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January 10 2011

17:07

Spot.Us Survey Shows Support for More Diverse Public Media

The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy made 15 recommendations on how America can have a bright info-future. One of those recommendations was for increased support for public media predicated on public media efforts to "step up," for lack of a better term.

Public media has been on the minds and lips of a lot of Americans. Certainly the last few years have seen a growth in public media across the board from Corporation for Public Broadcasting entities (PBS, NPR) to less formal public media entities like PRX and PRI. Recently, as a follow-up to the work of the Knight Commission Barbara Cochran wrote a policy paper "Rethinking Public Media: Mort Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive." From the Knight Commission blog post:

At a time when government funding for public broadcasting is hotly debated, "Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive," a new policy paper by Barbara Cochran, offers five broad strategies and 21 specific recommendations to reform public media.


It's an excellent piece of reading that breaks down some of the roadblocks and opportunities that lay ahead for public media.

Beyond white papers, however, it's important that the public be able to speak their mind about public media. That's why, thanks to the support of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, the institutional home of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Spot.Us surveyed 500 members about the state of public media in their community.

The goal was to find out where public media is strong, weak and what suggestions the public might have for public media. Not only did this survey raise awareness about the growing role of public media, it supported media as well. Every member of our community that took the survey was given $5 in credits to fund the story of their choice on our site.

And The Survey Says....

How Big Is Your Community?
Before we can examine the survey in-depth I should remind folks that this is a sponsored survey of a somewhat self-selecting community (and our community is perhaps more media-savvy than other websites). That said, our first question was aimed at getting a sense of where people lived. One of the trends we often hear is that major metropolitan areas are better served by public media than smaller locations. Our survey affirmed this.

Just over 60 percent of respondents were from major metropolitan areas. Another 17 percent were from large cities. Only a handful (12 percent) came from towns with a population of 50,000 or less. Our survey skewed toward major metropolitan areas and in total they were happier with public media than folks in more rural areas. This should be kept in the back of our minds when we dive into the remaining questions and answers.
Spot.Us community member Mike Labonte summed up the frustration with public media in small towns when he wrote his suggestion to improve public media in his town: "Presence. The only public media in my city of 70,000 is the local public access cable TV station."

The next question in our survey allowed for multiple answers: "Who has an influential role in shaping media in your area?" It's an important question to ask because while the ecosystem continues to change many charge public media with the role to unite various media forces together. The results of this question were proven interesting again; as much as things have changed -- they also stay the same.

Newspapers and national broadcast television were considered influential by the most respondents. Just over 75 percent of people who took the survey selected papers as being influential. Local bloggers garnered 188 votes or just 37 percent of those that took the survey. While that's still a hefty number, it was the lowest concrete choice (it performed better than "other") and came in just below "elected officials."
Community member Laurie Pumper noted: "One small but telling example: Public radio went out of its way to keep a citizen journalism organization from providing live-streaming of a gubernatorial debate in Minnesota. If an organization accepts public funding, I expect better cooperation with other sources of media."

Next we asked how people got involved in public media. The respondents had three overwhelming answers: Social media, the general website and donating. The overlap between these three was also very strong. Almost everyone who said they donated engaged through the website and social media. Although the reverse trend was not as strong (i.e. somebody who engaged through social media might not donate), there was still a correlation.

In light of the number of respondents who said they volunteer or worked for public media, the number of people who attended events at their local public media station seemed a little low. Getting out the word can be very important as community member Ben Melançon said: "Dedicating the resources to come and ask what's up, once a month. Taking matters of interest common to multiple local areas they cover and doing very in-depth reports on them."
Next we got to the heart of the survey: How effective is public media at serving the needs and interests of diverse members of the community? While the responses to this aren't an abysmal failure, it does show large room for improvement. A total of 11 percent thought public media in their community was doing a poor job of reflecting diversity. The vast majority of responders selected either "good" (33 percent) or "fair" (32 percent). Because these two combine for 65 percent of all responders it's worth examining the exact language of these answers:
  • Fair -- There are occasional examples of diverse programming, but it's not the norm.
  • Good -- While not perfect, there are obvious efforts to make programming more inclusive.

While these lukewarm answers were the majority only a handful of responders thought public media was doing an "excellent" or "very good" job of reflecting a community's diversity.
And then came the meatiest question: "How well do public media do of informing you about local issues?"

