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May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

April 20 2011

16:00

Chasing pageviews with values: How the Christian Science Monitor has adjusted to a web-first, SEO’d world

Editor’s note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of my favorite papers presented was by Drury’s Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the newsroom of the Christian Science Monitor to observe its transition from a daily print newspaper to a web-first newsroom with a weekly print edition. That transition required shifts in operations, in culture, and in the kind of journalism the Monitor produces.

Their full paper (pdf) is worth a read for its analysis of how those changes were made and what was gained and lost. But I’ve asked them to write a summary of their findings for the Lab. As they write, it’s up to you to judge how much this counts as a tragedy or a success for journalism.

We’ve seen a flood of innovations over the past few years in journalism on the web: from technology and the delivery of news to new forms of storytelling and reporting. But making those innovations happen has been neither fast nor easy. How do you manage meaningful change that sticks? That question drives our research.

Since October 2009, we have immersed ourselves in the Christian Science Monitor as it took the “web-first” mantra beyond platitudes and abandoned its daily print edition.

It was a difficult, wrenching process for many journalists used to the rhythm of the daily newspaper and concerned about the fate of the Monitor’s serious take on the news of the day. But the lessons learned along the way are valuable for any legacy news organization.

Like many newspapers, the Monitor faced a critical moment in 2008. Its national circulation had plummeted from 220,000 in 1970 to 52,000. Revenue was dwindling. And its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, told newsroom managers the paper’s $12 million annual subsidy would be slashed to $4 million in five years. Such moments are fear-inducing and disruptive. They are also opportunities for meaningful change.

Monitor editor John Yemma and publisher Jonathan Wells developed a plan: Remove the shackles of the daily print edition, increase pageviews, and aggressively pursue online advertising. The paper also maintained a weekly print edition that allowed it to continue doing some longer-form journalism.

They set a clear five-year newsroom target: Drive pageviews from 3 million per month to 25 million. And they reached it.

Key to the Monitor’s transformation was having strong change agents who were able to challenge deeply embedded cultural assumptions and push the newsroom toward thinking about things differently — even if it sometimes meant ruffling some feathers. Leading the way were Yemma, managing editor Marshall Ingwerson, and particularly online editor Jimmy Orr, whose non-traditional background in the worlds of politics and blogging gave him a fresh perspective on the news ecosystem.

In news organizations we and others have examined, journalists are often skeptical of change efforts, especially when it alters the way news is gathered and disseminated. As one staffer we interviewed in December 2009 said of the web: “Hopefully, we can be in it, but not of it.” Monitor employees had strong ideas about the paper’s values. Here are excerpts from our interviews with three staffers:

The Monitor story before was a very particular kind of story. You always looked for a larger analytical story on any given news point. You just didn’t do the news story, you know. You always did something larger than that, and you always looked for, to be, you know, to be more analytical about it…

We talk about being solution-based journalism. We don’t go into the fray; we try to push the discussion in a new way that is productive…

…seeking solutions to problems, staying away from sensationalism, analysis and thoughtful kind of assessment of what’s going on rather than jumping to snap conclusions and going for, not so much a focus on breaking news, but more on understanding the reasons, the causes behind the news of the day — I mean, that’s what we aspire to…

Over the course of our study, Orr challenged staffers’ ideas about Monitor journalism, and many recoiled. He pushed for more blogs on the site. He encouraged pursuing items about Tiger Woods and other topics that many staffers felt didn’t fit with the original Monitor mission: “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

The newsroom incorporated a four-pronged strategy:

  1. Increase the frequency of updating, writing several posts on a subject rather than one long story.
  2. Use search engine optimization to find key phrases that would improve a post’s ranking in Google.
  3. Monitor Google Trends for hot topics and sometimes assign stories on that basis, allowing the paper to “ride the Google wave,” as one editor put it.
  4. Use social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to reach new audiences.

In this process, the organization embraced emergent strategy, an idea some referred to at the recent International Conference on Online Journalism as “failing fast.” The Monitor took an iterative approach to innovation, trying new ideas, and dropping those that didn’t work. Over the course of the study period, the newsroom tried many forms of web content, including blogs, live webcasts, and podcasts. And managers weren’t afraid to halt those items that weren’t garnering traffic. Podcasts, a weekly Yemma webcast, and video didn’t generate the return they’d hoped for, so each was stopped or scaled back.

The strategy helped push web numbers to new heights. By July 2010, the site had reached its 25 million pageview goal. And though many staffers expressed concerns about the changes, success reduced tension. Several noted the greater traffic infused the newsroom with a new sense of relevance. “This revival has been a real morale booster for yours truly,” said one staffer who had been with the paper for more than 20 years. “For a long time, I felt like I was on a losing team. Not losing in the sense of — we had a strong product. But it didn’t have much reach.”

A key factor in the success was a new content management system designed for web publishing. It democratized the process of web production and made it easier for anyone to develop and post new content.

But work remains to be done. Though pageviews have climbed, ad revenues have not grown in corresponding fashion, and the church subsidy will continue to diminish. And the hard work continues, as one editor noted in January:

So I have to do it six, seven times (a day), you know — to think of stories that bring what I would consider our Monitor values to a topic that is not where we normally would have been, and we’re doing it because the public is interested in this topic. So, what do we have to say about it that’s interesting, or clearer, or sheds some new perspective on what’s going on here? And it’s hard. You know, we weren’t accustomed to having to be that instantaneously responsive, and we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, you know that story is really not for us.” And when we’ve got pageview targets that we’re all assessed to hit every month, you’ve gotta come up with something on what people want to read about.

