Battered Journalism: Nonprofits to the Rescue?
Battered Journalism: Nonprofits to the Rescue?
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023
Speech / Global

Battered Journalism: Nonprofits to the Rescue?

Speech by Kimberly Abbott, Crisis Group's Communications Director for North America, at the Turner Strategies MediaMorphosis discussion series, held at the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, Washington, DC.

In recent weeks, months and years, we’ve gotten extremely mixed signals when it comes to the future of reporting, and especially in the realm of international news. Indeed, the sustainability of journalism is no longer just a matter debated in editors’ offices. Just recently, John Stewart grilled John Meachem of the faltering Newsweek about the future of the field. But beyond Newsweek’s particular misfortune, Stewart pointed out the larger issue at stake: “Who is going to be doing the reporting?” he asked. “Because if we’re all aggregators, if we’re all commenting, if we’re all analyzing, who is going to be doing the reporting?”

For those of us who use the news to understand the world beyond our borders, things are especially murky. Public television – long a medium that has given outsize attention to foreign issues – has recently lost (at last count) three internationally-focused news and documentary programs: World Focus, Foreign Exchange and NOW with Bill Moyers. Staff cuts at ABC News, CBS and others are sure to further erode their already limited international reporting capacity, and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post are continuing to close overseas bureaus. But on the other hand, it should be noted that NPR – which, according to the newest figures from Pew, provides the most foreign news of any traditional outlet – has managed to both hold its audience base and attract more donations in the past year, in defiance of the shaky economy. And, of course, one of the country’s great war correspondents, Christiane Amanpour, recently won a coveted Sunday-morning spot at ABC – sparking talk about a new emphasis on foreign policy in a slot dominated by domestic politics.

Meanwhile, nonprofit and for-profit start-ups like GlobalPost, the Bureau for International Reporting, ProPublica, and armies of bloggers are making an impact. Their growth figures and professional accomplishments show some promise. ProPublica’s Pulitzer win this year showed that Web-based journalism is delivering quality. Foreign affairs-specialist GlobalPost’s 30% growth rate has pushed it past one million visitors a month, and it has formed partnerships with about two dozen newspapers across the country – this in a time when domestic politics and economics have dominated the traditional news cycle.

Newspaper editors are looking for ways to deliver foreign news to their readers, even if they can no longer originate it, and the numbers show that they’re willing to give these new models a try. However, most of these start-ups have only been around for only a few short years or are still trying to create sustainable funding schemes, so we can’t yet say that they represent the future of news.

With so much uncertainty in the air, and with the news industry being transformed around us, I think now is as good a time as any to ask what the exact purpose of the media is – since that will help us to determine who in this new landscape qualifies to do it, and who does not. Speaking at the US Institute of Peace last year, Queen Noor of Jordan said the following: “News broadcasters often say that they are only showing the world as it is, and commercial media producers often say they are only giving their audience what they want to see. But those who report the news are public servants in the most obvious sense. We rely on them to tell us what we need to know about the world, not the other way around. They have a special responsibility to the public, which certainly deserves our consideration, analysis and discussion.”

So while broadcast, print and Web battle it out, where does that leave organizations like the International Crisis Group? How does this public service mandate fit with what we do? I think a bit of the answer can be found in another quote – this one from our president and CEO, Louise Arbour. “Our prescriptions for action, included in our reports, do not reflect the advancement of any particular state interest. They reflect, or so we hope, the advancement of the interest of the people concerned, and through the search for peace, the advancement of some international values and principles such as the protection of human rights, the advancement of democracy and the promotion of the Rule of Law.” The New York Times may not share that mission in so many words, but it really isn’t all that different. To the Times, perhaps, transparency and accountability are the most important public interests they serve through their product. At Crisis Group, we’d add peace to that list, and when that peace is threatened we make an effort to protect it. As long as we make that clear to our audience, are we any less valuable a news source?

And NGOs are certainly not the only sector with agendas in the media world. It was reported just last month, for example, that the New Jersey Devils hockey team has hired its own reporter to provide coverage at a time when the local press have been cutting their sports staff. One area editor said of the arrangement: “As long as it served our readers and we told them where that content was coming from, the readers were fine with it.”