Again we find mixed results, but the overall trend was positive. A majority 69 percent said public media was doing either "average" or "above average" at covering local issues. While it's great to see so few select "poor" (six percent) or "below average" (17 percent), there is still lots of room for improvement when we note that only 8 percent of responders thought public media was doing "fantastic."

In an interesting contrast with an earlier comment, community member Alexis Gonzales said this about the size of a town:

Because I live in a large city, news media -- including public media -- just don't cover 'neighborhood' issues. Frankly, I stopped expecting them to do otherwise until I spent time in smaller-but-not-that-much-smaller city (Portland for example) and noticed how public media seemed so much closer to and integrated into the local community. I think public media could do a better job of covering local issues by reconsidering what is newsworthy ... i.e., neighborhood issues can be of broader interest to the greater community.



Taxes

The survey also threw in a playful question regarding taxes. Since public media's funding has been a topic of discussion, why not ask the public what they think? The question was arguably loaded, but still worth asking.

The exact language was: "British citizens are taxed $80.36 a year to support the BBC. United States citizens are taxed only $1.36. Knowing it would mean more taxes you believe the following." Then respondents could decide if they wanted to lower taxes to $0 or raise them to "beat the British."

This question was asked in part to educate, since many people don't realize how little our media is subsidized by taxes compared to other countries and in part to provoke responses around a hotly debated topic.

About 20 percent of responders thought the taxes should stay the same or even be lowered to $0. Nearly half thought of expanding the taxes a little either doubling it to $2.70 or expanding it to $30. And perhaps because of how the answer was worded  ("Let's beat the British") a whopping 34 percent wanted to raise taxes to $80.37 to fund public media. Either the Spot.Us community has lots of public media fans or a reminder that the British public media is out-funding ours 80-to-1 was too much to bear. (Also note 49 individuals who took the survey work for public media according to their answers to question #3).


From the public's mouth

Finally, our last open-ended question sought advice and input about how public media could improve at the local level. We received 500 responses and below I have republished some of the best with the survey respondents' permission.

Wendy Carrillo

I live in East LA / Boyle Heights. It's very rare that good positive stories are told about my community via TV news. LA Times covers some good stories, but it's not the norm. I would like to see my community being covered w/ national issues other than immigration. Like Latinos who serve in armed forces, or those who are making a difference in the classroom.

Tom Davidson

Engage the emerging local blogosphere -- providing them promotion/audience and, potentially, revenue via bundled sales using the bully pulpit of public media. In other words, why can't a local PBS or NPR station serve the same role as a TBD.com in Washington?

Tim Gihring

They could spice up the reporting. The no rant/no slant approach is appropriate, but the reporting is often simple, dry, and probably not engaging as broad an audience as possible as a result.

Henry Jenkins

Right now, Los Angeles seems poised to lose its PBS station, which is going independent. This is a good news, bad news situation. Some of its best current projects are local and these will continue and grow. But we will also lose some of the programs from PBS which we have come to expect and they will be missed.

Ruth Ann Harnisch

Deploy the resources of journalism majors and graduate students in the many universities and colleges located in and around the major metro areas. Collaborate with universities and colleges to cover more beats, produce more stories, create more outlets, uncover more potential advertisers and train better journalists.

Tom Stites

My community, Newburyport, Mass., is an hour north of Boston, a half hour south of Portsmouth, N.H., and an hour and 10 minutes south of Portland, Maine. I listen to public radio from all three, and no one covers Newburyport or its surrounding area. In fact, we're in a fringe reception area for all the stations. What would be really cool would be to have a low-power, listener-supported station right here in Newburyport. There's a local AM station that plays old music but has no local news presence.
Perhaps where I live makes me an outlier, but I suspect that my situation is quite common -- most public radio stations are in big cities or on university campuses in smaller places. That said, most smaller communities, including mine, don't have colleges.

Jake Bayless

Public media is largely the only not-for-profit trusted local and regional source of info, and source of curated content. I'd like to see that trust "capital" realized -- my local station is in the process of retooling for the new media revolution -- it's not easy to change the battleship's direction. More and amplified info like that from the Knight Commission needs to be put out there. The public at large doesn't yet understand how vital public media SHOULD be in their lives as info consumers. Public media orgs all should adopt "Community Media Projects" in order to learn, listen and meet the information and democratic needs of the communities they serve... everything else is broken, untrustworthy or unsuitable.