Whether the Monitor’s transition can be categorized as a tragedy or a success for journalism remains difficult to gauge. “Riding the Google wave” is difficult for the serious, in-depth international news the Monitor has long been known for. But even the greatest journalism has little impact on the world when its readership is small and diminishing. And today, the Monitor is increasingly injecting itself into the national conversation.

April 02 2011

17:11

Christian Science Monitor grapples with tensions as web-only

The research presented at ISOJ by Jonathan Groves, Drury University and Carrie Brown, University of Memphis, looked at the Christian Science Monitor’s transition from print to web.

For the paper (PDF), the researchers spend three weeks in the newsroom, watching how the journalists worked and talking to them about the journalism.

The Monitor started in 1908 as a daily newspaper distributed by mail and switched to web-only daily in March 2009, with a print daily.

Grove read a quote from a journalist lamenting that management was only interested in traffic.

The Monitor had 9.5 million page views in December 2009 and reached its goal of 25 million page views by July 2010 with an editor who pushed journalists to write two stories a day and do anything to attract traffic.

With a new editor, traffic levelled out at 19.4 m page views and 8.8 million unique users by January 2011.

The researchers found a tension between the success of page views and the Monitor ideal of providing solutions-based journalism.

At core of strategy to boost traffic was more frequent updates, search engine optimisation, monitoring Google trends to identify topics and use social media to reach new audiences.

September 14 2010

17:30

Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it

[I'm happy to introduce Nikki Usher, a new contributor here at the Lab. Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate at USC Annenberg and, before academia, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. Here she tackles the question of using metrics in journalism; later today, we'll have a different take on the same topic from C.W. Anderson. —Josh]

Last week, The New York Times featured the scary tale of how some newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are (shockingly!) changing their coverage after using online metrics to figure out what their audience wants to read. And Gene Weingarten, in an amusing takedown of search engine optimization, insinuated earlier in the summer that just by putting Lady Gaga in his column, he’d get more hits.

Jeremy W. Peters had another Times piece about much the same concern: young journalists doing “anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way” and the scary “big board” that Gawker keeps in its newsroom tracking the 10 most popular blog posts, along with pageviews per hour.

This concern that audience tracking, writing for Google, and SEO will somehow destroy the ability of news organizations to keep news judgment apart from audience demands is misplaced. Instead, being more attentive to audience demands may actually be the best thing that news organizations can do to remain relevant and vital sources of news.

With monetization tied to clicks, and real-time Omniture data a feature of more and more newsrooms, it’s easy to worry that audiences will dictate news coverage. But how about the opposite argument: that journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.

Journalism has always depended on having an audience to consume its work and has spent much of the past century trying to figure out exactly what that audience wants to know. Now, journalists have better tools than ever to figure out who their audiences are, learn what they want, and in real time, track their behaviors in order to be more responsive to their needs. This isn’t a bad thing — it turns journalism away from the elitism of writing for itself and back to writing what people are actually looking for.

But what about the concerns that journalists are going to spend all their time writing about pets, or Lady Gaga? The truth is that many of the newsrooms I’ve spoken with are smarter than that. They aren’t abandoning journalism principles; they see metrics as a way to ensure their journalism will be read.

SEO at the Christian Science Monitor

In my academic work, I’ve been following the evolution of The Christian Science Monitor as it has moved from a print daily to a website with a print weekly. Over the course of this evolution, I’ve watched the newsroom grow increasingly sophisticated about audience tracking. When I asked John Yemma about his views on SEO, he had this to say in an email about its impact on the newsroom:

Search engines remain a powerful and preferred tool for online readers. We have no choice but to become adept at SEO if it helps us reach readers where they are. This is nothing new in the news business. In the pre-Web days, newspapers periodically redesigned and reformatted. Editors frequently admonished reporters to write shorter, to use simple and direct language, to “think art” when they were on an assignment — all in the interest of reaching readers.

SEO, at its essence, is about editors thinking the way readers think when they are searching for news. At the Monitor, as at almost every other publication, we work diligently to emphasize key words. But that is only one tool in the toolkit. We try to respond quickly when a subject we know well (international news, for instance) is trending. This gives us an opportunity to offer related links that invite readers to dive deeper into our content. If SEO is about acquisition, related links are about retention. In the past year, we have tripled our online traffic with this strategy.

Does that mean we just write plain-vanilla headlines or merely follow Google/Trends? No. A clever headline can still be a powerful draw, especially on our home-page or in social media. And we still report stories that we know are important even if readers don’t agree. But we are much more attuned these days to what readers will respond to. If our journalism is not read, our work is not effective.

Trend tracking at TheStreet.com

At TheStreet.com, the organization has hired a full-time “SEO guy,” John DeFeo, to monitor trends on Omniture, watch search terms, and optimize TheStreet’s content after it is written so it can be found via search.

The result: Traffic has improved. When I was in TheStreet’s newsroom conducting field research, I did see DeFeo make a suggestion that someone bang out a quick story on a children’s Tylenol recall after seeing it trend on Yahoo. But should we see that as being overly responsive to audience demands? Or should we see it instead as a chance for TheStreet to provide its unique comment on what such a recall might mean for Johnson & Johnson stockholders — and at the same time know that the story will have a chance at reaching an audience because it is trending?

Glenn Hall, Editor at TheStreet, defends SEO journalism as being the core of the basic principles of journalism itself. In an interview, Hall said:

Good journalism is not mutually exclusive with SEO. We have proven over and over again that our best journalism tends to get the best page views. SEO is a tool to make sure the best stories get noticed…SEO increases visibility where users are looking. People consume content differently than they used to through a newspaper.

