since 1994 the news media in his country

have gone for well-off blacks and forgotten the poor. They no longer serve as watchdogs for the weak and the poor. The poor are not a market, but a liability. Nobody covers them. It is the same in the United States, but here the poor are a minority and the middle class is the majority. In South Africa, the poor are the majority. If no one is interested in them, how do we represent them? How are they part of our democracy? It is the dilemma of existence versus the need of the media to survive…. At the same time we have had an exodus of skilled journalists who have left to join government and business. The result is less coverage of our country’s democratic story even as it gets more difficult to tell.42

Tsedu was one of South Africa’s leading opposition journalists during the apartheid era, a role that is evident today in the physical scars he carries from detentions and beatings. For fourteen months in 2002 and 2003, Tsedu served as editor of the Sunday Times, South Africa’s largest paper (with a Sunday circulation of 3.5 million) and not one known for being the voice of the powerless. He was eventually fired by the paper’s owner, Johnnic Communications (Johncom), which claimed his performance was unsatisfactory, and specifically that he failed to produce an “independent quality newspaper that sustains our democracy, is trusted by its readers and advertisers, is targeted at those people in Living Standards Measures categories 6-10 in South Africa and Southern Africa, and is profitable.”43 But as one South African commentator noted, the question is not why Tsedu was fired, but why he was ever hired:

They knew he came from a deeply embedded tradition of Black Consciousness activism. They knew that Africanisation was important to him. They knew that he had a strong change agenda, including getting rid of the popular and lucrative – but controversial – “extra” editions…. They knew that the slogan he often annunciated was: “Journalism must serve the poor and the powerless.” But having selected him, Johncom management must have known that this would mean a disruption in staff, readership, sales, advertising and revenue. Why did they appoint him if they did not want to go down this road?44

What makes Tsedu’s firing particularly notable is that Johnnic Communications is itself one of South Africa’s most visible democratization projects. Formerly known as Times Media Limited, Johnnic is a publicly traded firm, owned by a coalition of black business groups and trade unions known as the National Empowerment Consortium. Johnnic’s executive staff and board of directors are composed predominately of blacks and representatives of other “previously disadvantaged communities.” Johnnic owns several publishing and entertainment properties, but the Sunday Times is the money-making machine at the heart of the enterprise. And because the controlling Consortium is itself deeply in debt, it is highly sensitive to changes in share prices and profit levels. According to the commentator quoted above:

Tsedu’s dismissal is not about media freedom, for no one is suggesting it was an attempt to stifle his views. It is not about race, much as this provides the cover for those who want simple and crude explanations. It is about the complexities, contradictions, limitations and difficulties of transformation in an empowerment media company. It raises questions about what transformation is intended to achieve. Is the goal to maximize the profitability of empowerment shareholders? Does it mean closing a New York bureau and opening one in Lagos? Does it mean getting rid of the “ethnic” editions, which were conceived in the sin of apartheid but are popular and lucrative? Does it mean hiring political editors who have no experience? How does one weigh the demands for change against shareholders’ demands for growth? Which takes priority?

One thing is clear: there is no point to transformation if the end-product is not a healthy and profitable newspaper. There is little value to empowerment if you have been empowered to control a shell. All of this takes place in an increasingly competitive market. The Sunday Times used to be the undisputed king of the English-language weekend, but now it has to fight off the City Press, Sunday World, Sunday Sun and Sunday Independent, some of whom are eating away at the top of the market, others at the bottom.45

The sustainability dilemma is thus important not only for what it suggests about financial viability, but also for providing a perspective for thinking about a more fundamental question: What is media independence and what is it for? Media assistance programs, whatever their purpose, rarely address this question head on. When they do, the answer tends to be understandably short and abstract. The sum of it is usually that journalism is a means to an end: to promote fair elections and universal suffrage; to develop political parties; to guide legal, judicial, and administrative reform; to strengthen civil society; to support public education and social services; and perhaps most often, to promote free-market economies. Media assistance programs focus on the relationship between journalism and civil society mostly because donors believe the two are symbiotically joined. It is not uncommon to hear that free and independent media are a necessary, even sufficient, condition for sustaining civil society, and it is nearly impossible to find literature on media development that does not include (mostly vague) assertions about its importance to civil society development.