Arthur Coddington

Awareness that public media is frequently a partnership between national providers (NPR) and local stations. Those that don't understand this partnership can dismiss the programming as not locally relevant. Visibility. Police who are present and interacting with local residents can generate greater trust and participation in public safety. Similar thing could be true of public media. If they are visible -- if they are not "they" -- then we feel more connected to the stories, more possibility to reach out to them when new issues arrive, etc. Engagement. Partner with schools, libraries and service orgs to unearth essential local stories, create broadcasts about them, and follow up to track impact.

Andria Krewson

Be more aggressive about giving up old ways (and sometimes long-time staffers) to free up resources and time to explore new ways of sharing information. Note on the tax question: I'd support more taxation for public media, but I'm discouraged about the track record used to spend tax money recently and would need total transparency (and some influence) on how money is spent in order to support more taxation.

Chris Mecham

We have a very active NPR-supporting community here but the simple fact is that they are charged with providing service to a huge, mountainous geographic area and while we may, as a community, have an above average rate of contribution, we also have greater infrastructure expenses than many other areas. Considering what Boise State Public Radio does with their resources I think they are doing okay. One of the features of public broadcasting funding in Idaho is that up to a fairly generous limit our contributions are counted as a tax credit. Not a deduction. A credit. "Do I want to give Butch Otter my money or do I want to give Terry Gross my money? Hmmmm."

Lisa Morehouse

Experiment. Be willing to try and fail at new shows, new ways of delivering the news. Invest in reporting. Pay freelancers a fair wage so that journalists without financial support can enter and stay in the profession (not possible now).

Bill Day

Public media should pioneer efforts to build real-time citizen journalist networks. Using low cost distribution and collation tools, public media could become hubs for high-quality, low cost information sharing -- school test scores, water quality, traffic needs, etc.

Sabine Schmidt

Through reaching out to organizations and individuals representing under-served parts of the community, especially economic and ethnic minorities. The demographic makeup of my metro area is changing rapidly due to growing Hispanic, Marshallese, and Hmong populations; except for some Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations, few media outlets report on issues such as immigration, wage theft, bilingual education, etc. Public media could a) report more extensively on those topics -- not as "minority" issues but as issues affecting members of our community; this would require b) establishing a broader definition of what our community is; and c), public media could offer internships and fellowships to young and/or freelance journalists, especially because the local NPR station is run by the university's journalism department.

Antonio Roman-Alcala

I like the Bay Citizen model, and the Public Press ... one for exposing local issues to a broader audience, the other for in-depth local news for locals. I don't know if that counts as public media? Overall, I don't pay much attention to TV news, even public channels...so I'm not sure about that. Public media seems generally underfunded; I'd like to see more funding for it, as well as movement towards a more public-serving private news media (though we know, of course, that's easier said than done).

Alexis Gonzales

Because I live in a large city, news media -- including public media -- just don't cover "neighborhood" issues. Frankly, I stopped expecting them to do otherwise until I spent time in smaller-but-not-that-much-smaller cities (Portland for example) and noticed how public media seemed so much closer to and integrated into the local community. I think Public Media could do a better job of covering local issues by reconsidering what is newsworthy ... i.e. neighborhood issues can be of broader interest to the greater community.

Kaitlin Parker

Find positive happenings to report in communities that are typically only covered when something negative happens there.

Anthony Wojtkowiak

For lack of a better phrase, they need to grow some balls. My town in New Jersey is influenced by political boss George Norcross, the unions, and the mafia. And that's not even the corruption and hubris that goes on in the city itself. What our reporters really need is assertiveness training, media law training, and self-defense courses. But most of all, they need the courage to use all of that stuff.

Todd O'Neill

Our public radio and public television are separate entities that don't work together. Although our public radio is beefing up it's news reporting it seems simple to bring that reporting over to television. But public media is NOT JUST NPR and PBS. We have struggling cable public access community (no funding or support from the city) here and a number of online only community journalism operations (including a Knight grantee) that are all doing their own thing without coordination. Big Public Media (NPR/PBS) should be a leader to bring all of these "under the tent" and provide a real media public service to the community.

Charles Sanders


Actually, local issues aren't my concern. I wish public media reinforced its international coverage and improved its drama, comedy ... content. I envy the BBC.

Martin Wolff


As someone who listens to public media daily, it is sad that I have to try hard to think about a local issue being covered. In that respect, almost anything would improve the coverage as it feels almost, but not quite, non-existent. When local issues are covered they seemingly come in only two forms: 1. A feel good issue that is barely an issue and will create nearly zero discourse in the community. For example, holiday-lights festivals. 2. Wimpy. The interviewer/broadcaster will do nothing while two sides of an issue actively lie to the community and directly contradict each other. Fixing #1 is easy -- nobody really terribly cares, so we don't need 10 minutes of coverage about a mayor flipping the switch and lighting a tree up. Fixing #2 is harder. The public media must stand up for itself better and call out the guilty parties. The public media must step up its role as a sort of police officer of society and arrest those who break the rules.