Hall explains to his staff that SEO is in line with the best practices of journalism. He believes that simple declarative sentences, clear and to the point, makes good sense for both journalism and SEO. And, as he notes, SEO doesn’t have the final say on a story’s success or failure: “It doesn’t matter how good the SEO is if the content isn’t good.”

The new news is social

Nick Bilton, the Times tech blogger, writes in his new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works about the “consumnivore” — an information-hungry consumer who wants the latest news now. But for this new information consumer, information isn’t just a quest for information. It’s also a social experience, shared with people from Twitter, Facebook, email, or other social media. In other words, if you aren’t looking for news, the news will find you. Good journalism will still be found, even without the high-energy SEO pumping of a daily newsroom — largely, I think, because of the new power of news as a social experience.

This isn’t a myth. At the Pulitzer celebration at The New York Times on April 12, 2010, New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati noted the following in his celebratory speech for sharing the Pulitzer with Propublica for Investigative Reporting for a story about a New Orleans hospital during Katrina: “[Long form journalism is] our most viewed and most emailed…It does matter to readers. It stops the reader. It slows the reader down.”

Was Memorial Medical Center, the hospital in the story, a hot search term? Probably not. Were 13,000 words likely to produce the quick hits of information that the consumnivore hungers for? No. But the story still reached a substantial audience, person to person. And as it was read by more and more people, it likely climbed up Google’s rankings for those people who were searching for articles about Katrina.

So, if used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs. What is a story if it is never read? SEO won’t kill journalism; it will only enhance how we find and use news.

May 05 2010

09:43

CSMonitor.com: Huffington Post gets the wrong Faisal Shahzad

Christian Science Monitor reports on a worrying mistake:

Earlier today, as news of the alleged identity of the would-be Times Square bomber rocketed around the web, a reporter at the Huffington Post published a screen shot from the Facebook page of a man named Faisal Shahzad. It made sense: Shahzad, a Shelton, Conn., resident, had been identified by law enforcement after he was hauled off an airplane preparing to depart Kennedy Airport. But the Huffington Post got the wrong Faisal Shahzad – a fact noted by several bloggers, including Glen Runciter of Gawker.

Full story at this link…

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April 02 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: The iPad’s skeptics, Murdoch’s first paywall move and a ‘Chatroulette for news’

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The iPad’s fanboys and skeptics: For tech geeks and future-of-journalism types everywhere, the biggest event of the week will undoubtedly come tomorrow, when Apple’s iPad goes on sale. The early reviews (Poynter’s Damon Kiesow has a compilation) have been mostly positive, but many of the folks opining on the iPad’s potential impact on journalism have been quite a bit less enthusiastic. A quick rundown:

— Scott Rosenberg, who’s studied the history of blogging and programming, says the news media’s excitement over the iPad reminds him of the CD-ROM craze of the early 1990s, particularly in its misguided expectation for a new, ill-defined technology to lead us into the future. The lesson we learned then and need to be reminded of now, Rosenberg says, is that “people like to interact with one another more than they like to engage with static information.”

— Business Insider’s Henry Blodget argues that the iPad won’t save media companies because they’re relying on the flawed premise that people want to consume content in a “tightly bound content package produced by a single publisher,” just like they did in print.

— Tech exec Barry Graubart says that while the iPad will be a boon to entertainment companies, it won’t provide the revenue boost news orgs expect it to, largely for two reasons: Its ads can’t draw the number of eyeballs that the standard web can, and many potential news app subscribers will be able to find suitable alternatives for free.

— GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram is not impressed with the iPad apps that news outlets have revealed so far, describing them as boring and unimaginative.

— Poynter’s Damon Kiesow gives us a quick summary of why some publishers thought the iPad might be a savior in the first place. (He doesn’t come down firmly on either side.)

Two other thoughtful pieces worth highlighting: Ken Doctor, a keen observer of the world of online news, asks nine questions about the iPad, and offers a lot of insight in the process. And Poynter’s Steve Myers challenges journalists to go beyond creating “good-enough” journalism for the iPad and produce creative, immersive content that takes full advantage of the device’s strengths.

Murdoch’s paid-content move begins: Rupert Murdoch has been talking for several months about his plans to put up paywalls around all of his news sites, and this week the first of those plans was unveiled. The Times and Sunday Times of London announced that they will begin charging for its site in June — £1 per day or £2 per week. This would be stricter than the metered model that The New York Times has proposed and the Financial Times employs: There are no free articles or limits, just 100% paid content.

The Times and Sunday Times both accompanied the announcement with their own editorials giving a rationale for their decision. The Sunday Times is far more straightforward: “At The Sunday Times we put an enormous amount of money and effort into producing the best journalism we possibly can. If we keep giving it away we will no longer be able to do that.” Some corners of journalism praised the Times’ decision and echoed its reasoning: BBC vet John Humphrys, Texas newspaperman John P. Garrett (though he didn’t mention the Times by name in a post decrying unthinking “have it your way” journalism), and British PR columnist Ian Monk.

The move also drew criticism, most prominently from web journalism guru Jeff Jarvis, who called the paywall “pathetic.” (If you want your paywall-bashing in video form, Sky News has one of Jarvis, too.) Over at True/Slant, Canadian writer Colin Horgan had some intriguing thoughts about why this move could be important: The fact that the Internet is so all-encompassing as a medium has led us to blur together vastly different types on it, Horgan argues. “What Murdoch is trying to do (perhaps unintentionally) is destroy that mental disconnect, and ask us to pay for media within a medium.”

