How Omidyar Network Could Boost Online Investigative Journalism

    by David Sasaki
    February 4, 2013

    This post is long and not every section is relevant to every reader. Please feel encouraged to skip to those sections that are most relevant.

    Opening Up Philanthropic Strategizing

    I often emphasize the importance that philanthropy become more transparent, participatory, and accountable. Most related initiatives — such as the Foundation Center’s Reporting Commitment — advocate for greater public access to information about how foundations spend their money; but there has been less of a focus on opening up the strategy process that defines how that money will be spent. How does, for example, the Ford Foundation decide to focus on transforming secondary education in China rather than, say, primary education in Nigeria? Or how do we at Omidyar Network come to focus on property rights and government transparency, but not climate change?


    Last year the consulting firm McKinsey published an interesting report on opening up the strategy process to an organization’s customers, stakeholders, allies, and even competitors and critics. Using Wikimedia and HCL Technologies as examples, the report shows how the resulting strategy can be strengthened by attracting more ideas and more diverse viewpoints. The main advantage of opening up the strategy process, write the authors, is to build enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction. If you contribute to making our media strategy stronger, there is a better chance that you will want to stay involved and help us succeed.

    The reason foundations tend to form their strategies behind closed doors is that the most informed experts on any given topic are usually the same individuals who are tasked with fundraising for their organizations, which can create an awkward dynamic for donors that want to hear candid, critical reflections.


    The primary goal of this post is to put some preliminary thinking into the public sphere about the role of philanthropy in supporting the development of media worldwide. Please treat it as thinking out loud, as testing out some ideas among very smart people to see if they make sense. It shouldn’t generate any expectations about our future funding directions at Omidyar Network’s Government Transparency initiative. My ultimate goal, which will take months if not years, is to develop an ecosystem strategy that goes beyond our own contributions to the field, but details how an entire community of media development funders might work toward addressing the multiple issues that currently restrict media’s ability to inform citizens, hold institutions to account, and ensure freedom of expression.

    The Long View of Media Development

    Before starting any conversation about media development, I believe it’s key to start with the long view of the development of media. Not just the past five or 50 years, but the past 550 years. From the papyrus scroll to the Gutenberg printing press to advances in paper mill technologies to the invention of broadcast radio and television to satellites orbiting Earth to the World Wide Web to the iPhone Newsstand, new technologies have always profoundly influenced how journalism is both produced and distributed. I would go so far to say that the creation of RSS has probably had more of an impact on the distribution of news than all the efforts of philanthropic media funders put together.

    This puts media donors in an awkward position. On the one hand, we tend to see new technologies as an opportunity to strengthen and accelerate the development of media that hold the powerful to account, inform citizens and encourage deliberative discourse. On the other hand, we’re not able to predict new technologies (”black swans“ in the language of Taleb) that redefine the future development of media. In fact, this paradox was present at the genesis of the media development sector. In 1982 David Hoffman, a self-described “proto-Marxist” rabble-rouser, was at the US Festival in San Bernadino, Calif., when he witnessed something that would forever change his life. That sunny morning satellites were used to create the first round-the-world live video-conference between 250,000 young Americans gathered at the US Festival and a group of young Russians gathered outside the state-run Ostankino television studio. The initiative, dubbed “Spacebridges,” was sponsored in the U.S. by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and in Russia by scriptwriter Joseph Goldin.


    Youth gathered at the 1982 US Festival.

    The experience would inspire Hoffman to found Internews, recognized as the first media development NGO and still one of the largest, to strengthen media worldwide. When I met Hoffman in 2009 he seemed just as amazed by my ability to post an edited video of our discussion to the web in two hours as he was of the satellite transmission nearly 30 years earlier. The creation of Internews was inspired by the new possibilities afforded by satellite technologies, but quickly it had to adapt to address issues of media law, allocation of broadcast spectrum, media monopoly regulation, the invention of camcorders, cell phones, and the complex issues related to online censorship and anonymity.

    The note of caution for media donors is that we shouldn’t become consumed by the satellite television of the day at the expense of considering the future developments that await us.

    A Survey of the Media Donor Landscape

    What follows are my personal interpretations of the areas of focus of media funders. Please forgive me and correct me if I mischaracterize. I am grateful to Anne Nelson for her excellent reports over the years that summarize the changing trends of the media development donor community, specifically:


    The above chart from Nelson’s 2011 report lists the annual giving of major U.S.-based private foundations that is specifically focused on supporting international media development. (The total annual giving of the above foundations is far greater.) As you can see, Open Society Foundations’ Media Program is the major player in the field. Their annual giving to media development is twice as much as all the other funders put together.