Yvette Maranowski


ALWAYS retain vigorous capacity for citizen reporters. Fund them with equipment and training. People are busy now and have to work independently, but with lifelines keeping them connected to their media outlets. Use McChesney and Nichol's idea of $200 in tax credit going to every citizen, so that the citizen can donate their credit to whatever organization they choose -- such as journalistic ones. Constantly produce and air/publish material about the importance of journalism -- keep hitting the public with that message!

Andy Edgar


Survey people in the neighborhood for their backgrounds, locations and topics of interest, get them interested in issues that affect everyone. Focus on things like air and water quality, advice on picking up litter and why it's important not to litter, community events, getting to know neighbors' talents/skills, healthy alternatives to fast food and big box grocery stores. Community based ways to prevent crime/hate acts should be talked about explored and tried.

William Forbes


In my community (Minneapolis/St Paul, MN), "public" radio and television are HUGE cash cows. They do a good job and are influential but the real inclusive and diverse media that truly serve the under-represented populations of our area are Community Radio Stations, in particular KFAI. MN Public Television/NPR/MPR/PBS could do a much better job but they are more concerned with maintaining (and increasing) corporate and government funding than with covering issues that don't always have universal appeal.

Michael Hopkins

In its current state, public media is dangerous because it offers the illusion of complete objectivity and truth. Too many people listen to it uncritically because of this. I would like to see public media representatives ask much tougher questions of everybody and hire a much more diverse staff of journalists. The illusion will still be there, but it will match reality more closely.

Jeffrey Aberbach


My community now has a Patch website. It's too early to judge how successful it will be in reaching out to our diverse community, but so far it appears to be more successful than the established, corporate-owned media outlet in town (a poorly staffed small daily newspaper that generates little local content).

Jeddy Lin


In my area, despite being close to a large university, not much of a public media movement exists. A more visible public media would go a long way towards creating a more progressive, diverse community.

Kitty Norton


They could provide better coverage for schools. They seem to report statistics and not real life goings-on in our schools to the community.

Luke Gies


I don't have any television or newspaper service, so I am somewhat "self isolating" from our local media. I get most of my news from the Internet, so I think one area of improvement for local media would be to increase the content and improve the usability of their websites. That is more of an improvement in distribution than in "covering the issues," but distribution is a key component to the reporting of news.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

December 14 2009

15:00

Bringing NGO news into the mainstream: The case of OneWorld.net and Yahoo News

[It's one thing for NGOs to get into the news-producing business; it's another for their news to get noticed. Here Larry Kirkman and Laurie Moy explore the case of one NGO, OneWorld.net, and how its partnership with megalith Yahoo! News has put its work before an entirely new audience. This is the fifth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

One month after September 11, 2001, OneWorld.net, a global network of civil society-based public media centers, launched a daily service on Yahoo! News in its World News section. Yahoo News was then, and continues to be, the top rated online news source according to Alexa.com and ComSource, and it reaches more than 43 million unique visitors per month.1 How did an NGO-based news organization become a contributor to the most visited news portal online? The answer lies in the perfect storm of innovative editorial policies, a challenging news media environment, evolving media advocacy, and private foundation support.

Yahoo! and OneWorld editors both believed that U.S. audiences were motivated by the national crisis to understand more of the world beyond their borders. In an email communication, the current Yahoo! News Editor, Sarah Wright, recalled her organization’s motivation:

Yahoo invited OneWorld.net to join its world news service in Fall 2001 to complement the coverage of mainstream sources, such as AP and Reuters, with daily reports that tapped into the knowledge of nonprofit organizations. OneWorld journalists provide a unique and valuable resource to Yahoo by providing context for international headlines and voices from the front lines of international development.2

Yahoo! had been poised to broaden its news sources just before 9/11, in response to a study by the New York-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that criticized Yahoo’s “male, white, and right” bias. According to OneWorld International News Editor at the time, Sebastian Zebania, the FAIR study, titled Diversity Gap in Online Journalism, “showed Yahoo’s coverage to be monochrome needing to diversify quotes, subjects, etc., as it grew global.”3 On August 24, 2001, FAIR reported on its website that Yahoo! News senior producer Kourosh Karimkhany had thanked the group for the critique and affirmed a commitment to improve: “To state it succinctly, we agree with you 100 percent. We have been trying to achieve exactly what you suggested.” Karimkhany wrote that the Yahoo! News mission is “to represent almost every perspective… We encourage Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting to watch our site over the next few months. We hope you will notice a broader journalistic range.”

