Can non-profit journalism save the day?

September 20, 2010

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ ”

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?
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The Job Of The Week

September 6, 2010

One of the best places for a comms professional to find news about jobs is on the Job Of The Week email. This is mainly, but not exclusively, US, and includes most forms of comms – PR, internal comms, social media.   

It comes in the form of a long email, and can be found at www.nedsjotw.com. It is put together co-operatively by members who send jobs.  If you find out about a job opportunity in communications, send it to Ned Lundquist (lundquist989@cs.com), and he’ll share it. Sign up by sending a blank e-mail to JOTW-subscribe@topica.com. There are over 11,000 subscribers.

Some examples: 

  1. Communication for Development Specialist (Polio Eradication),  UNICEF, New Delhi, India
  2. The Phoenix Art Museum is seeking a Director of Marketing & Public Relations
  3. Fall Intern, Marketing Strategy & Operations (unpaid internship), Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Atlanta, GA
  4. Senior Manager; Corporate Communications (PT), AstraZeneca, Wilmington, Delaware
  5. Lecturer: Social and Behaviour Change Communication, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  6. Marketing/Communications Manager, Oregon Zoo, Portland, OR
  7. Associate Director of Alumni Relations Communications, The American University, Washington, DC
  8. Art Director, Photography, Victoria’s Secret Direct, New York, NY
  9. Internal Communications Manager, Tesco-VMA Group, Hertfordshire, UK
  10. Communication Specialist, Outreach to Development Professionals,  L-3, United Nations Children’s Fund, USA

I’ll be posting a few more items about jobs in the next week.


About getting shot

May 20, 2010

From time to time, a Western journalist on assignment gets shot. It gets into the news and it upsets their family and friends. If they survive, they write about it, and the paper puts it on the front page, if they write for a paper.
This week, that was Andrew Buncombe from The Independent. He was apparently hit in the thigh by shotgun pellets while reporting from Bangkok. He seems OK at time of writing, which one judges by the fact that he has a piece on the front page of the paper.
It is an admirable piece, evocative and immediate first person reporting though with less use of the vertical pronoun than he might have indulged in given the circumstances. His injury is mentioned some way through the article, is not its main feature. and in my edition, anyway, is not featured on the front page. It made the BBC news this morning, though, so they will have sold papers, his wounds.
And that is his job: selling papers. He is very good at it. As a talented young home reporter Andy made a name for himself in London, went to Washington to cover America, which he did with great credit, and then got a job in India covering Asia from New Delhi. He is an unassuming guy with a great sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase.
Selling papers means the Independent will make a little more money today than yesterday (or lose a little less) which is good. That the paper still has correspondents of the calibre of Andy is a minor miracle, given their resources, and the fact that he was in place in Bangkok is testament to the paper’s continuing commitment to international news. But it is spread thin. Andy covers Asia, which extends from the Kamchatka peninsula to Afghanistan, including China and India. “Being there” is a critical part of Andy’s job, the bit he enjoys most and which is probably most important. “Being there” means seeing things and speaking with people and, sometimes, getting shot.
Lots of other people got shot, of course. Non-journalists get shot and it doesn’t make the front page or Radio 4. Lots of Thai civilians got shot and their faceless, nameless bodies lie on the street in the photographs we see in the papers. When a journalist gets shot his or her name and face get in the paper, and make us take notice of the fact that someone is loosing off shotguns in places where civilians get hurt. Which is the job of a foreign correspondent.
The “foreign” part matters. Foreigners bring a degree of detachment and distance (sometimes helpfully, sometimes not) to reporting. And the fact that Andy has reported conflict elsewhere gives him an advantage in reporting. Injuries to foreigners also get taken more seriously than injuries to locals. That is wrong, but given that it is a fact, it is good that an injury to a foreigner brings attention to what has happened to many others in silence.
Andy probably has insurance and a flak jacket (not on his arse, though) and an evacuation service and hostile environment training, and a foreign editor who (mostly) loves him, and a salary and expenses. These are the benefits of being a foreign correspondent and not a local or a stringer or a tourist or a citizen journalist. Citizen journalism has done terrific things, but if you ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers then you need to do more than just thank them. And we should ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers, because that ensures things get reported quickly, effectively, plurally, openly, that people with skill and insight and experience bring us the first draft of history. Selling newspapers means getting timely, authoritative information to large groups of people, at its best.
It costs. It costs lives, of course, but it is also expensive. My interest in its continuation is partly emotional but partly professional concern for seeing international affairs reported by professionals with appropriate support through multiple channels. This means money. I remember a foreign editor, years ago, being told by a colleague that a correspondent had been caught in a helicopter gunship attack. “He is OK,” the colleague said, “but the hire car is a write-off.”
“Hire car?” Said the foreign editor. “Who told him he could hire a car?”
The correspondent was fine. I hope Andy is also fine and wish him and Nisha well.


