Ten Points on Funding Citizen Media

    by David Sasaki
    October 11, 2009

    Last week the Salzburg Global Seminar organized two back-to-back meetings which brought together passionate enthusiasts in the field of new media for three days, and then traditional funders of media development for another three days. Josh Goldstein of UNICEF Innovation and Erik Hersman of Ushahidi each blogged about the gathering. There has also been a flurry of blogging by Anne Nelson and Susan Moeller on the Strengthening Independent Media blog.

    During the first meeting I gave the following presentation about my experience funding citizen media projects over the past two and a half years.

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    HiperBarrio began when a Colombian media professor teaching in Norway met a librarian in the small town of San Javier La Loma on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia. It is part of Comuna 13, which was one of the epicenters of violence during the 80’s and 90’s. These days the town is mostly safe, but the only thing that outsiders knew about this place was its violent history.

    The librarian wanted to record and share the small town’s cultural history. So he taught ten of his regular library users how to blog, make podcasts, and short video documentaries. The project has become ridiculously successful. They have since secured more funding from local institutions, and they were cited in a proposal by the Fundación Empresas Públicas of Medellín, which led to a one million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to build on the work that HiperBarrio has proved successful. Gabriel has since been invited to Chile to share his knowledge with their national library network. They won the Ars Electronica Award in digital communities this year and a 10,000 euro prize. These ten initial participants are now trainers who are paid to give workshops in other marginalized villages on the outskirts of Medellin.

    In contrast, one of the Rising Voices grantee projects that so far has struggled to make an impact is Blogging Since Infancy, the blogging project of Plan Ceibal in Uruguay. Plan Ceibal is simply too large of an organization and too much bureaucracy stood in the way of quick and effective implementation.


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    These individuals belong to Foko, a citizen journalism training initiative and community of bloggers in Madagascar. They first began their work not too long after DreamWorks released their 2005 animated film by the same name. A group of Malagasy bloggers living in the diaspora was tired of the fact that the only international awareness of their home country had to do with cartoon animals. So they partnered with a few social groups – including several English language clubs – based in different parts of the island, and showed them how to blog.

    They were mostly writing about what donors would consider “non-serious” content. Occasionally they would post short videos about environmental and social challenges in Madagascar, but a lot of the content is what would be considered diary writing. Then something unexpected happened: on March 17 a coup deposed president Marc Ravalomanana. 15,000 protesters took to the streets, many countries froze their aid programs, and misinformation was frequently spreading on the airwaves of the radio stations that managed to continue broadcasting. Amid all the chaos, this group of Foko bloggers became the go-to sources of information for the international press. They were featured on CNN live, the BBC, New York Times, and Reuters.

    Looking back at it, Foko is an excellent example of what John West from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting called “pre-crisis training”. It also underscores the importance of 1.) citizen journalism training programs, 2.) the translation and contextualization of local content for a global audience, and 3.) networks of media groups so that local voices can be amplified and understood when breaking news hits. A few months ago Malagasy bloggers and traditional journalists met to discuss how both can work together more effectively during times of crisis.

    3) Act more like a social network and less like a parent

    Funders are in a role to promote co-learning and collaboration among grantee projects. I recommend focusing on creating a sense of community among your grantees, but also make sure to bring in outsiders so as not to become exclusionary. Focus less on oversight and making rules, and more on encouragement and making connections.

    4) Leave comments, make suggestions, don’t hide

    For some reason many funders feel that they shouldn’t be seen in public interacting with their grantees. I think that they are also afraid that they will write something that they might later regret. That’s OK – we all make mistakes and as long as you’re humble about it, internet users are more forgiving (and less attentive) than you would think. I have yet to see anyone from any of the organizations which fund Global Voices (with the exception of Kristen Taylor when she worked at Knight) leave a comment on what we publish. Engage, interact, show that you care, don’t be anti-social.

    5) Don’t waste their time with unnecessary paperwork

    Much of my job is simply to act as a buffer between the lawyers, researchers, accountants, and auditors who want to maintain their institutions, and our grantees who are trying to do innovative work in communities with few resources. I know the psychic burden of trying to navigate through the various paperwork-lined hallways of bureaucratic mazes. It is enough to prevent almost any project from succeeding.

    6) Invest in risk and learn from failure. Don’t fund repetitive white papers that no one reads

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    This is the point I want to emphasize today. Citizen media is still a new field and most funders don’t like to invest in a new field until they feel that they have sufficiently researched it. The research is costly. Big-name academics like Henry Jenkins and Jonathan Zittrain and are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with self-evident (though barely comprehensible) conclusions, including that there is an online participation gap and that generative technologies are good.

    This money can be and should be invested more effectively.

    At Rising Voices the micro-grants we award are so small (between $2,000 – $5,000) that we are able to easily invest in high-risk projects that may seem doomed for failure. One such project was “Think Build Change Salone“, which aimed to develop an internship program to place Sierra Leonean youth (including ex-combatants) at select development NGO’s and then pay them a small stipend to blog about their experiences. It would have been an ambitious project anywhere in the world, but we must remember that at the time of the project Sierra Leone was ranked the least developed country in the world, and is still recovering from a brutal decade-long civil war.

    In the end, the project did no pan out. But from a funder’s perspective, Vickie’s fascinating report about what went wrong and what went right during the project is absolutely worth the $2,000 we invested. Rather than funding costly research (almost always by western academics) about the challenges to local development, it is better to invest in high risk, local projects and learn from the challenges they encounter.