Two other paid-content tidbits worth noting: Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma told paidContent that news organizations’ future online will come not from “digital razzle dazzle,” but from relevant, meaningful content. And Damon Kiesow plotted paid content on a supply-and-demand curve, concluding that, not surprisingly, we have an oversupply of information.

Chatroulette, serendipity and the news: The random video chat site Chatroulette has drawn gobs of attention from media outlets, so it was probably only a matter of time before some of them applied the concept to online news. Daniel Vydra, a software developer at The Guardian, was among the first this week when he created Random Guardian and New York Times Roulette, two simple programs that take readers to random articles from those newspapers’ websites. Consultant Chris Thorpe explained the thinking behind their development — a Clay Shirky-inspired desire to recapture online the serendipity that a newspaper’s bundle provides.

GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram wrote about the project approvingly, saying he expects creative, open API projects like this to be more successful in the long run than Rupert Murdoch’s paywalls. Also, Publish2’s Ryan Sholin noted that just because everyone’s excited about the moniker “Chatroulette for news” doesn’t mean this concept hasn’t been around for quite a while.

Meanwhile, the idea sparked deeper thoughts from two CUNY j-profs about the concept of serendipity and the news. Here at the Lab, C.W. Anderson argued that true serendipity involves coming across perspectives you don’t agree with, and asked how one might create a true “news serendipity maker” that could take into account your news consumption patterns, then throw you some curveballs. And in a short but smart post, Jeff Jarvis said that serendipity is not mere randomness, but unexpected relevance — “the unknown but now fed curiosity.”

How much slack can nonprofits take up?: Alan Mutter, an expert in the dollars-and-cents world of the news business both traditionally and online, raised a pretty big stink this week with a post decrying the idea that nonprofits can carry the bulk of the load of journalism. The numbers at the core of Mutter’s argument are simple: Newspapers are spending an estimated $4.4 billion annually on newsgathering, and it would take an $88 billion endowment to provide that much money each year. That would be more than a quarter of the $307.7 billion contributed to charity in 2008 — a ridiculously tall order.

Mutter drew a lot of fire in his comment section for attacking a straw man with that argument, as he didn’t cite any specific people who are claiming that nonprofits will, in fact, take over the majority of journalism’s funding. As many of those folks wrote, the nonprofit advocates have always claimed that they’ll be a part of network that makes up journalism’s future, not the network itself. (One of them, Northeastern prof Ben Compaine, had made that exact argument just a few days earlier, and Steve Outing made a similar one in response to Mutter’s post.)

John Thornton, a co-founder of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, wrote the must-read point-by-point response, taking issue with the basis of Mutter’s math and his assumption that market-driven solutions are “inherently superior” to non-market ones. Besides, he argued, serious journalism hasn’t exactly been doing business like gangbusters lately, either: “Expecting investors to continue to fund for-profit, Capital J journalism just ‘cuz:  doesn’t that sound a lot like charity?” Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon weighed in with similar numbers-based objections, as did David Cay Johnston.

Reading roundup: One mini-debate, and four nifty resources:

Former tech/biz journalist Chris Lynch fired a shot at j-schools in a post arguing that the shrunken (but elite) audiences resulting from widespread news paywalls would cause “most journalism schools to shrink or disappear.” Journalism schools, he said, are teaching an outdated objectivity-based philosophy that doesn’t hold water in the Internet era, when credibility is defined much differently. Gawker’s Ravi Somaiya chimed in with an anti-j-school rant, and North Carolina j-school dean Jean Folkerts and About.com’s Tony Rogers (a community college j-prof) leaped to j-schools’ defense.

Now the four resources:

— Mathew Ingram of GigaOm has a quick but pretty comprehensive explanation of the conundrum newspapers are in and some of the possible ways out. Couldn’t have summed it better myself.

— PBS MediaShift’s Jessica Clark outlines some very cool efforts to map out local news ecosystems. This will be something to keep an eye out for, especially in areas with blossoming hyperlocal news scenes, like Seattle.

— Consider this an addendum to last month’s South by Southwest festival: Ball State professor Brad King has posted more than a dozen short video interviews he conducted there, asking people from all corners of media what the most interesting thing they’re seeing is.

— British j-prof Paul Bradshaw briefly gives three principles for reporters in a networked era. Looks like a pretty good journalists’ mission statement to me.

November 09 2009

15:30

Kimberly Abbott: Working together, NGOs and journalists can create stronger international reporting

[This is the first essay in our series examining the evolving relationship between NGOs and journalism, produced with Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies. Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group leads off by exploring the pros and cons of established news organizations relying on NGOs for help in their reporting. We're collecting the entire series here. —Josh]

In 2005, before Ted Koppel left ABC’s Nightline, a highly respected American news program with a long commitment to international stories, he opened one of his signature broadcasts with a simple disclaimer: the story the audience was about to see was produced in partnership with a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Crisis Group. Said Koppel:

This is not how we normally cover the news. But consider it a case of coordinating interests…Nightline has had a long-standing interest in Africa over the years. But there are hundreds of stories like this across the continent. Where do you start? Also, the expense of sending a crew, producer and correspondent can be prohibitive. But [actor Don] Cheadle and a video crew were already in Kampala [Uganda]. And Nightline producer Rick Wilkinson had worked with Cheadle in Sudan. Cheadle wanted his wife and daughters to get a sense of the kind of suffering that is so widespread in Africa. The International Crisis Group wanted publicity for what is happening in Uganda. And we, to put it bluntly, get to bring you a riveting story at a greatly reduced expense. [August 23, 2005]

The following year, Nightline and Crisis Group teamed up on another project, this time in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Correspondent Jim Wooten and Crisis Group analyst Jason Stearns revisited the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, attempting to track down some of the perpetrators of killings. While Nightline had covered the genocide a decade earlier, like most American networks, it had not closely followed the developments in the region since, and did not have the contacts or the background to update the story with the nuance and depth it required. International Crisis Group, on the other hand, had analysts living in the region who spoke the local language, knew the terrain, and were well-connected. While Nightline maintained full editorial control over the story, Crisis Group helped shape it with analysis, depth and context, and the two shared the cost of the production.

