The Humanitarian Journalism project is seeking to better understand how the news media report on humanitarian crises and what shapes their coverage.

Who are the intermediaries for international news? (Blog)

Martin Scott

March 2, 2018


By Martin Scott (@martinscott2010).

The role of non-profit intermediaries in supporting international news has been the subject of growing discussion recently.

In January, the International Reporting Project (IRP) announced that it would be closing after 20 years. In an article for Columbia Journalism Review, IRP’s deputy director Glendora Meikle described this as a consequence of a ‘slow, organic shift’ in the way international news is made and paid for.

We’re already several years into a new phase of philanthropic intervention: direct support of news outlets… The result may be rendering intermediaries like IRP obsolete… You don’t need individual stories pre-paid by fellowships if your budget is already being covered by a grant.

In response, BRIGHT magazine’s Sarika Bansal suggested that this might offer an ideal moment to rethink how these sorts of programs work, to make them ‘more relevant for 2018’. Her five recommendations include, ‘keep it small’, ‘stay put’, ‘keep tabs on the money’, ‘offer mentorship’ and ‘think local’.

Maybe this destruction is also an opportunity to rebuild… Here’s a radical thought: why take American freelance writers to Tanzania in the first place? Why not help talented Tanzanian journalists get regular gigs in international media outlets?

Finally, a pseudonymous journalist writing in Jacobin recently highlighted an apparent contradiction in the work of another journalistic intermediary – the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). They accept support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to support news coverage of issues linked to empowerment and democracy in the Great Lakes Region, where the Buffett Foundation is extremely active. The author claims that, in doing so, the IWMF had inadvertently helped ‘legitimize Buffett’s activities in the region and his support for the Rwandan government’. In response, the IWMF said that they find it ‘unacceptable for a funder to influence the editorial content of the stories [they] facilitate’.

If the role of intermediaries for international news is being re-thought, it is important to first clarify precisely who these organisations are, what they are trying to do and how they differ. To this end, the following explainer seeks to answer five key questions about the role of intermediaries for international news. The answers are based on recent interviews with representative from all the major intermediaries in this field, as part of our ongoing research into humanitarian journalism.

Q1. How important are intermediaries in the production of international news?

Intermediary organisations, such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and GroundTruth, are a longstanding and incredibly influential part of the wider ecosystem of international journalism. In 2016 alone, the Pulitzer Center helped to subsidize 118 reporting projects, resulting in over 600 stories in more than 150 media outlets. Similarly, before it closed in February 2018, the International Reporting Project (IRP) had supported over 650 journalists to travel to 115 countries.

Collectively, then, these organisations are responsible for supporting thousands of international news stories each year and for the career development of hundreds of international journalists. As one interviewee for this research put it, ‘there is no question that we have a lot of leverage’. Another recently wrote that, ‘today, it’s a fair assumption that a handful of the international stories appearing daily in major outlets around the globe are made possible by fellowships’.

Moreover, given there are only a relatively small number of these organisations, they represent important gatekeepers within the field of international news. As a result, it is important that we understand the processes that govern their decision-making. Surprisingly, though, their role in supporting international news is often overlooked. In many previous studies of international journalism, they are hardly mentioned.

Q2. What kinds of activities do these intermediaries support?

These intermediary organisations do not directly produce content themselves. Rather, they channel donor funding into supporting international news in a range of different ways. Most often, they provide fellowships to support individual journalists (often freelancers, but also some staff journalists) to travel to foreign countries to research and produce a range of outputs linked to particular topics or issues. To acquire this support, journalists pitch their ideas to an intermediary, usually in response to a call for proposals. Such funding is incredibly competitive and intermediaries regularly receive ten times more applications than they are able to fund. The calls for proposals are often, but not always, linked to funding provided by a specific donor.

The central premise of this approach is that news outlets are far more likely to publish or broadcast international news if the travel costs and other expenses have already been met. Without the support provided by intermediaries, original international coverage would often not be economically viable for many news organisations because it is too time consuming and costly to produce or commission themselves. To ensure they are offering donors good value-for-money, intermediaries are often careful to avoid funding content that may have been produced anyway, without intermediary support.

Although less common, these intermediary organisations do also provide support directly to news organisations, rather than individual journalists. One recent example is The New Arrivals project; a  long-term series following the lives of refugees as they settle across Europe, involving a collaboration between the Guardian Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El País. This project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but administered by an intermediary – the European Journalism Centre (EJC). Intermediaries also support a range of other activities including group reporting trips as well as training, workshops and awards linked to international journalism.

Q3. Aside from channelling funding to support international news, what other functions do these intermediaries serve?

The vast majority of funding for the work of intermediaries comes from foundations. One of the key roles of these intermediary organisations is to act as a ‘firewall’ between journalists and foundations: ensuring that editorial independence is maintained. As one interviewee put it,

We are the ‘middlemen’. We can make a very clean divide between where the money is coming from and who is receiving the money… so there is absolutely no chance that [journalists] would be able to bias their reporting based on who was funding them.

When these intermediaries receive unrestricted funding from foundations, they are able to be more ‘demand-driven’, or responsive to the issues or subject areas raised by the journalists or news organisations that apply for funding. This is less possible when funding comes from foundations with a broadly instrumentalist approach, which may wish only to support journalism about a specific issue and/or location. The role of intermediaries in these situations is to ensure that scope of funding is as broad as possible, to allow journalists as much scope as they can to pursue the stories they wish. As one interviewee explained, ‘even in the issue-restricted grants, we make it as general as we can’.