It was just two months later that OneWorld joined the Yahoo! World News page. The timing of this relationship was significant. By 2001, the American news media environment was feeling the growing pains of the digital revolution. Internet news portals were taking off and traditional outlets were struggling to catch up. At the same time, U.S. mainstream media were drastically downsizing their foreign correspondence, eliminating international bureaus and relying on government-supplied perspectives. OneWorld offered an alternative mission that challenged the dichotomy of popular and serious. The conventional wisdom of news media gatekeepers was that U.S. audiences were simply not interested in international news. OneWorld believed that the burden of finding engaging international news was not with the audience, but rather with the news media. It explained its approach, reaching out to popular audiences through the internet with serious content, in a grant proposal to the Veatch Foundation:

Today’s news media and political structures do not engage or fully inform Americans on most issues of global significance. The same elite sources are quoted time and again and way too much time is devoted to spin, drama, and sensationalism instead of the real issues that affect people around the world. Politicians largely focus on the issues and offer the platitudes that will get them re-elected, ignoring many topics and perspectives that impact millions of people worldwide. These political and media failings have turned off countless Americans to important global issues.4

OneWorld: History and outreach

OneWorld was launched in 1995 with the mission to use the World Wide Web to engage wide-spread audiences on international issues and causes. The co-founders, Peter Armstrong and Anuradha Vittachi, called it the first “global justice portal” on the emerging Web landscape. Its central purpose was to aggregate and highlight the content of development NGOs such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, realizing the great value of the trusted brand names and social networks of the organizations.

The two founders brought a wealth of broadcasting and multimedia production experience, as well as editorial expertise, to these nonprofit relationships that established a professional media framework for the journalistic enterprise over the next 15 years. In identifying, selecting, annotating and contextualizing the knowledge of development NGOs, they set high expectations for the application of journalistic standards to reporting based on the news, research, opinion, public engagement, and advocacy campaigns of civil society.

In Vittachi’s brief history of the origins of OneWorld, published online in September 2003, she explained that the first websites for dozens of organizations, and in return, “partners agreed to share their material with the rest of the partnership and global audience at large—at no charge.” She made the case that OneWorld “supported partners by raising their profile and extending their outreach,” by aggregating their content and their audiences.

The original OneWorld project was based at One World Broadcasting Trust, known for its social media awards. In 1999, it was sold to a new UK-based charity, OneWorld International Foundation, to accommodate a growing global enterprise that has included centers in the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Spain, the United States, India, Zambia, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Austria, Canada, South East Europe, and Indonesia. The centers are autonomous organizations with their own boards of directors, special projects, extensive organizational networks of more than 2,000 NGOs worldwide, and a wide range of funding sources, including private foundations, government development agencies, partner dues, and individual donations. The centers operate under the OneWorld banner and with a set of common principles, standards, and agreements to share content and governance responsibilities.

OneWorld United States is a key component in the OneWorld network and supplies several different news products, including a bi-monthly online magazine, Perspectives, and a Daily Headlines service. All of OneWorld’s content, including more than 100,000 articles, is fully indexed and searchable.

A 2007 survey of Daily Headlines readers revealed an even split along gender lines and indicated that 48 percent of readers are in countries other than the United States. More than a third (38 percent) of Daily Headlines readers work in the nonprofit sector and the majority (61 percent) were interested in all geographic regions. The least interesting region for Daily Headline subscribers was North America.5

The placement of OneWorld on Yahoo! News allowed OneWorld to reach out to a broader, more “mainstream” audience, which complemented OneWorld’s existing demographics. A year after joining the Yahoo! News network , OneWorld conducted an online survey to collect demographic information about its new audience on Yahoo. The survey found that OneWorld News on Yahoo! readers were mostly male (66 percent) and middle-aged (41 percent were between the ages of 36 and 50). About one third (35 percent) worked in the business sector; only 12 percent of respondents worked for non-profit organizations, which marked a departure from the mostly non-profit and academic audience of the OneWorld community.

