Media – the uncharted terrain of sustainable business

Studying the media industry has been at the blind spot for business sustainability scholars for long time, but not anymore. It's time to look at media, their responsibilities as businesses and their role in society with a holistic approach, writes Researcher Laura Olkkonen from LUT School of Business and Management.

The #MediaContradictions project is about approaching the contradictory challenges of the media industry from the perspective of sustainable business models. It might be surprising that sustainable business scholars have rarely examined media in their case studies, but a few recent examples show that the interest is picking up (see, for example, studies by Painter-Morland & Deslandes, Olkkonen, and an edited book by Altmeppen, Hollifield & van Loon).

But why have business sustainability scholars had a blind spot when it comes to studying the media industry? Some might say that this is because the media industry is such a specific kind of a context. Others might argue that there already is a well-established research field studying the ethics and responsibilities of media organizations (relying mostly on the tradition of journalism studies) – the field of media ethics. These are fair arguments, as there is no denying that media is a unique industry, as no other industry serves such a foundational role as one of the cornerstones of democratic societies.

However, there is also no denying that commercial media of today operate with a clear business logic, under pressure to produce, publish, gain and keep customers, and to create economic value – sometimes to the extent that the limits of responsible behavior are at risk. Clickbaiting and breaches of privacy are cases in point. Not only is the competition getting fiercer among media houses, but also the traditional role of media as the gatherer and circulator of information is challenged in the age when anyone can publish to a potentially global audience, or even "be" a media in themselves.

There is an abundance of phenomena that are challenging media as we have known it: there are new technologies and data like never before, there is disinformation, populism, and hate speech, and almost a borderless world for information sharing. While the societal role of media is no doubt still very central, the global results of the Edelman Trust Barometer show that trust in media has been under strain for several years, adding another challenge to how media companies rethink and redefine their roles, missions, and the way they do business.

It's time to look at media, their responsibilities as businesses and their role in society with a holistic approach.

Our #MediaContradictions project starts with the assumption that it's time to look at media, their responsibilities as businesses and their role in society with a holistic approach. Sustainable business models serve as a lens for such an approach, as sustainable business models integrate social or environmental sustainability into the company strategy and value creation mechanisms, as explained by Bocken, Short, Rana and Evans. With this perspective, sustainability is not an add-on to business nor a way to compartmentalize sustainability only to some parts of the organization, but a way to do business – by creating sustainable value.

While the media industry is unique and some responsibilities truly only apply to media organizations, these responsibilities are not unconnected to business or other responsibilities. Rather, the media industry has a unique mix of both industry-specific and more generic responsibilities, as has been advocated by actors such as the Responsible Media Forum and the Global Reporting Initiative.

Among the first steps of the project, we are looking into what media companies are currently doing in terms of sustainability and responsible business. Our interest is both in large well-known actors in Finland and more broadly in Europe, but also in smaller media companies, especially budding media startups, that are building sustainable business models and basing their business on sustainable values. Stay tuned!

Laura Olkkonen acts as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at LUT School of Business and Management. Her research focuses on business-society relations and CSR communication. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraolkkonen.

The original text was published on #MediaContradictions website. #MediaContradictions is a research project that examines the potential of sustainable business models in the Finnish media sector. The project is funded by the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation. For more information, visit the project's website.