At a time when mainstream media face financial constraints, the quality of foreign news coverage is suffering. This essay contends that Nightline’s collaboration with Crisis Group could serve as a model for the future. These projects were ahead of the curve for both the media and NGO worlds. Both stories were reminiscent of days when foreign news bureaus were widespread and staffed with reporters who based themselves in the field, knew the local environment, and could devote energies to investigating stories. And the pieces were win-win for everyone involved: Nightline got stories nobody else had; Crisis Group got a platform on which to discuss ongoing regional conflicts. The partnership worked well for two reasons: first, because Crisis Group enjoys a reputation as a credible, independent organization, and second, but equally important, because Nightline was clear with the audience about what was happening. As news organizations continue to cut budgets for foreign reporting, partnerships like this can ensure that the mainstream media deliver solid, comprehensive, and richly detailed foreign news stories to an under-served American audience.

The truth is, versions of such partnerships are happening now in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, though many are reluctant to discuss them too openly. NGO-media partnerships raise significant and wide-ranging issues — from editorial integrity to security — that this paper addresses by examining the personal experiences of journalists and NGO staff. Their perspectives, gathered through interviews with the author between July 2008 and January 2009, shed new light on the growing trend, and on the potential it has to enhance the work of all those involved.

The state of the news

It’s no secret that with news-gathering budgets shrinking fast, it is becoming more difficult for major news outlets to independently cover international stories. The result is a homogenization of foreign news that often lacks depth and context, and is increasingly limited to coverage of the major wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — where American blood and dollars are heavily invested. Yet while producers and editors blame an American public allegedly disinterested in foreign coverage, recent polling suggests that this isn’t the case. In a 2006-2007 poll conducted by the BBC, two-thirds of Americans believed it is extremely or very important to have access to international news. Half of those polled rated American coverage of international stories as poor or fair, lamenting that stories are “sensationalist,” “superficial,” and “narrow.” Indeed, rather than a lack of interest from the American public, the real issue is that the news media haven’t made foreign news relevant enough to their American audience.

Editors have a responsibility to encourage interest in foreign news and to write stories that explain and contextualize global challenges. Rating wars and budgets do not exonerate journalists from the responsibility — and privilege — to inform. If the fourth estate is to maintain its relevance as a watchdog, it must fulfill its obligation to cover foreign news. Creative use of available resources, coupled with bold new thinking about how to apply them, could lead to better reporting that answers the call for both journalists and the public.

An emerging trend: NGO–media partnerships

If NGO-media partnerships are not yet happening formally and openly, they certainly are happening — to varying degrees — on the ground. Both field-based NGOs and journalists observe the media’s increasing reliance on NGOs, including humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy groups. As Steve Roberts, media ethics professor at George Washington University and former New York Times reporter, notes, “the spheres are overlapping more and more.”

Mainstream media and NGOs have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the media using NGO experts for news tips, quotes, and access. Now, with many foreign bureaus of major news outlets shuttered, and the simultaneous growth of more media savvy NGOs, the agencies are doing even more: researching and pitching stories, sharing contacts, developing content and providing logistics, guidance, analysis, opinion and, in some cases, funding. Put simply, without the help of these groups, many foreign news stories would not be told at all. It is a natural evolution of an already strong relationship. However, a slight, but fundamental, shift is underway in which NGOs are taking on more and more functions of news media in their capacity to gather and manage foreign news. While they certainly don’t have the mission or means to provide daily news coverage or replace that function for the media, they can and are helping to address the foreign news gap. This cross-pollination seems more logical in the field, as the number of people bearing witness to foreign stories shrinks.

CBS producer Max McClellan has traveled the globe with international correspondent Lara Logan. He thinks NGO-media partnerships are “hugely valuable relationships that can work well for both sides.” Said McClellan, NGOs provide “a way in that you can’t find elsewhere. You have fixers in some of these places, but they are more logistical. NGOs are editorial. Their people are smart on the issue and know the stories in terms of that ground truth.” McClellan describes a trip to Darfur he produced with the help of the International Rescue Committee: “We got a sense of what was happening through them and we were brought to the crux of the story. They knew their way around. We couldn’t have done it without them.” McClellan’s experience is not unique. Indeed, in many cases help from NGOs has become the determining factor in whether a story is assigned.

Former ABC News producer Dan Green agrees that in past years NGOs were always helpful, but today they are essential because stretched journalists simply don’t have time to do groundwork — finding experts, lining up interviews, researching characters — before parachuting into a foreign country. “Today the question is: will I do the story if I don’t have someone or some group on the ground who will help me get it done?”

Humanitarian staff feel the impact as well. Kate Conradt, a roving communications officer for the humanitarian group Save the Children, has seen firsthand that journalists are relying more heavily on aid organizations, especially in emergency situations. “We saw it in Bangladesh, where nobody is based…we had the boats, we had the trucks.” And they are filling in editorial as well as logistical gaps, she says. “In Burma…they couldn’t get visas, so we were their eyes and ears on the ground.” Margaret Aguirre, a former journalist who is now a global communications advisor for International Medical Corps, has had similar experiences. “Myanmar was an example where all the aid groups had their doors pounded on. We turned down a dozen requests by journalists to go in with us,” she said.