Even assistance organizations that are founded, funded, and run by journalists and journalism organizations tend to shy away from any but the most general statements about the goals of press freedom and independence. American journalists are particularly wary of this discussion. Media assistance, after all, is an undeniably political activity, but because their professional norms frown on anything that might be characterized as advocacy, journalists tend to characterize what they do as training, largely neutral as to matters of content or editorial mission. One common refrain, for instance, holds that Western media trainers show aid beneficiaries “how” to cover the news but never “what” to cover. One commentator calls this an “occupational ideology of professionalism”46 that in itself is assumed to enhance democracy.

Other media assistance providers are more bold stating their objectives. USAID’s published materials are notable and praiseworthy in this regard; they are far more explicit about basic questions of journalistic purpose and media system architecture than anything in American press law. Some private sources of media assistance also advocate particular ideas about press freedom and its purposes, which should not be surprising. In most places that receive media assistance, the assistance is intended to help publicize and perhaps remedy gross social inequities and injustices, up to and including the legacies of political torture and mass murder. Professional norms notwithstanding, “neutrality” concerning the violations of fundamental human rights is immoral. In any case, media assistance providers can hardly ignore the reasons for their own existence. To do so makes any discussion about the field incoherent. And where political violence is not a factor, the market will ultimately determine how the media system operates, which media it sustains, and what they produce. For some, that will be enough. Depending on how one defines “independence” (or for that matter “democracy”), perhaps it should be.

Definitions: What Does a “Free” Press Look Like?

Freedom of expression is a critical component of democratic norms. Robert Dahl long ago listed freedom of expression and freedom of information as two of seven criteria most useful for evaluating any state wanting to call itself a democracy.47 In its most tangible form, Dahl said, the two criteria require a “free and responsible” press system.

What does a free and responsible press system look like? Especially since the end of the Cold War, developing and developed nations alike, prodded by changes in communications technology, have considered this question in both normative and legal terms. And countries emerging from various forms of authoritarian rule face the additional question of what news media practices promote democratization. As with the post-World War II period, some media restructuring over the last decade has been the result of international military intervention, as in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Most media restructuring since the mid-1980s, though, has resulted from a significant effort by the democratic West to export ideas about press freedom to Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent Africa. That effort has generated either bilateral or multilateral financial and material assistance from donor countries, such as the United States, Britain, Germany, and Sweden; IGOs such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union (EU), and the African Union (AU); and international and regional NGOs, dozens of which concern themselves almost exclusively with media and free expression issues.48

Both donors and recipients of media aid use such terms as “independence,” “freedom,” “responsibility,” “professionalism,” “diversity,” and “sustainability” to mean a great variety of things, depending on their historical experience and social norms and practices. Media scholarship also uses these terms casually, and sometimes nonsensically. One widely used academic text in international journalism studies, for example, defines “independent” journalism as anything that is not government funded.49 This will surely come as a disappointment to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) even as it confirms the deeply held convictions of FOX News viewers in the United States. In the business of media assistance, donors and recipients alike tend to define independence by what it is not – it is not monopolistic control over the instruments of mass communication. Beyond that, it is not clear what independence means, never mind “free,” though presumably both terms somehow relate to the source and predictability of a media organization’s revenues and the autonomy from government control of its editorial decisions.

Often these terms are defined by ideological or strategic objectives. In the 1970s, a body set up under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the MacBride Commission, defined media freedom as communication in the service of economic development. The Commission recommended citizen rights of access to the media, the development of locally managed alternative channels of communication, and the participation of non-professionals in media production. Western countries, and the United States in particular, rejected the report as an attack on editorial judgment and thus on free expression. By 1991 UNESCO appeared to have changed its views, explaining in the Declaration of Windhoek:

We mean by an independent press, a press independent from governmental, political or economic control…. By pluralism, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.50