In summary, the thematic areas that intermediaries support are an outcome of an ongoing negotiation between (1) the priorities of (different) foundations, (2) the specific interests of a range of journalists and news organisations and (3) the particular focus (if any) of the intermediaries themselves.

Q4. What are the overall objectives of these non-profit intermediaries and how do they differ?

Supporting thematic international news is the sole or primary objective of most intermediaries active in this field. Examples of such organisations include the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, GroundTruth, Round Earth Media, One World Media and the Global Reporting Centre. All of these intermediary organisations were established with the principle aim of promoting coverage of ‘under-reported’ international issues, or filling perceived ‘gaps’ in mainstream international news coverage. The vast majority of their activities are directed towards this aim. As one interviewee stated, ‘from the beginning, we intended to support coverage of [international] stories that were not being covered or perspectives that were not appearing in the major news outlets’.

However, there are also a small number of other organisations that serve a similar intermediary role but whose principle aim is to promote media development in general, rather than coverage of specific under-reported issues. Examples include the European Journalism Centre (EJC), the International Centre for Journalism (ICFJ), the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWJC) and Code for Africa. In such cases, providing support for international thematic news is just one, relatively minor, aspect of their work. For example, the main aim of the European Journalism Centre is to,

Improve, strengthen, and underpin journalism… [by] safeguarding, enhancing, and future-proofing quality journalism in Europe and… [by] supporting initiatives towards press freedom in emerging and developing countries. To these ends, the EJC provides thematic training, professional capacity development, and a wide range of support activities for journalists.

However, the EJC also offers a number of grants, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to ‘fund stories to inform public opinion and change the way people understand development issues’.

Finally, it is also worth noting that some larger news organisations have affiliated intermediaries, which perform a similar function. In September 2017, both the Guardian and NYT established dedicated philanthropic divisions designed to secure non-profit funding and effectively provide an internal editorial firewall.


Q5. How do these intermediaries decide who to fund and how do their criteria differ?

There is a great deal of variety in the criteria that different intermediaries use to decide which individuals and news outlets to fund and what kinds of content to support. These differences in criteria are shaped, to a large extent, by the different ways in which intermediaries perceive the underlying problems facing international journalism.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, for example, believes that one of the main issues facing international news in the US is a lack of demand amongst the public. To tackle this, alongside its journalism grants, The Pulitzer Center runs an extensive educational outreach programme involving hundreds of free lesson plans (linked to the content they have helped to fund) and classroom visits by journalists they have supported. This focus on educational outreach has a significant effect on the kinds of projects The Pulitzer Center supports. For example, unlike many other intermediaries, one of their key criteria is reach – or having a plan for distribution that targets larger, rather than niche, news outlets. Similarly, the outputs The Pulitzer Center supports need to have a long ‘shelf-life’ so they remain relevant for educational outreach for a number of years. This leads The Pulitzer Center to prioritise projects that deal with longer-term, systemic issues, rather than breaking news.

Other intermediaries, such as the International Reporting Project (IRP) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWJC) place their emphasis on (addressing) the lack of diversity in international news, rather than on generating demand. Diversity here refers, not only to the range of places and issues being covered, but also to the kinds of people telling the stories and the ways in which they are told. For example, Nadine Hoffman, Deputy Director at the IWMC explained that they focus on ‘broadening narratives from regions of the world that have been reported very narrowly and, historically also, through a white male gaze’.

We really believe that the people telling the story will bring their own experiences and tell stories in different ways… We very much believe that, when only white men are telling the story that we consume, that the stories are different than the ones that you would get if you had more people of colour and women telling stories.

In such cases, greater priority is given to supporting journalists from a wide variety of backgrounds, seeking to publish under-reported perspectives in a diverse range of publications (reaching both specialist and non-specialist audiences) in a range of countries. In contrast to The Pulitzer Centre, such intermediaries are unlikely to support the same journalist more than once. These intermediaries are also more likely to run group-reporting trips.

Intermediaries such as GroundTruth, place their emphasis on building the long-term capacity of international journalism by supporting career progression. In particular, they seek to offer early-career journalists international experience that may shape their work in the long-term. As one interviewee explained, ‘you are also making them someone who is going to be interested in that particular place or story for the rest of their career’. In such cases, the focus of the intermediary’s activities is on the nature of the experience and the support that the journalist receive, rather than their dissemination strategy. This is also characteristic of the support provided by intermediaries concerned with diversity.

At other intermediaries, like the Global Reporting Centre, many of the problems of international journalism are understood to stem from the way in which it is produced – or issues with the model of ‘parachute journalism’. In response, they support journalism projects that involve experimental or bespoke forms of production. This often entails working alongside local stakeholders, collaborating with academics, following up on stories over the long-term and creating novel ways of engaging relevant and often niche audiences.

Finally, those organisations mentioned earlier, which aim to promote media development in general, often heavily integrate innovation into their support for thematic international news. As one participant said, ‘we don’t want to just produce stories about [international issues]… unless we are changing the capacity of the media organisation to do better coverage of those and other issues’. The EJC’s support for coverage of international development, for example, includes a requirement to ‘develop new, exciting, and even experimental reporting, employing state of the art presentation methods and techniques of journalistic storytelling’.

In summary, the key ways in which intermediaries differ include their emphasis on (1) the reach of outputs over the diversity of outputs, (2) dissemination over capacity building and (3) different target audiences. These differences stem, primarily from their various interpretations of the different challenges facing international news. Notwithstanding these important differences, though, there are also generic criteria that apply in almost all cases. Specifically, intermediaries judge the proposals they receive according to: the track record of the journalist (commensurate to their career stage), evidence of interest from a news outlet, relevance to the thematic or geographic focus of the call for proposals and the overall quality of the proposal.

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