Refugees International, an advocacy organization, has helped journalists navigate refugee situations in Somalia, Burma, Sudan and other conflict areas. Press officer Vanessa Parra has orchestrated some of the trips, and says she has seen an increased willingness — and need — for reporters to access international stories on the shoulders of organizations like hers. “In the past there was an implied understanding that [news organizations] were having economic troubles, but [today] it has been made very clear to me that things are shifting,” she says. The group has been approached by journalists not only to help them with story ideas, but to help subsidize their trips, or simply author stories for them. She points out that while such stories do note the author’s affiliation, they are appearing more often throughout the publication, rather than just on opinion pages.

Freelance reporter Michael Kavanagh, whose work from Congo has been featured on NPR and BBC, has also witnessed the trend of NGOs filling in for journalists. For instance, when the elections in Eastern Congo were carried out relatively peacefully, his editors pulled him off of the story, instead instructing him to “just leave the [phone] numbers for key NGO [staff], and if we needed something we would get it from them.”

In addition to the long-standing practices of using relief groups to hitch rides to a crisis spot, to access refugee camps, or to provide details about an emergency, enterprising journalists are increasingly tapping into opportunities provided by foundations, fellowships and grants to support research travel. While not all news organizations support the practice, and many today won’t guarantee employment for returning reporters, those that do have benefited from no-strings-attached international coverage on another organization’s dime. Former Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott, who spent a decade reporting from Jerusalem and London, returned home to find that the paper was investing more in local stories. Sennott looked for other funding sources to get him out of the newsroom and was awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to travel to Afghanistan. The arrangement required him to report for the Foundation’s Carnegie Reporter, but also allowed him to file stories for The Boston Globe. “My editor [justified] it by looking the other way. He didn’t embrace it and didn’t reject it,” Sennott says. Indeed, in recent months foundations have seen spikes in applications from both staff reporters and freelancers, many of whom are causalities of the industry’s growing pains looking to keep their bylines current. In April the International Reporting Project — an organization that provides opportunities for journalists to travel overseas and report on critical issues not covered in mainstream media — saw an 80 percent increase in its applications.

Tom Peter, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor who has covered Iraq, Somalia, and the West Bank, is one journalist who has benefitted from such programs. Peter is dismayed by the number of international journalists forced to practice “telephone journalism” in lieu of getting out to the field. He has applied for reporting grants through the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit organization launched in 2006 that supports independent international journalism.

Pulitzer Center Director Jon Sawyer says in the beginning, news organizations were skeptical about using the work of the journalists he was funding, but that attitude has changed. To date, Pulitzer Center projects have been featured in most major U.S. print publications, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, as well as broadcast outlets such as NPR and PBS. “They realize they are not in a position to do everything and are looking for partnerships with credible groups,” Sawyer says. In this case, the Pulitzer name lends that credibility.

Christian Science Monitor’s Peter believes groups like the Pulitzer Center will be crucial to the survival of foreign reporting. “This is what is going to enable interesting, independent reporting…You just have to be careful who you become bedfellows with,” Peter says. “It is a matter of people opening their minds a little in the changed media climate…I think that really for journalism to be what it is meant to be, it is going to have to be looked at as a public service and groups like a Pulitzer Center will have to step up and fund worthwhile projects, and newspapers are going to have to partner with these groups.”

Sawyer has answered this call. “As we’ve grown, one of the roles we play is a bridge for NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian groups out in the field looking for coverage but who can’t get resources committed from traditional media…[We can] work in effect as an agency for the journalist. We put them together with these NGOs or the UN that can help them get access to places that need covering, and then we help in marketing the piece and getting it placed. We think we answer the needs at both ends.”

Another new business, HUM: Human Unlimited Media, Worldwide (HUM), was founded by a longtime broadcast executive to create a brain trust of all those working on the frontlines. Joy Dibenedetto discovered that mainstream media, when it covered foreign news at all, was focusing on just 121 of the world’s 237 countries — basically only half of the world. The result is that 116 countries, what the company has termed the “Geographic Gap”™ in media, goes uncovered. The irony is that these countries are host to the world’s emerging markets and home to the fastest growing populations.

With the goal of becoming the world’s wire service, HUM uses low-cost technologies and a network of journalists, NGOs and academics on the ground in the developing world to provide stories from the Geographic Gap that most of the media have missed. It gathers these stories in a centralized hub which journalists, corporations or individuals can access for news feeds, raw video, or packaged and produced stories.

Former network news journalists Kira Kay and Jason Maloney, similarly frustrated by the lack of international coverage in TV news, founded a non-profit organization, the Bureau for International Reporting (BIR). The globetrotters are on a mission to make under-reported international news stories easily accessible to American news outlets, and they fund their travel with the help of foundations, grants, and individual donors. They trim costs by using new technology and streamlined production, and they can often write and produce several stories on one trip, which they then sell to multiple outlets. “It is almost like a dating service, making matches,” Kay says.

Both Kay and Maloney have backgrounds in international affairs and extensive relationships with humanitarian, development, and advocacy organizations, which they turn to for story ideas, expert analysis, and help in the field. Their collaboration with International Crisis Group in 2004, when the Darfur crisis erupted, resulted in some of the first network coverage of the conflict. The NGOs they work with often feature prominently in their stories, which have aired on PBS’s Newshour, HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, and elsewhere.