Biz news focusses on Wall St, not Main St

October 6, 2009

Most economic and business news in the recent recession focussed on policy and markets – New York and Washington, in American terms. So says a study released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“Citizens may be the primary victims of the downturn, but they have not been not the primary actors in the media depiction of it.,” it says.

Newspapers probably do a better job of reporting the local aspects and the people stories. “Newspaper front pages stood out for devoting the most attention to the economy, offering more localized coverage, giving voice to a more diverse range of sources and producing a higher level of enterprise reporting than other media sectors,” the study says.

Business and economic news will probably benefit – overall – from the shift to digital. People pay for it, and want both quick, fast-moving stories and deep analysis. But the content they will want – or want to pay for – will be market-focussed. Local economic news – which can matter a lot for local business development people, and for local communities – will likely suffer. Worth remembering: it is not just investigations and local politics that will be hit as newspapers fold. It is easy to just take agency and slam in the Reuters or Dow Jones copy.


Rescuing The Reporters

October 3, 2009

Internethead Clay Shirky does what he calls a “news biopsy” and discovers: “real” news is one sixth of a paper (and of its staff). “I wanted to see how much newspaper content was what Alex Jones calls the iron core of news — reporters going after facts — and how much was “other stuff” — opinion columns, sports, astrology, weather, comics, everything that was neither a hard news story or an ad.”


Wolff on Murdoch’s internet phobia

October 3, 2009

Fascinating piece in Vanity Fair by Michael Wolff on Rupert Murdoch and his attitude towards the internet. Younger, tech-savvy readers will find it hilarious; older, inky-fingered sorts will find themselves feeling strangely warm towards the man. “Murdoch’s abiding love of newspapers has turned into a personal antipathy to the Internet: for him it’s a place for porn, thievery, and hackers.”


Do Limbaugh and Sun affect voters?

October 3, 2009

Do the media shape politics, or are they themselves shaped by it?

The Sun newspaper has just announced that it has stopped backing Labour, and instead backs the Conservatives. This is, in its way, a very significant event: the paper’s decision to back Labour in 1997 removed the last prop from the Conservative government of John Major, which lost the subsequent election.

But the media don’t make elections, despite the Sun’s claim in an earlier election that “It was the Sun Wot Won It.” Academic John Curtice has made a small cottage industry of analysing this claim, and is pretty clear that it wasn’t, and it won’t be this time either. “Certainly Labour’s leadership took the supposed power of the newspaper sufficiently seriously to devote considerable effort during the course of the 1992-7 parliament to persuading the paper’s staff and above all its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that ‘New Labour’ was a party they could back,” he says. But: “When it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all.”

The Fabian society’s blog reports this and analyses it here. The Independent demolishes the thesis. “The idea that people read their favourite newspaper’s instructions and then robotically go out and vote is laughable – and certainly not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, in this instance, The Sun is plainly following public opinion, rather than shaping it. The opinion polls show that the public mood in much of the country swung against Labour some time ago.”

“The real influence of newspapers lies not in their hold over the votes of their readers, but in their hold over elected politicians.”

Meanwhile, David Brooks, conservative columnist at the New York Times, makes the same points about talk radio hosts, and Rush Limbaugh in particular. “Over the years, I have asked many politicians what happens when Limbaugh and his colleagues attack. The story is always the same. Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.”

And he agrees, too, that the politicians and various others conspire to make it look as if these guys matter. “They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.”

“The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.”

The media are part of the complex political ecology of decision-making, opinion forming and attitude shaping, but only part; and they are as much acted upon as actors. Simple conspiracy arguments about the “power of the media” mistake cause and effect, misunderstand the way people consume media, and over simplify the decisions that ordinary people take about politics.