In terms of readers’ regional interests, Yahoo’s mainstream audience presents OneWorld with both an opportunity and a challenge: most readers were based in North America (83 percent) and tended to be interested in the developed world (North America 67 percent and Europe 48 percent) and the Middle East (51 percent). There was a noticeable lack of interest in developing countries (Asia 33 percent, Africa, 31 percent, and Latin American and the Caribbean 28 percent). Many respondents in this survey said OneWorld provided a unique perspective that they did not get elsewhere. Most respondents noted they got their international news primarily from mainstream sources, including AP, Reuters, CNN, and the New York Times.

A lack of brand recognition of OneWorld among the respondents indicated that, through Yahoo!, OneWorld was reaching a different audience from the one that was reached through its website and Daily Headlines service. The challenge therefore was to engage that audience and expose them to new perspectives. OneWorld met that challenge by bringing content to Yahoo! that may be slightly tailored to the new audience, but it always links back to a more diverse set of stories than that to which the Yahoo! audience may have been accustomed.

Support from mainstream philanthropy

The changing media environment was not going unnoticed by American philanthropy either. In 2001, the Ford Foundation sent a significant signal to the nonprofit and media sectors with its first grant to OneWorld, for $275,000, “to expand its civic society Internet portal.” Ford support for OneWorld has continued to the present. The winter 2003 edition of Ford Foundation Report featured OneWorld TV on its cover with the title “The Next Information Age. Reality TV the World Should Be Watching.” The introduction to the edition credited OneWorld for “demonstrating the dramatic potential for serving up extensive menus of news and commentary… a full range of perspectives and world events…new access for voices not often heard…”

Funding from the Omidyar Network and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has supplemented the Ford support. In 2005, Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of eBay, explained to Business Week magazine why his foundation chose to get involved:

We’ve done a little bottom-up media with OneWorld. I have a sense that the traditional media hasn’t been aggressive enough talking about important issues. The empowering nature of people reporting their own news, speaking out, and challenging governments and even traditional media sometimes is a very powerful thing.

President Jonathan Fanton of the MacArthur Foundation, which has made grants to OneWorld since 2004, agreed that OneWorld had a vital role to play:

Modern technology makes it possible to broaden the sources of reliable information and bring a greater diversity of voices into the public debate about such topics as human rights and environmental sustainability. In harnessing the power of new communications technologies, the OneWorld network allows thousands of organizations around the world, ranging from community groups in rural Africa to large nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch to provide alternative perspectives on pressing global social issues.

In the foundation’s August 2006 News from MacArthur, Fanton said, “The spread of digital technology is dramatically changing news gathering, reporting, and broadcasting, as well as how people choose to access information,” and described OneWorld as one of the “creative new efforts to make better information from diverse sources about events across the globe available to U.S. audiences.”

These “creative new efforts” were a direct result of OneWorld’s unique editorial policy. As articulated on its website, OneWorld seeks a “solutions-oriented approach to presenting the news,” with a focus on “global issues known to be of interest to North Americans,” and “programs showcasing successful efforts to overcome development challenges.”

This editorial policy was informed and shaped by the insights of the Global Interdependence Initiative (GII). GII was launched under the leadership of staff at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1999, and housed at the Aspen Institute, to use the tools of public opinion research, issue framing analysis, media content research, and cognitive linguistics to develop new approaches for engaging U.S. audiences in international issues. In the Who We Are introduction on its Web site, GII describes its purpose in this way, “to help broaden and deepen the American constituency for principled and effective U.S. foreign policy.” This extensive and well-funded project found that the conventional wisdom of news editors and publishers about the lack of consumer interest in international news was challenged by a strong indication of interest in international problems, such as infectious disease, labor standards, and global warming that were perceived as requiring multi-faceted and multi-lateral solutions.

OneWorld’s outreach and communications objectives

Because OneWorld’s goal is to communicate global issues to an American audience, most articles are international in scope, and the writers are encouraged to show how these issues are relevant to Americans whenever possible. To that end, OneWorld has provided a combination of articles that capitalize on “hot” topics along with those telling the “unknown” stories.

One of the most successful articles appeared in February 2006. Abid Aslam’s “Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds?” leapt into the international scene and generated more than half a million hits on the Yahoo! World News page in the first week alone. The article was re-posted on hundreds of blogs and other alternative news sites. In that first week, more than 2,200 Yahoo readers ranked the article with an average ranking of 4 (out of 5) stars. What’s more, the article generated tremendous discussion—900 comments to the article were posted onto the Yahoo! World News site alone. The article, drawing on the expertise of the environmental policy think tank the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), capitalized on a growing interest among the public as well as the mainstream media on the environmental effects of bottled water.