    Other major media development funders that are not listed above include National Endowment for Democracy, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNESCO, the European Union, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, Adessium Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency, the Danish International Development Agency, Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation (Hivos), International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, U.S. Department of State, USAID, United Nations Development Program and the World Bank.

    It’s difficult to categorize the types of media support by each of the above donors, but if I were to try:

    Freedom of expression and strengthening the ecosystem: These donors focus on policy to ensure that the right laws and regulations are in place to permit a free flow of information. This can range from advocating for just allocation of broadcast spectrum to protecting the safety of journalists. Some of the major players in this field are the Media Legal Defence Initiative, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Article 19, the Association for Progressive Communication, and Reporters Without Borders. Some of the major funders are Open Society Foundations, National Endowment for Democracy, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ford Foundation, UNESCO, HIVOS, USAID, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

    Innovation: These donors focus on innovation to leverage impact, efficiency, and scale through technology. As an example, local newspapers used to hire reporters to track crime reports. Now EveryBlock, which was given significant funding by Knight Foundation and was later acquired by NBC News, can scrape police reports and offer users the ability to subscribe to those crime alerts that are most relevant to their lives. The innovation replaced the need for a crime reporter (which newspapers no longer had the budget to keep on staff) while offering users information that is more relevant to their individual context. Knight Foundation is by far the biggest player in this area, though they are joined by the Mozilla Foundation and Google.org, both of which run fellowship programs in partnership with Knight Foundation. More recently, the World Bank has become involved in this space through the coordination of Data Bootcamps in partnership with the Africa Media Initiative and Open Knowledge Foundation. The Knight Foundation has a three-step framework to bring innovation to scale in journalism: 1) first they fund early stage ideas through their Prototype Fund, 2) then they help prototypes reach maturity through their thematic News Challenges, and finally they encourage the adoption of innovative products by large news organizations by placing disruptive fellows at large-scale media organizations. In addition to the fellowship programs in partnership with Mozilla and Google, they also fund fellowship programs at Stanford, the International Center for Journalists, and MIT.

    Communication for development: These donors are less focused on strengthening the capacity or sustainability of media organizations, and more focused on leveraging media as a tool to communicate the importance of other development goals. Gates Foundation is the most emblematic of these donors, and their approach to media support is articulated well in a blog post by Dan Green about why “Storytelling Matters.” Skoll Foundation is another donor that believes strongly in the power of storytelling to bring about social change. They are especially focused on the power of film through collaborations with Sundance and Participant Media. MacArthur Foundation is also a significant funder of documentary films for social change. Similarly, while the Packard Foundation doesn’t have a media program, it does frequently fund the use of media to further its other development goals, such as their Children’s Health Journalism Fund. One of the major players in the communication for development sector was Panos, which closed its doors this year after 26 years of leading the field. The Communication Initiative Network continues to serve as a portal for the community. At times, the line between communication for development and donor-sponsored marketing can be fuzzy.

    Media for accountability: The last category I will propose is “media for accountability.” These donors are especially interested in the watchdog characteristics of media organizations — their ability to hold institutions to account through investigative journalism and their influence of public opinion. To a lesser degree, these donors are also interested in media organizations’ abilities to facilitate deliberative discourse. Once again, Open Society Foundations is a major player in this field through their support of non-profit investigative news groups worldwide. The World Bank’s Communication for Governance & Accountability Program is another player in this field, though they don’t have a significant budget to make grants to non-profit investigative groups. One could argue that Ford Foundation’s recent grants to the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post also aim to leverage the ability of major media organizations to hold institutions to account through investigative journalism.


    The amount of media funding dedicated to investigative journalism pales in comparison to other areas of support. A recent report by David Kaplan estimates that only 2% of the nearly $500 million spent on media development in 2010 was allocated to support investigative journalism. Kaplan’s report, while recognizing the importance of supporting journalists’ safety and media policy reform, makes a strong case for increased donor support of investigative journalism to further accountability. I believe it is where Omidyar Network can add the most value and be most catalytic in the larger media development sector.

    Media for Accountability

    Conceptually, the support of investigative journalism fits nicely as a fourth pillar of our Government Transparency strategy:

    PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter and the Argentina-based Chequeado are examples of journalism for accountability. They monitor the commitments and claims of politicians and measure them against actual progress and evidence, highlighting the gap between politicians’ promises and progress.

    There are countless examples of investigative journalism uncovering corruption, but two of my favorites are PCIJ’s 8-month investigation into the hidden assets of Philippine president Joseph Estrada, which ultimately led to his downfall, and David Barstow’s meticulous takedown of Walmart de México for bribing government officials to secure zoning permits.

    There is an important distinction between reporting on corruption and reporting on influence peddling, which is often legal in the forms of campaign financing, lobbying and personal relationships. I can think of no greater example of highlighting the harmful effects of influence peddling than This American Life’s episode “Take the Money and Run … for Office.”