In its 2010 study of the state of the news media, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed out that “the ranks of self-interested information providers are now growing rapidly” – including not just think-tanks and aid groups, but political parties, corporations, and the government itself. And this is just the most recent episode of the long and voluminous history of unspoken personal interests of those who produce the news. The lead-up to the Iraq War is a potent recent example of how these biases operate behind the scenes, only to be revealed once the damage has been done. But on the other end of the spectrum is a recent story from the public radio show “Marketplace” about the dark side of the Chinese adoption system. The story was powerful and well-produced, leaving the listener feeling that reforms should be put in place to safeguard these vulnerable children – an indisputably noble goal. But it turns out (and the program, to its credit, made this clear) that the journalists who reported the story had themselves adopted children from China. Their experiences must have informed their reporting in some way, or at least inspired them to take on the story when they otherwise wouldn’t. So while the consequences sometimes turn out positive and sometimes negative, the media’s purity of purpose has always been more strived after than practiced. Indeed, anyone who watches cable news today understands how ideology affects how events are covered. As Campbell Brown said recently, after tendering her resignation at CNN: “People are drawn to the echo chamber, and they want to have their opinions validated more often than they want to have their opinions challenged….And trying to present an unbiased perspective is simply harder.”

Now, speaking as a former reporter, it must of course be said that what we do at Crisis Group is not journalism as we’ve been trained to understand it. Crisis Group’s primary mission is to provide high-level policy makers with the best possible conflict analysis and advice. Unlike many other very worthy organizations – like Amnesty International, the Enough Project or Save Darfur – our advocacy does not move from the grass roots upwards. But we also understand that if you want to get policy changed, you often need to get not just top politicians, but also the public on your side. That stance is reflected in our communications strategy. We make all of Crisis Group’s reports and recommendations available for free on our website, in the same form that our contacts at governments and fellow NGOs receive them. We do this not because it’s simpler that way, but because we believe the public deserves – and can handle – the best analysis out there.

But there are a few ways in which we, and other NGOs, really are different from a news source like CNN. First, organizations like Crisis Group have overriding missions that go beyond simply informing the public and mean that we aren’t free from judgment or bias. That means, for example, that in a conflict situation we’re willing to lay blame squarely on a party that we feel is working against peace. The media, on the other hand, is by nature less judgmental, and there is value in that. Second, even for those few groups with robust communications departments, being active in the press can be risky or simply impractical. In September of last year, for example, UNICEF spokesman James Elder was expelled from Sri Lanka after telling the media about the “unimaginable hell” suffered by children caught in the final stages of the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government forces. Of course, journalists faced the government’s wrath in Sri Lanka, too. But when it comes to putting one’s neck out for a story, the risk-reward calculus for an NGO like UNICEF is different than that of a cable network. For many NGOs, getting kicked out over an unfavorable quote means losing the ability to give aid to those in need or protect the vulnerable. And sometimes it just isn’t worth it to break that story. It’s a calculation NGOs are constantly making. And third, we lack the resources and distribution capacity needed to reach millions of people for 24 hours a day, so I don’t think Rupert Murdoch has anything to fear from us..

But there are many other organizations out there doing the same things we are, and our collective output is significant, and filling a gap. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, I read and watched stories about the potential for sex trafficking in the makeshift tent cities, about micro-lending enterprises that spontaneously emerged as ordinary Haitians found ways to earn a living, about children flying homemade kites made from what little they had, about teachers using tree-mounted chalkboards to instruct outdoor classrooms full of eager pupils, about an innovative radio show that is broadcasting lifesaving health and nutrition information and about the dangers of the impending rainy season. They were reported by former journalists from NPR, CNN and the LA Times, who now work for groups like International Medical Corps, CARE and Save the Children. These groups are worked in concert with mainstream media and supplemented their work to an even greater degree. For example, CNN’s Cooper and countless other journalists told the amazing story of a 5-year-old boy, Monley Elize, who was pulled from the rubble 8 days after the quake hit. His bravery and survival captured worldwide attention, but search for the boy’s name today and the place you will find him is on IMC’s website – with pictures of him playing soccer and stories about his recovery. The organization’s communications staff is doing all the follow-up stories a foreign correspondent living in the country might once have.

A few more examples: Back here in Washington, Foreign Policy magazine has developed an impressive line-up of international news blogs that serve both the wonks inside the beltway and interested readers worldwide. One of the most prominent is the AfPak Channel, which covers the latest developments surrounding U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The blog, however, is actually a collaboration between the magazine and the New America Foundation – a nonprofit think-tank. Both provide content and funding, so it’s difficult to tell where the think-tank ends and the magazine begins. Another example: In 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations won an Emmy for Crisis Guide: Darfur in the category of “New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming: Current News Coverage.” And last year, it won in the business category for Crisis Guide: The Global Economy, beating out entries from CNBC, CBS, and the Wall Street Journal. At Crisis Group, we have provided TV stations with video and photos from places they can’t reach, and we’ve even taken crews from ABC and CBS out into the field to find stories that they don’t have the time or resources to cover properly. It may be too early to tell whether these sorts of arrangements will succeed – or provide quality reporting – but they are happening with increasing frequency.