This is language that most journalists would agree with, but it is not very useful to a discussion of sustainability: a press independent of governmental, political, and economic control does not exist. The press must depend on something for its viability; in this sense, the press can never be wholly free simply because it is locked into a cycle of interdependence. In authoritarian societies the interdependence is easy to understand: governments employ strict censorship to control the flow of information to the general public, and journalists exist as mouthpieces for the government. In democratic societies the interrelationship is much more variable, in part because theory is less important to democracy than how freedom is lived and perpetuated.51 Ideally, the role of the media in a democracy is to ensure the existence of a broadly and equitably informed citizenry, which in turn can hold elites accountable and maintain popular control of government through free and competitive elections. For the press to fill that role, at least two conditions must obtain: citizens have some sort of constitutional or statutory right to political information, and media are protected from the arbitrary exercise of government power. Most democracy scholars also argue for a third condition: legal means, such as restrictions on ownership, that safeguard media pluralism – by which they mean a broad array of media forms and outlets offering a variety of political viewpoints.

These descriptions are to some degree caricatures. Totalitarian regimes never succeed in suppressing all speech, nor is their control over information complete and omniscient. Democratic societies almost all have some measure of government control over, or at least government involvement in, their media systems. At one level, this theoretical dichotomy is a relic of a Cold War framework in which democratic media systems are clearly different from and freer than authoritarian ones. That framework is long overdue for reassessment, and the current emphasis on “sustainability” in media aid – to the extent it concerns itself with other goals conterminous with or dependent on sustainability – can be read as the beginning of such a process. The process has been helped along by growing criticism in developed democracies that the media in general and broadcasting in particular are undermining representative democracy rather than enhancing it.

I understand sustainability to mean financial sustainability joined with a public-service editorial mission. Financial sustainability means the ability of a media firm to be economically viable in a country where the enabling conditions for sustainability – above all the rule of law – are in more or less in place. Unfortunately, transition states often lack enabling conditions. At a 2000 meeting convened by the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute, journalists from more than two dozen transition states identified the principal enabling conditions for a healthy media sector as follows:

  • Peace, stability, and tolerance
  • Pluralistic society
  • Basic conditions for survival
  • Favorable economic conditions for the media
  • Sufficient resources/equipment & infrastructure
  • Physical safety of journalists
  • Constitutional reform
  • Independent judiciary
  • Access to information
  • Access to media
  • Diversity of media outlets
  • Independent journalism associations
  • Self-regulation / ombudsmen / critical culture in journalism
  • Courage

Participants in the meeting also listed the major obstacles to a healthy media sector, obstacles that most knew from personal experience:

  • Government repression / archaic laws / emergency regulations
  • Religious suppression
  • Non-state repression / gangs and paramilitary
  • Partisan political corruption of journalists
  • Self-censorship
  • Lack of journalism training / unprofessionalism
  • Imbalance of media in urban and rural areas
  • Unsupportive culture / lack of public support
  • Unsupportive market / market fragmentation
  • Inadequate investment in public and journalism education
  • Dangerous work environment / conflict and war
  • Media concentration / opacity of corporate ownership
  • Privatization of public service media
  • Commercialism in media

Journalists themselves thus identify as critical enabling conditions for media development and sustainability many of the factors that scholars and donors identify as important for democratic transition generally: the rule of law, a healthy civil society, and favorable economic conditions.52 With respect to media development, at least, these things are not mutually exclusive. Criminal libel laws, licensing schemes, and value-added taxes, for example, function as both legal and economic restraints on the press. Religious repression, ethnic conflict, paramilitary threats, and rural poverty function as both civil society and economic barriers to media sustainability. Official corruption and organized crime inhibit civil society, economic development, and the rule of law.