The piece clearly articulated environmental problems that affect the entire planet, specifically highlighting the personal effects felt in India and China. In addition, it went a step further by highlighting how villages in India and communities in Texas and the Great Lakes region of North America similarly suffer from the effects of water extraction, as related to increased consumption of bottled water. In this way, OneWorld took a highly popular topic, and made the connection between the global and the local, as well as the foreign and the domestic.

Another article, “Fossil Fuels Set to Become Relics, Says Research Group,” also rode the headlines and took the net by storm. It was the most viewed story on all of Yahoo! News on September 29, 2005, and it was OneWorld’s most emailed story (950 sends). The story capitalized on the growing interest in renewable energy in the country, but also drew upon the knowledge and experience of the nonprofit world, specifically Worldwatch Institute, in order to make the content relevant. That week more than 250,000 people viewed the article on Yahoo’s web site, and many more reposted and distributed the story through their own blogs and services.

In addition to blockbuster pieces that ride popular headlines, OneWorld also provides articles that present lesser known stories and the largely unheard voices behind them. For example, in November 2005, OneWorld contributed a piece to Yahoo! titled, “Shell Ordered to Stop Wasteful Poisonous ‘Gas Flaring’ in Nigeria.”

The story reported on the decision of a high court in Nigeria to force multinational oil companies to stop a practice called “gas flaring.” The article provided important context to an audience unfamiliar with the issue, and it explained how the practice affects local populations. It presented the voices and perspectives of not only the Nigerian court system, but also indigenous groups, as well as three local and international NGOs.

In December 2005, an article written by Niko Kyriakou highlighted the continuing struggle of residents of Bhopal, India, to force Dow Chemical to take responsibility for a deadly gas leak that happened 21 years ago. The article went beyond the typical corporate responsibility piece to include points of view from local and international activists, American college students, governments, and shareholders. In addition, the piece made the connection between the Indian struggle and a Texas woman who was also battling Dow in an environmental pollution case. Pursuant to OneWorld’s goals, the piece provided context, connection, and relevance.

An article that appeared in January 2006 gave American readers insight into an issue that received very little coverage in the United States—the effects of genetically modified seeds on small farmers in other parts of the world. In “‘Suicide Seeds’ Could Spell Death of Peasant Agriculture, UN Meeting Told,” OneWorld reporter Haider Rizvi called upon indigenous groups from South America as well as local and international activists to explain the issue of Terminator seeds. Perspectives from these groups were presented alongside those of governments and agribusinesses, providing an alternative perspective and much needed context.

By contributing these lesser known stories, OneWorld continues to pursue its goal of exposing American audiences to truly global issues. The effects of this were evident in the 2002 reader survey report, where more than half of respondents reported that the service had changed the way they thought about issues, and 23 percent reported taking some kind of action as a result of reading the OneWorld article. These actions included writing letters, e-mailing and calling members of Congress, taking part in campaigns, and discussing the issues with friends.

Partnerships: a win-win situation

The relationship between Yahoo! and OneWorld has been a successful one, and the objectives of both organizations continue to be met. By 2009, the list of world news providers on Yahoo! had grown to include Agence France-Presse, Christian Science Monitor, Time, National Public Radio, McClatchy Newspapers, and BBC News Video. The continued presence of OneWorld has been a testimony to its distinctive role in the mix of these mainstream news sources. Yahoo! News Editor Sarah Wright summarized:

For over seven years, the OneWorld service has provided links to organizations that are knowledgeable and active in the areas being covered by the stories. In this way, OneWorld acts as a navigator to the non-profit landscape, which contributes to the depth of coverage, and distinguishes it from other news services.6

OneWorld continues to work towards the goal of making “voices from the village” heard. In January 2009, OneWorld began adding some of its Daily Headlines, which are largely contributed by members of OneWorld’s nonprofit network, to its Yahoo! service. But this does not mean that OneWorld simply serves as a mouthpiece for organizations on the ground. Instead its journalists and editors work with nonprofit staffs to meet the challenge of communicating the stories and knowledge with journalistic skill and integrity. The January 15, 2009, article “One Third of Kenyans Face Major Food Shortage,” drawing on ActionAid’s experiences in Kenya, for example, highlighted an issue that had been largely ignored by mainstream U.S. media, but was gravely serious for more than 10 million people in Kenya. “ActionAid, a group we’ve worked with for many years, was raising alarm bells, but very few here in America were hearing those bells,” said OneWorld U.S. Managing Editor Jeffrey Allen. “ActionAid has been working in Kenya for decades. They’re the experts. They can tell our readers what people in rural Kenya are experiencing much better than any bureaucrat in Nairobi could, and even better than most journalists who fly in and fly out—if they even bother to do that anymore.”7