    (As a brief aside, I’ll mention that three other high-risk projects we have invested in are 1) Ceasefire Liberia, which has trained avid bloggers in Monrovia, 2) Nomad Green, which has established a committed group of environmental citizen journalists in Mongolia, and 3) Drop-In Center, which has helped give voice and credibility to Ukraine’s nascent harm reduction movement. All three should have failed, but succeeded because of the passion of their coordinators and participants.)

    7) Invest in what you’re interested in. Build networks of expertise

    This is especially true for intermediary funders like Rising Voices. You’ll notice that many of our grantee projects are based in Latin America. This is, in part, because I speak Spanish and I spend a lot of time there. Grantees shouldn’t be selected solely on the whims and interests of funders and program officers, but on the other hand, I believe it is healthy for funders to invest in projects that they can and want to help find success.

    You do this by building networks of expertise. Again, this goes back to “act more like a social network, less like a parent.” Encourage international conference organizers to invite participants to speak on panels. Encourage your grantees to focus on their relationships with local institutions – after all, local citizen media projects should be funded and sustained by local groups.

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    Personally I don’t know too much about the field of AIDS prevention and HIV/AIDS activism. But it was clear after our first round of micro-grants that there was considerable interest in the use of citizen media to improve communication and advocacy efforts around the rights of HIV-positive individuals and the activities of HIV/AIDS-related NGO’s. So we let a core group of passionate activists use our chat room, brand, and network to organize. We also provided a small amount of funding to produce a guide on “Blogging Positively.”

    The success of the initiative shows the importance of what Ivan earlier called the network effects of digital media. Because these activists were able to tap into the Rising Voices network, they also benefited from the Global Voices network, which helped amplify their cause, translate the guide into other languages, get it into the hands of local NGO’s, and connect with the BBC and other mainstream media outlets.

    9) Have fun

    Mikel Maron works on international outreach for OpenStreetMap, an open-source Wikipedia-like version of Google Maps. He organizes events in Palestine, India, Kenya, and elsewhere to show citizens how to use basic GPS devices to build open-licensed maps of their communities. But he calls these events “mapping parties” rather than “workshops” our “capacity building events.” The point is to have a good time, and to develop some valuable information in the process.

    I know this sounds like something a young person feels compelled to include in his presentation, but the reality is that the return on investment for fun is extremely high and under-recognized by funders. One of the most difficult activities to fundraise for at Global Voices is our annual summit where our tireless volunteer authors and translators from around the world come together once a year for discussions, strategizing, workshops, and most importantly, to have fun. A couple years ago we asked our volunteer authors what incentivizes them to work so hard on Global Voices without receiving pay. A few of them mentioned the importance of giving greater voice and representation to the citizens of their countries. Others pointed to the benefits of belonging to a global, supportive community which values free speech and tolerance. But just about everyone said they hoped to be invited to the annual Global Voices Summit. If a funder is willing to invest in three days of fun, the return on that investment is a year of valuable content from volunteers based all over the world.

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    I will end with what I see as a need in the space of new media development. Even though it is easy to glance at YouTube and make the assumption that everyone under 30 knows how to produce a video in less than an hour, in fact, there is a severe shortage of individuals who have both the ability to produce digital media, but more importantly, the know-how and experience to teach it to others in an effective and responsible way. Production techniques should be integrated with media literacy discussions and a strong ethical framework which includes privacy issues, respect, and tolerance.

    We need to train more trainers, and we need a directory of experienced new media trainers which is categorized by geographic area, language, and area of expertise.

    Tagged: citizens media funding mapping news media development

    3 responses to “Ten Points on Funding Citizen Media”

    1. Fátima São Simão says:

      Really interesting thoughts on funding/ fundraising. I’m definitely taking some of your good hints for my own projects. Specially, the importance of having fun. Thanks! I totally agree! And I would underline this is extended both to grantees and funders together, mixed. Sustainability comes out of strong relationships and these are built over good moments together. (Return on) Investment is way beyond numbers!

    2. Harry Dugmore says:

      Wonderful examples, clear thinking in an area dogged by under-thinking. We are also realizing here in South Africa, that even though we focus on cell phone-based CJ, we’re been too limited in our focus on newsy news (via sms and MMS) which, while a good start, doesn’t tackle areas thematically enough, like health issues, like creating a repository of our area’s incredible and still deeply contested history, like sharing information between social and commercial entrepreneurs. We need to build a layer of depth and we need to trust people to do this if we give them enough training and space. We’ve now got what might be the first CJ newsroom in Africa going, with 10 workstations and for every 10 young people from whom we often provide their first on-line experience, there’s at least one who seems keen on doing more than just sms, ie longer posts via blogging. I thinking the concept of making blogging a core focus of CJ, and thus building the basis of a cadre of people able to respond when there is breaking news, as the Madagascar examples suggest, is a brilliant one. This is a very inspiring post, which we’re going to build a strategy workshop around soon!

    3. This post inspired me to continue the training work we’ve been doing for over a decade, teaching kids and disenfranchised populations how to use video cameras and upload their own stories. Thank you for highlighting what works! I’m eager to work with more groups like the OpenStreetMaps and other movers in mobile storytelling technology and would love to see a followup to this post including the best of digital storytelling projects around the world.

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