The Bureau for International Reporting’s web of worldwide contacts allows them to sniff out a good story before it breaks, which paid off last year in Georgia. BIR’s producers were monitoring the increasingly frequent shootouts, mortar attacks and car bombings between Georgia and its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and realized the American public had precious little information about the possibility of full scale war. They flew to the border between Georgia and Russia and were the only American crew reporting from within the breakaway regions just as the war broke out on 8 August 2008. Their contacts with NGOs and other sources on the ground meant the producers were able to provide context about the war, rather than just coverage of the fighting. The story aired on Newshour, World Report and PBS Foreign Exchange.

Like Kay and Maloney, an increasing number of respected journalists are taking buy-outs or otherwise leaving the business, and becoming facilitators between news organizations and foundations or NGOs. “There are more opportunities for them in this gray area…and there are a lot of trusted journalists out there who are willing to do these stories,” says former ABC News producer Green. Indeed, it was a trusted journalist who brokered the deals between Crisis Group and Nightline, and ensured their success.

Journalists’ concerns

Despite their potential, NGO partnerships remain a tricky business for journalists and there is no single model that works for every news organization. Key among the many questions is whether partnering with an NGO compromises editorial integrity. Can journalists really maintain independence when there is a stakeholder involved? And will the arrangement undermine the audience’s trust in the media, no matter how altruistic the cause? Critics might argue these partnerships go too far in blurring editorial lines, and put the journalist at risk of losing objectivity, and potentially, credibility. But is it better to use the resources — staff, expertise or even funding — of a non-profit organization than to not do the story at all? Is the journalist serving the public better by ignoring the story altogether or by using available channels? As news organizations look for new ways to access original, international stories, they are “increasingly willing to bend some of these rules, as long as you don’t bend them too far,” media ethicist Roberts says.

The journalism community is also uneasy about the presumption that they have an obligation to include an NGO in the story if it donates time, staff resources or expertise. Kavanagh admits he has received some angry phone calls from NGOs who aren’t mentioned in his work. “The question is, are they part of the story anyway? But what happens when you talk to ten groups to report a story? You can’t mention them all,” he says. CBS’s McClellan says it seems like simple logic. “If someone is pulled in enough to take us to someplace like DRC or Darfur, it would just make sense. There is no quid pro quo…but on the other hand, anyone with such access and insight on an issue would inevitably also be a very smart person that we should strongly consider including in the story.” Green, the former ABC News producer, explains, “I’m going to put that person on, but I’m also going to check all the other viewpoints out there.”

In fact, most journalists agree that the more an organization pushes to be included in the story, the less likely it is that they will be. “It’s the idea of managing the message that makes journalists nuts…we don’t want to feel manipulated,” Green says.

Critics who suggest that partnerships cross editorial lines fail to acknowledge — or admit — that these professional barriers have long since begun to erode. Military embed programs have become commonplace and are considered acceptable as long as they are openly presented as such and supplemented with balancing material. Field-based freelancers increasingly have a foot in multiple worlds, producing content for an NGO or writing policy papers for a think tank, or maintaining an opinionated personal blog while simultaneously reporting for a news organization. New York Times Magazine foreign editor Scott Malcomson says that each case requires a judgment call. “I know it is happening and it is a serious issue and I don’t know what the answer is. I take each case as it comes.”

Consider as well that these new models are being played out against the backdrop of a debate about what journalism is and who is qualified to do it. Citizen journalists without any traditional journalism training have become major players in the public discourse. Networks routinely ask for eyewitness reports from viewers, whose pictures, video and commentary might be less than objective but still become part of the larger story. When CNN launched its website for citizen journalists, Susan Grant, Executive Vice President of CNN News Services, explained, “The community will decide what the news is. We are not going to discourage or encourage anything…iReport will be completely unvetted,” although CNN monitors for objectionable content. CNN, BBC and others also solicit eyewitness reports in breaking news situations that add color and detail to the story. However, even if images or opinions are advertised as unvetted material, they are quickly absorbed into the discourse and those distinctions can become muted for the audience. Writes Reuters Global Television Editor John Clarke about the surge of social media during the controversial Iranian election: “Verification is a major issue. Video or photos might not be what they purport to be, either because of sloppy information from the person posting it, or deliberate deceit either to create mischief or for political or other reasons.”

The issue of influence is even more opaque when it comes to money. NGOs are not in the business of subsidizing media, but often help offset costs for journalists just by virtue of where they work. Kavanagh explains, “In some ways they are always covering part of my costs, when [a humanitarian organization] flies me out and puts me up in their private home, there is no cash transaction but they are covering costs for me…It is a gray area, and it is in some ways getting murkier,” he says. It doesn’t serve either party to look like it is trying to curry influence, and no reputable NGO would want to try. NGO-media partnerships don’t have to include cost-sharing. However, producing international stories is an expensive venture, and sometimes finding a creative funding arrangement is the only way to do it.

If the media have adapted to new players, new technologies, and new market demands, why can’t the same flexibility be applied to new partnerships with groups — even those with a stated viewpoint — that can help serve the audience? Just tell the audience. A heightened awareness about the potential of impropriety might even force some journalists to become more forthcoming about practices that are increasingly becoming accepted by the industry. And that frankness with the audience encourages honest debate that could then continue on discussion boards and blog sites.