Without conditions favorable to press freedom, it makes little or no sense to talk about sustainability in terms of market viability. In Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, currently, money alone cannot generate media sustainability. There and elsewhere, sustainability has to be understood in terms appropriate to the functions of media in the particular society. Monroe Price and Bethany Davis Noll have argued that in many states those functions are not so different from what they were a decade or more ago,53 and that the nature of sustainability depends on the goals of assistance. Potential goals include the following:

  • Crisis sustainability seeks to keep media financially afloat during periods of violent conflict and post-conflict, or in the aftermath of natural disasters. Here sustainability almost certainly depends on outside donors.
  • Incubator sustainability seeks to nourish a variety of new media with the expectation that some will survive and some will not. Most common in post-conflict or transition societies where the enabling environment is still a work in progress, incubator sustainability also pursues supplemental goals, such as promoting professionalism among journalists and developing a legal framework that promotes free and responsible expression.
  • Strategic sustainability seeks to further some political and economic goal, much in the way public diplomacy does. In November 2001, for example, the United States created Radio Free Afghanistan to promote democratic values in that country. Such media may not – and are not intended to – outlive their strategic purpose.
  • Election sustainability seeks to enable citizens to make an informed choice about candidates, as in the post-conflict elections in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and East Timor.

At least three of these forms of sustainability – crisis, strategic, and election – rely on the rule of law. Without it, any discussion of financial sustainability will be highly conditional if not nearly pointless; profits provide little protection against police raids and mobs. By rule of law, I mean that the government abides by its legal obligations under the constitution; that the police and military are accountable to civilian authorities; that the work of both legislative and administrative procedures are transparent and public; and that an independent judiciary provides an effective way for the public to protect its civil rights against encroachment by the government or concentrations of private power. The value of the rule of law, in short, is predictability and fairness. Without it, journalism lives under constant threat of arbitrary state action. At a minimum, the law has to guarantee journalists the freedom to gather and disseminate news without fear of criminal prosecution or violent attack.

Ideally, a host of ancillary rights flows from that basic freedom. Most important, perhaps, is a right of access to public places and proceedings and to government information. The rule of law also requires a regulatory framework that imposes as few burdens on speech as possible, so that media firms can serve their audiences, develop their markets, and ensure their financial independence. Where regulations are necessary – in determining how political candidates may acquire and use broadcast time during elections, for example – they must be clearly written, process-based, and narrowly drawn. And the state should eschew non-media regulations that have the effect of skewing the speech market – tax laws and licensing schemes are notorious in this regard.

Of course no bright line separates “stable” or “mature” legal systems and transition states from backsliders. Thomas Carothers, among others, has argued that a great many so-called transition states are not transitioning to anything, but instead are stuck in a vast “gray area” between authoritarianism and democracy.54 At any given time, it can be difficult to tell where on the continuum one of these gray-area states lies, partly because the judgment can depend on the measures one uses. Democratic progress comprises several independent variables, though none may be susceptible to easy measurement. For official purposes, and sometimes as well for journalistic ones, the most popular indicator of democratic momentum is a successful election (and ideally more than one) that is free and fair, and in which a majority of eligible voters participate. Elections have tangible qualities: they are usually bound by rules and fixed by time, and they can be observed, with votes counted and observations about process compared to electoral outcomes. Elections, in other words, can be evaluated more or less objectively. But of course an election by itself is no guarantee of democracy. Iraq, Ukraine, and Indonesia all held national elections in 2004 and 2005, and the eventual outcomes were generally judged fair, though perhaps in some other way seriously flawed. Each country still suffers from other critical problems, however, ranging from official corruption to criminal violence – in short, inadequate rule of law development.

In sum, then, it is one thing to identify clear threats to the press, and quite another to identify the essential contours of press independence. In 1985, researcher David Weaver and his colleagues argued against trying to apply the same model of press freedom to many countries, especially a model that seeks to compare industrialized countries with developing ones.55 All of the major press freedom and sustainability indices rely on values that are, if not subjective, at least not universal. And the measure most amenable to quantification, financial sustainability, is often subject to constraints that have less to do with economics than with near-ideological faith in the market. The market may well be a better devil to deal with than the government, and when they work properly, markets are at least predictable in their ruthlessness. Moreover, journalists in developing democracies typically have little or no experience of benign government involvement in the media sector, so for them market independence is the only option. But the judgments of the market may be no kinder to high-quality “independent” journalism than was the old authoritarian state.