In listening to my comments, you might have noticed that in this industry, at this moment, nothing is clear cut. The fact is that none of us know what will happen. And for us at Crisis Group, like the other nonprofits here, our primary focus is on saving the world; saving journalism is very much a secondary concern. We’re not interested in competing with the news media and we would like nothing better than to have international reporting come roaring back. But the fact remains that we may become a news source in spite of that fact. If consumers can’t be convinced to pay for content, and if for-profit news organizations can’t revamp their business models, then consumers may use our material as a substitute for traditional news whether its in our mission or not.

What we are doing is trying to ready ourselves for that possibility. Indeed, taking on the media’s mantle wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for many on our staff, who have reinvented themselves as NGO workers after careers at TIME, AFP and the Washington Post. Our Turkey/Cyprus Project Director, Hugh Pope, who previously worked as the Wall Street Journal’s Mideast correspondent, put it this way in a recent podcast: “Even though it’s not a journalistic narrative and it’s not for a broad audience, we [at Crisis Group] can say everything we find in the field. And, in a way, it’s everything I wanted journalism to be but it never was…We’re able to give a much fuller explanation of the basics of the situation than you can ever do in a journalistic narrative by the very nature of what newspaper journalism is…We fill a gap that’s emerging. Serious journalists are now thin on the ground…and so if somebody wants a basic briefing on what’s going on in a country…we can give a basic primer that is actually valid for two or three years after we write it because it’s so deeply reported that it stands the test of time.”

Thanks to the digital revolution, consumers no longer have to simply take what the media serves up – they can be the curators of their own news experience. They are using new media platforms to find the news they want, comment on it, share it with others, and even create news of their own. We are operating now in a direct-to-consumer environment, and we know there are individuals out there who are looking for the type of content we provide and may not be getting it from the news media. Given this new level of empowerment, we expect that consumers will start thinking of Crisis Group and other NGOs as stand-alone sources of information – sources that they can rely on consistently for insight and analysis of international events.

To meet this need, we’re taking advantage of as many platforms as possible to get our reporting out to those who seek it. We have to be working in all media – new and old. It would be far easier if one thing were replacing another – if YouTube replaced TV. But what's really happening is ten things are being added to another. At the same time, depending on their age, location or ability to pay, different audiences are using different media to different degrees. We’ll have the maximum impact if we our reports can reach the 60-year-old ambassador in Kigali, the 35-year-old analyst in Washington, and the 20-year-old college student in Jakarta, so we need to be working in all of the platforms that they use.

Our email-based subscription service gives more than 150,000 readers access to our reports and monthly alerts updates. We use Twitter and Facebook to alert readers about op-eds our experts have written, so even if they don’t get a newspaper on their doorstep they’ll get the same information. We’ve developed blogs to give readers fuller coverage of issues like African peacebuilding, a collaborative RSS feed with other NGOs operating in under-reported countries, and acclaimed podcasts that anyone can download for free on iTunes or stream on our website.

In one recent example, our statement condemning Israel’s attack on an aid flotilla got about 2,000 visitors the first day, with more than a quarter coming from Facebook. (Twitter was third.) A huge number of retweets and Facebook messages shared first the statement, then our president’s op-ed, and then a subsequent podcast with the head of our Middle East program. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs even directly countered our messages via Twitter – twice.

This has happened in many previous cases, especially when Crisis Group provides the definitive view of a conflict. When last month we made our case for war crimes charges against the government of Sri Lanka, the website played an important role, recording over 10,000 visits to the relevant page in the first four days, and 3,000 views of a related multimedia presentation that featured an interactive timeline, photos and video. We received many visitors from traditional outlets like Britain’s Channel 4 TV, as well as Facebook and Twitter, demonstrating that both new and old media are important for getting our message out. Former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband even sent a public message to his 25,000 followers on Twitter that read: “Government must follow up devastating Crisis Group report on war crimes in Sri Lanka.” Similar responses occurred after the stadium massacre in Guinea last year, the Russia-Georgia war, and others.

But the important thing is that all of this sharing and tweeting revolves around a rigorously researched product that – we hope – people took the time to actually read. If they are doing that, then there can be no better proof of the public’s appetite for quality information about our world. They may find it in their daily newspaper, and they might find it at an NGO; either way, we’ll be ready for them.

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