Trust, transparency, and credibility are critical to producing successful relationships. With these key elements, answers to the questions about whether and how to best serve the audience should be obvious. International Crisis Group’s own experience shows that Ted Koppel is no less respected for producing important stories with Crisis Group’s help, and the audience probably appreciated his forthcoming explanations about how the stories came about. And when 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley traveled with Crisis Group staff to Darfur in search of a young boy named Jacob, viewers were given a compelling story that helped put a personal, human face on the ongoing crisis. Crisis Group conceptualized the story, and with its contacts on the ground located the boy in a refugee camp, translated his school diaries and helped navigate dangerous rebel-held terrain. Far from raising issues of trust or credibility, the show was so popular with audiences that it re-aired three times, and it won the newscast an Emmy. The experience stands as another example of managing collaboration to everyone’s benefit — the media, the NGO, and especially the public.

NGO concerns

While the journalism profession remains concerned with maintaining editorial integrity, operational NGOs in any prospective media partnership are concerned about matters ranging from personnel security to preserving humanitarian access. Long after any collaboration produces a story, NGOs must continue to work on the ground. If there is a perception that a group is helping one side of the conflict or the other, the lives of staffers, especially nationals, can be endangered, along with their beneficiaries. Likewise, the wrong message in a story can have dire consequences for the good-will NGOs work to build — and rely on — in a community and among the local authorities.

Save the Children’s Conradt says she is willing to help journalists, but only to a point. “We will tell them exactly what we have and what our folks can talk about. We aren’t going to get political. We aren’t going to do anything that endangers our staff or the kids in our programs, and they know that upfront and if that works, they are welcome to come along.”

Linda Poteat, a senior program manager at InterAction, spent five years working in central Africa. She says field workers tread a fine line between generating outside interest in a humanitarian situation and endangering their ability to work. “We feel like we are supposed to be a voice for the voiceless, but how do you do that in a way that doesn’t come back to bite you? We are so close to the conflict, we are institutionally neutral but on a personal level we know who is to blame. It is sometimes hard to self-censor when you are in the thick of things.” But that’s what they often end up doing. Compromising neutrality can also mean compromising access to vulnerable populations, or risking the ability to work at all. Governments in many countries are often looking for reasons to shut down or silence NGOs, and affiliation with the wrong news report can give those governments the excuse they need. One only needs to look to the high profile cases in Sudan to see the dangers. President Omar al-Bashir started revoking the licenses of operational aid agencies for allegedly talking to investigators just moments after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him. And in September 2009, UNICEF spokesperson 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. In another instance, a media NGO was forced out of its office in Baku, Azerbaijan, in an “act of political persecution aimed to increase pressure on civil society representatives and keep them in fear,” said officials with the organization.

There’s another kind of danger for NGOs that allow journalists into close quarters. What if they don’t like what they see within the operation? “There is a certain ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ arc to it,” the New York Times’ Malcomson says. Refugees International’s Parra says that it is frustrating when the journalists they help produce coverage that isn’t flattering, or that oversimplifies sophisticated policy points. However, she says while it would be nice to get positive publicity for the organization, it’s enough to just get an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. It works both ways, says Conradt. “It is not just us getting what we want. And we don’t control the story at all. They know we can be honest brokers, and it’s up to the news organization to know who they are playing with.”

Indeed, the player does matter to many journalists, who say they will partner with an aid organization, but draw the line at an advocacy group. However, while many of these groups carry out different functions — some providing food and shelter, some prescribing policy, some documenting human rights — in many cases their end goal is the same: saving lives. And inside the humanitarian business, these groups consult with one another. Many operational NGOs have memorandums of understanding with advocacy organizations, who can articulate their messages without assuming the same risks.

When staff and beneficiary lives are at stake, it is clear that media partnerships won’t always work. But when they do, the advantage for NGOs can be significant. For aid organizations such as Save the Children or International Medical Corps, media visibility can translate to fundraising dollars, which in turn translates to more services for the vulnerable. For advocacy organizations such as International Crisis Group, Refugees International or Human Rights Watch, attention to an issue can affect policy, which in turn can impact lives.

A future for international news?

The Murrow days of foreign news reporting are long gone, but there is still a need and responsibility — and a hunger — for important international stories in American society. The only remaining question is how to produce those stories in the current media climate.

The picture emerging is one of journalists who are trying to find new ways to tell important international stories and NGOs that are adapting to meet that need. An editorial red line the media would have considered completely taboo to cross just a few years ago might be more palatable today as the financial pressures on news organizations continue to mount. Similarly, an NGO offering time, staff or funding to help a news organization might have once seemed far outside of its mission, but today it is an important part of maintaining a voice in a competitive field and ensuring that stories that affect so many lives still reach U.S. audiences. The tide is moving in this direction regardless: NGOs are becoming their own news entities, producing content in-house and reaching around mainstream media to distribute their brand and messages directly to audiences; foundations are bridging the gap; new businesses are emerging to feed the supply.

With new space opening for this kind of collaboration, NGO-media partnerships are offering a new future to international news. Those bearing witness on the frontlines of conflict zones — whether issuing humanitarian aid, documenting human rights abuses or advising policymakers — have a significant role to play in relating stories to American audiences. Although many organizations lack official policies, and while it might not be the perfect match for everyone, the fact is, NGO-media partnerships are happening. And they have the potential to lead to stronger foreign news reporting and better serve audiences interested in an increasingly interconnected world.

Kimberly Abbott is North America Communications Director for the International Crisis Group. In this role, she is responsible for developing and leading the U.S. media strategy to advance Crisis Group’s policy prescriptions and to raise awareness of conflict situations in the U.S. media. She has previously worked as communications and media manager for InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, and, for more than ten years, as a reporter and producer for local, national and international television and radio.

Photo of Ted Koppel by Tim Brauhn used under a Creative Commons license.

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