In Guatemala, El Periodico continues to finds its way, with some success. Last year it developed several editorial products designed to attract not just new readers but new kinds of readers. The goal is to become “essential” reading (the specific objective of Readership Institute recommendations) for a much larger and more diverse audience, and to compete more vigorously with Prense Libre, Guatemala’s longstanding paper of record. El Periodico has launched a weekly supplement for kids and, to a great extent, by kids. The supplement, created by investigative editor Sylvia Gereda, has an advisory board made up entirely of teenagers, who drive the editorial content. A second new offering is El Periodico in Five Minutes, a daily news digest distributed as part of the main paper. The four-page digest summarizes the day’s major stories and features several of the paper’s best photographs. The supplement has proved enormously successful with women, especially housewives – a readership that El Periodico has heretofore been unable to reach. Managing editor Juan Luis Font is now making plans to distribute the supplement as a stand-alone publication on college campuses.

Finally, led by publisher José Ruben Zamora, El Periodico has developed a special weekly section on business and economics that focuses on economic policies and trends in Central America and the world, as well as on management issues. The supplement is more esoteric, even academic, than the usual newspaper business section or business magazine, and is intended to provide unique, added value to the economic elites who constitute most of El Periodico’s traditional readership. In addition to boosting subscription revenue, all of these supplements provide additional opportunities for advertising revenues.

In the newsroom next door, Nuestro Diario also continues to grow, providing its colorful snippets of sex and sensationalism to its audience of young, poor, and often poorly educated readers. Somewhere in between the editorial missions of these very different business enterprises lies a vision of Guatemala’s political future.


* Craig L. LaMay, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the editor most recently of Journalism and the Debate Over Privacy (Erlbaum, 2003). His book Exporting Press Freedom: Economic and Editorial Dilemmas in International Media Assistance, from which this article is adapted, is forthcoming from Transaction Books. Copyright 2006 by Craig L. LaMay.

1 Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 263.

2 See Lorne W. Cramer, “Promoting Free and Responsible Media: An Integral Part of America’s Foreign Policy,” U.S. Department of State, 2003, at (accessed June 15, 2004). Cramer was Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the first George W. Bush term. He is currently president of the International Republican Institute.

3 Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Manila, Philippines, author interview, Denpasar, Indonesia, September 10, 2002.

4 See Denis McQuail, Media Performance: Mass Communication and the Public Interest (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992); see also Daniel Halin and Paolo Mancini, Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

5 See, for example, William A. Hatchen and James F. Scotton, The World News Prism: Global Media in an Era of Terrorism , 6 th ed. (Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 168.

6 Thomas Carothers, Critical Mission: Essays in Democracy Promotion (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004), 262.

7 Jacques Barzun, “Is Democratic Theory for Export?” Society (March/April 1989): 16-23, 23.

8 Any number of journalism commentators have discussed the idea that Asia and the Muslim world are for cultural reasons poorly suited for democracy. For an academic discussion of the subject, see Huntington, The Third Wave.

9 The problem of productivity lag in inherently inefficient enterprises is known as “Baumol’s cost disease,” after William J. Baumol, the economist who first identified it using the analogy of a string quartet and the performance of a musical work. See William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma – A Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music and Dance (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1966).

10 See Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper Books, 1957).

11 See James T. Hamilton, All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information Into News (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).

12 See, for example, Herbert J. Gans, “Journalism, Journalism Education, and Democracy,” Journalism and Mass Communication Educator (Spring 2004), 10-16; Gilbert Cranberg, Randall Bezanson, and John Soloski, Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 2001); James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine Democracy (New York: Vintage, 1997); John S. Carroll, “The Wolf in Reporter’s Clothing: The Rise of Pseudo-Journalism in America,” Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2004,

13 Robert Dahl, Democracy and its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

14 Readership Institute research and publications are available at

15 Mark Fitzgerald, “Born in the USA,” Editor & Publisher (December 2004): 48-51.

16 Ibid.,48,49.

17 Ibid., 49.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., 50.

20 Ibid., 51.

21 Ibid.

22 See Leo Bogart, Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest (New York: Oxford, 1995). See also John C. Merrill, “International Media Systems: An Overview,” in Global Journalism: Topical Issues and Media Systems, eds. Merrill and Arnold S. de Beer (Boston: Pearson, 2004), 32-33. Merrill identifies the “great” “quality” newspapers of the world as Asahi (Japan), El Pais (Spain), Frankfurter Allgemeine (Germany), The Independent (U.K.), Le Monde (France), Los Angeles Times, Neue Zuercher Zeitung (Switzerland), The New York Times, Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Germany), and The Washington Post. Whatever the merits of the list, one thing can be said of it: all of the papers earn most of their revenues from advertising.

