Sasa Vucinic and the organization he co-founded are creating a new class of media entrepreneurs by providing affordable and targeted capital coupled with management and technological know-how. The capital and know-how, taken together, strengthen independent media, particularly in places where it is most challenged and under threat—in the developing world.
The New Idea
A Belgrade-based journalist and editor, Sasa saw in the early 1990s how the absence of accurate information and fair, unbiased reporting could allow any government to manipulate a population and entice it even so far as into civil war. He experienced how the lack of access to affordable capital can stifle independent media and prevent the emergence and sustainability of independent news and knowledge channels, especially in challenging social environments like his native Yugoslavia. To transform the independent media sector in the developing world and societies in transition Sasa co-founded Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF), a New York-based social investment fund that offers affordable financing to independent media outlets. Since it began in 1996, MDLF has supported media outlets in 24 countries which together reach over 29 million people. The fund has deployed about US$75M in low interest loans and equity investments, and approximately US$10M in grants for technical assistance and capacity-building. Since its inception, the loan repayment rate of the fund is 97 percent. While the provision of affordable capital is the main offering, MDLF and is also creating a new class of media entrepreneurs grounded in sound business practices that do not violate the enormously important social role media has to play in its community. Sasa and his team guide clients through a change process that results in the adoption of practices eventually leading to profitability. Importantly, the process also changes the self-identity of independent media professionals so that they approach their role as entrepreneurs creating a new system rather than activists fighting the status quo. Another key aspect is that clients are connected to each other so they can contribute to and learn from a community of peers—their counterparts in other societies. With these pieces in place—critical support to individual organizations and media entrepreneurs, and a collaborative peer group—Sasa is strengthening the infrastructure to support the sector by designing new lending instruments and experimenting with shared ownership models for media companies.
More than three-quarters of the world’s population—roughly 5 billion people—lack reliable, current, objective information about the societies in which they live. They also lack accurate and unbiased explanations on political processes initiated “in their name” and “on their behalf,” as well as serious analysis and independent opinions about whose interests are being served in various public actions. Government, specific political parties or economic interests all dramatically influence, if not control, the content of media outlets. This problem exists in much of the world and is especially pronounced in emerging democracies. Established democracies may appear unbiased, but are susceptible to the same influences: Media concentration dramatically reduces the number of independent voices that shape public opinion and define a social agenda. In many developing countries the nascent indigenous independent media outlets—press, television, radio, and web-based media—offer an alternative view or opinion. Yet even where the political environment is supportive, significant challenges remain.
Access to affordable capital for independent media companies was the first and main challenge Sasa observed as a journalist. Like other businesses, media companies need capital to establish themselves and to grow, and no such capital existed to finance independent media. If assistance could be found, it was in the form of small grants extended by media assistance institutions. While their aid helped enormously in the short-term, the approach did not set up organizations to establish sustainable and stable organizations.
But even if affordable capital were available, Sasa saw that the requisite skills were lacking to manage it, thereby successfully turning the investment into a sustainable organization that would ensure editorial independence and fuel expansion. Most journalists were stuck in two ways—skill-set and mindset. Their training—and, typically, their natural bent as well—did not favor an entrepreneurial orientation that depends on the development of a strong business infrastructure. Explaining goals in a grant proposal felt more “right” than organizing to adopt new business practices that could ensure future sustainability and expansion through profits. Obviously new skills and new mindsets were needed. Maybe even more: A new entrepreneurial role-model who had built editorially independent and, at the same time, self-sustainable independent media companies, starting from scratch.
Finally, Sasa saw that independent media entrepreneurs were lone actors: They lacked a community of peers. This challenge diminished the spirit of the independent media workforce and the efficacy of the global industry niche. Especially in the mid-1990s, few structured and sustained ways existed to find and collaborate with peers across the country, let alone across the world. Ad hoc groups hosted a conference or a workshop and there were trade industry groups such as associations of big newspapers. But a community of similarly-spirited, committed independents trying to operate in particularly challenging environments—this had not formed when Sasa started his work. A vehicle to build an entrepreneurial and independent media sector—a global peer group of colleagues—was needed.
To build an entrepreneurial and sustainable independent media sector, Sasa and his team support individual outlets and media entrepreneurs, groups of media peers, and a new architecture to strengthen the sector. The vehicle that guides this work is Media Development Loan Fund, a New York-based 501(c)(3), which Sasa co-founded in 1995. (MDLF has staff teams in Prague and Warsaw and associative teams in Moscow and Jakarta.)
