So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!
Let’s start with a thought experiment.
Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.
Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.
And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.
I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.
But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.
1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete
The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.
This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.
2. Traditional media is getting slower
There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.
This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.
In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.
When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.
For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.
3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.
Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.
It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctors, government cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.
It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.
All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.
So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.
* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.