23 Anna Carolina Alpirez, executive editor, El Periodico, author interview, Guatemala City, October 14, 2004.

24 For a brief history of Guatemala’s experience between the U.S.-backed 1954 coup and restoration of civilian rule in December 1995, see Andrew Reding, “Democracy and Human Rights in Guatemala,” World Policy Institute, April 1997,

25 Official, unofficial, and academic sources report the number of dead and disappeared under Rios Montt’s rule between 19,000 to 200,000. The 200,000 figure comes from the U.S. State Department. See

26 An August 30, 2003, report by Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos, or PHD) determined that public officials had planned and executed the riots.

27 David Brewer, “Guatemala press freedom alarm,” BBC News World Edition, June 28, 2003, (accessed June 2, 2004).

28 Ibid.

29 Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to refer to events that were prepared and staged for news coverage. He first developed the idea in a 1960 article, the same year as the first televised presidential debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. See Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage, 1961).

30 Readership Institute,

31 “Auditing Your Newspaper’s ‘Experiences,'” Readership Institute, July 2004, 3,

32 See, for example, “Key Newspaper Experiences,” Readership Institute, July 2004, 3,

33 Richard Longworth, executive director, Global Chicago Center, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, author interview, Evanston, Illinois, April 16, 2005.

34 Juan Carlos Velazquez, sales manager, El Periodico, author interview, Guatemala City, September 16, 2004.

35 Carlos Gonzales Campo, general manager, El Periodico, author interview, Guatemala City, September 15, 2004.

36 Sheila Coronel, executive director, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, author interview, Queenstown, Md., May 31, 2000.

37 Thomas A. Bauer, “Two Schools of Thought,” deScripto: A Journal of Media in South Eastern Europe, No. 2 (Winter 2005): 4.

38 Jim Hoagland, “Media: Democracy in Jeopardy?” in Freedom and Responsibility Yearbook, 1998/99 (Vienna, Austria: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Representative of the Media, 1999), 109-112.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., at 110.

42 Mathatha Tsedu, remarks at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, March 7, 2005.

43 “Media statement by Johnnic Communications Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Connie Molusi,” November 10, 2003,

44 Anton Harber, “The hiring and firing of Mathatha Tsedu,” Business Day (November 14, 2003)., (accessed January 26, 2006).

45 Ibid.

46 James Miller, “Democratization and ‘Fact-Based’ Journalism: Donor Politics in East Central Europe,” paper presented at an International Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, London, January 5, 2002.

47 Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

48 For excellent overviews of the universe of media assistance, see Monroe E. Price, Bethany Davis Noll, and Daniel De Luce, Mapping Media Assistance (Oxford: The Programme in Comparative Media Law & Policy, 2002); Ellen Hume, The Media Missionaries: American Support for International Journalism (Miami, Florida: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, May 2002),; and James Miller, Democratization and Fact-Based Journalism: Donor Politics in East Central Europe (New York: Council for European Studies, 2001),

49 Hatchen and Scotton, The World News Prism, 32.

50 UNESCO, Declaration of Windhoek, Windhoek, Nambibia, May 3, 1991,

51 For a wonderful explanation of democracy and its conflicting theories, see Barzun, “Is Democratic Theory for Export?.”

52 See Monroe Price and Peter Krug, The Enabling Environment for a Free and Independent Media. (Washington, D.C.: United States Agency for International Development, 2002),

53 Monroe E. Price and Bethany Davis Noll, Media Sustainability: Democracy and Development (Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute, 2002),

54 Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy (January 2002): 5-21.

55 David H. Weaver, J.M. Buddenbaum, and J.E. Fair, “Press Freedom, Media, and Development, 1950-1979: A Study of 134 Nations,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1985): 104-117.