First, MDLF identifies a country in which the independent media sector can benefit greatly from the organization’s low-cost financing. The next step is to identify outlets within that country that provide reliable, professional, politically unaffiliated, and unbiased media content and are in need of affordable financing. After investigating the needs of outlets through a series of meetings with key staff and owners, MDLF’s Investment Committee decides if it will finance those needs, and what kind of investment (loan, lease, or equity investment) would be most appropriate. The support that MDLF has pioneered helps every client in a sustained way; transitioning from a nonprofit, grant-supported or loss-making outlet to a stable, self-sustainable and proactive media company, thus ensuring its independent voice. MDLF support ranges from help with developing a business plan in the initial stages of applying for MDLF financing, to assistance in selecting and installing equipment, to advice on how to improve company ownership structures and sales through advertising.
Once an outlet is an MDLF client, it must submit financial reports on a monthly basis. MDLF then monitors and analyzes the company’s finances with the client’s management team, ensures that business plan projections are met, and maintains regular contact to discuss everything that can be improved—from human resources management to distribution strategy. If the company needs specialist assistance, MDLF connects them with a relevant expert; whenever possible, another client with experience of the problems provides hands-on, on-site support in the area of need.
Sasa saw that clients, at a minimum, needed to know of each other—better yet, they needed to feel part of a global movement of media entrepreneurs. Therefore, in 2001 MDLF formed its Media Forum. Attended by 100 to 150 client participants, forums are designed largely by participants who suggest topics and facilitate and guide sessions. Topics range from the very practical such as how to manage a newsroom to big picture perspectives on the evolving role of journalism and new media technologies. The forums are planned to allow a lot of time for participants to guide their own learning through collaboration. Clients who are early in their transition attend through a modest travel grant, whereas clients at a later stage of development and institutional maturity (and profitability) pay their own travel expenses. Decentralizing peer connections is an important design principle of MDLF’s efforts to establish a global community that owns and guides itself. MDLF also makes available small travel grants for media entrepreneurs to visit one another as they identify needs that colleagues can meet or advise on.
In 2007 new investment tools to fuel growth and allow MDLF to make a greater positive difference were introduced—a “Family of Funds” approach. Instead of one big general fund, MDLF presently manages seven funds, each with distinct investment ideas, risk profiles, and client profiles.
In terms of expansion, MDLF is building a new strategy to connect with harder-to-reach, smaller independent media actors. The strategy is to form “affiliate” funds, which support indigenous media organizations that can—and do—act as little MDLFs, making loans on a smaller scale to community radio stations, or regional small-circulation newspapers. The affiliate model is now working in Russia, where MDLF started its work in 1997, and in Indonesia, where MDLF partners with an Ashoka Fellow to on-lend to small local radio stations, with loans up to US$2,000 each.
Sasa began his career as a reporter at the weekly political magazine NON, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief. From 1990 to 1993, he was Editor-in-Chief and general manager of Radio B-92 in Belgrade—now former Yugoslavia’s most celebrated independent radio station.
In 1994, Sasa worked as a media consultant for Open Society Institute in a grant-making role to electronic media groups in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It was during this time that he met Stuart Auerbach, a Washington Post reporter who was OSI’s consultant for print media. Put on the same team by accident, the two created a deep and productive cooperative relationship. Thus, a seasoned reporter and the former editor of a nascent independent radio in an emerging democracy became the team that re-thought classical media assistance. Auerbach taught Sasa the power of mentoring—not just opening doors, but guiding through a set of obstacles, an approach Sasa has grafted into the way his team guides a change process with its client groups. Auerbach became the founding Chairman of the Board of Directors of MDLF.
Sasa pitched the idea for MDLF to George Soros—not once, but three times! On the third try, Mr. Soros agreed to fund the idea with a half million dollars, although he was convinced the idea wouldn’t work. This was 1995. Initially, Sasa had in mind to start a “development bank for independent media,” but he soon realized that without the provision of training, guidance, technology transfer, and capacity-building, clients would fail and with them, the risky new loan fund. A venture fund model appeared to be better fit.
In 1996, MDLF made its first investment in a Slovak newspaper, established by journalists who had simply walked out of a state-run newspaper to launch an independent one. They set up in a warehouse, bringing in desks, chairs, and computers from their homes. They were a committed, principled reporting team that knew little about how to run an independent media outlet. MDLF loaned the group US$350,000 to cover the cost of a small printing machine and other infrastructure expenditures. The targeted investment, and the supports that Sasa and his team offered, turned the group into a vibrant, sustainable media company, now one of the two biggest media groups in Slovakia. In 2000, having repaid the loan, the group’s entrepreneurial leader, a journalist, committed US$10,000 of his own money to MDLF. With it, he asked of MDLF: “Please give someone else the same chance you gave to us.”