But ActionAid’s communications officers are not journalists, which is where OneWorld’s editors stepped in, complementing ActionAid’s raw report from Kenya with context and background from Oxfam International, another aid group working in the country, as well as several development news sources, before publishing the whole package to Yahoo! News. In this way, OneWorld helped the mainstream audience in the United States better understand the situation in Kenya—and the larger issues of the global food crisis—while getting the scoop directly from the individuals on the ground that are living the story every day. The links included by OneWorld’s editors then provided the mainstream audience on Yahoo! News a direct channel to begin participating in the stories they care about by further informing themselves and supporting the organizations taking action around the world.

OneWorld’s partnership with Yahoo! World News has had implications for both audiences and foreign news reporting. OneWorld has demonstrated that a news service can talk up to its audience, surprising them with how much they can know and how much others like them are doing. It has sought to engage, inform and equip its audience to be vocal and active, and in doing so has created a model for news that is solution-oriented, that explains social problems and illustrates them, and that is based on knowledge of activists and stakeholders on the ground. Through Yahoo!, OneWorld U.S. has been able to bring this model to a mainstream audience, giving a voice to the unheard and bringing new attention to their untold stories.

The partnership has also highlighted and encouraged an increasing appreciation for nonprofits as sources of news. Tremendous growth in the nonprofit-news sector, coupled with the expansion of opportunities for platforming nonprofit news on the mainstream news websites, has brought increased visibility and credibility to nonprofit news providers. OneWorld and Yahoo! were pioneers in this new environment, and their partnership is being replicated and reflected widely. The Associated Press, for example, announced on June 13, 2009 at the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference that it would begin distributing the work of four nonprofit news producers (Center for Public Integrity, Investigative Reporting Workshop, Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica) to its 1,500 member newspapers. What once was extraordinary is now accepted practice.

The news media environment is evolving quickly, and its relationship to audiences and news sources is changing as well. Mainstream media’s news gathering capacity is shrinking and many new media portals are too fragmented to fill the gap. As a result, many traditionally underserved and underrepresented audiences are becoming even more invisible than ever. Given this, and OneWorld’s commitment to “stories of the village,” it has decided to reach out further, by partnering with New America Media (NAM), a network of several thousand ethnic media organizations in the United States. This new partnership, according to Sandy Close, founder and Executive Director of NAM, demonstrates the opportunity to create a “newsbeat that connects hyperlocal sources overseas with hyperlocal sources in this country – a global-local axis of news and communications at a time when American journalism is both shrinking dramatically and focusing heavily on hyper-local news.”8

Larry Kirkman has been dean of the School of Communication at American University since 2001. He directs and develops academic and professional programs in journalism, film and media arts, and public communication. At American, he has established centers for innovation in public service media, including the Center for Social Media, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, and the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and partnerships and programs with many media organizations, including the Newseum, USA Today, NBC, and New America Media. His work has included public television documentaries and public service campaigns, including Connect for Kids with the Advertising Council and Union Yes for the AFL-CIO. He launched the US Center of OneWorld.net, created the American Film Institute’s National Video Festival, and edited a series of ten media guides, “Strategic Communications for Nonprofits.”

Laurie Moy is the executive director of Pearls of Africa, a nonprofit organization serving children with disabilities and their families in Uganda, a position she has held since July 2001. She is also regarded as an expert in online volunteering and network engagement and advocacy of nonprofits. She has traveled globally to host workshops and presentations on nonprofits and communications technologies, and in 2008 she served as the Connect US Fellow at Netcentric Campaigns. She also holds a master’s degree in international media from the American University School of Communication and School of International Service.

Notes
  1. Sarah Wright, personal communication, February 2, 2009
  2. Wright 2009
  3. Sebastian Zebani, personal communication, January 25, 2009
  4. Michael Litz, Letter of Inquiry to Veatch Foundation (internal document), April 8, 2008
  5. OneWorld.net (2007): Daily Headlines Annual Survey Results. OneWorld, July 2007
  6. Wright 2009
  7. Jeffrey Allen, personal communication, February 5, 2009
  8. Sandy Close, personal communication, October 26, 2009
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