    Even if we were to narrow our focus to these three areas of investigative journalism, there are still multiple ways that our support could take shape:

    • Content — we could directly support the production of content through funding non-profit investigative organizations or small grants to fund specific investigations.
    • Skills Training — Both David Kaplan of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and Drew Sullivan of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project argue that it takes at least a decade to learn the skills to produce quality investigative journalism and that most investigative journalists have not yet acquired the necessary skills. Most investigative journalists have yet to acquire the computational skills to analyze and add context to large datasets.
    • Platforms — There is an opportunity to support platforms that could facilitate collaboration and greater efficiency among investigative reporters. Some examples include the Investigative Dashboard, Document Cloud, and FOIA Machine. Fact-checking platforms such as Cheqeuado and Politi-Fact could also be replicated where there is demand.
    • Business Development — Most investigative journalism groups are vastly dependent on a single source of funding, which threatens their both their sustainability and their ability to spend more time on reporting and less time on fundraising. We could help them diversify their revenue sources to strengthen their long-term viability.
    • User Growth — We have all seen many examples of quality investigative journalism that takes months to produce, but only reaches a few hundred individuals and doesn’t lead to any greater social impact. Andrew Donohue and Jonathan Stray have argued that journalists should pay greater attention to the interests and needs of their readers.

    My hunch is that our approach will depend on the country of focus and the specific needs of the local investigative journalism community.

    Investigative Journalism as a Sector at Scale

    “Good journalism has always been subsidized,” assert Clay Shirky, Emily Bell and C.W. Anderson in their excellent report on “Post-Industrial Journalism.” Whether it is by favorable postal rates, individual donations to public media, government support, advertising, or classified ads, investigative journalism has always been subsidized by something else. Private foundations are occupying an increasingly significant slice of the subsidy pie. As investigative units shrink at commercial media companies, a new sector of non-profit, online investigative journalism organizations has taken off in recent years. It started with the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977, was later followed by the Center for Public Integrity, and in recent years has been joined by hundreds of others including ProPublica in New York, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. The World Policy Institute has published an overview of online investigative journalism in Latin America. While the vast majority of these groups are non-profit, others are for-profit including Mexico’s Animal Politico and Chile’s El Mostrador.

    At Omidyar Network we have <a href="http://www.omidyar.com/about_us/news/2012/09/25/omidyar-network-publishes-"priming-pump-impact-investing"partnership-stanf” onclick=”javascript:_gaq.push([‘_trackEvent’,’outbound-article’,’http://www.omidyar.com/about_us/news/2012/09/25/omidyar-network-publishes“priming-pump-impact-investing”-partnership-stanf’]);”>recently framed our philanthropic approach as bringing about new sectors through a mix of flexible support of both for-profit investments and non-profit grants. We aim to help these new sectors reach scale through a combination of financial capital, human capital, networking, and intellectual capital. It is a framing that dovetails nicely with our potential support of the budding sector of online, investigative journalism. A 2010 Knight Foundation report on seeking sustainability in non-profit news makes clear that non-profit media is still a budding sector that has yet to reach scale or sustainability. Most non-profit media groups are dependent on single sources of funding — whether that source is Open Society Foundations, a wealthy individual, or government advertising. If that source of funding runs dry, the organizations will be forced to close their doors. The Texas Tribune is one of the few online investigative news organizations that has successfully managed to diversify its funding through a mixture of philanthropic grants, sponsorships, membership drives, and event partnerships.

    Our financial support to the budding online investigative journalism sector could take shape in two ways: 1) through direct support to online investigative journalism organizations to help them scale up their impact and 2) through investigative reporting funds similar to the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism which provide support to investigative journalists that work both at small investigative non-profits and large, established media companies.

    Our human capital support could take the shape of skills training by working with our existing partners such as Open Knowledge Foundation, which has developed the Data Journalism Handbook, to improve on-the-job skills training and journalism education.

    Our networking support could include the sponsorship of events such as the International Symposium of Online Journalism and the annual gathering of the Global Investigative Journalism Network to facilitate relationship-building and collaborations among online investigative journalism groups.

    Finally, our intellectual support could leverage our connections in Silicon Valley to bring some of the tricks of “growth hacking“ to leverage the impact on online investigative journalism. We could also promote greater financial sustainability in the online investigative journalism sector by exploring innovative ideas such as Gustavo Gorriti’s call for a “fair trade advertising network” to attract advertising from socially responsible corporations that want to support online investigative journalism. The Media Development Loan Fund could be a key partner in exploring revenue diversification through their experiences with the Digital News Ventures Fund.

    Donor Collaboration

    A final, but crucial, aspect of our potential media support would be strong collaboration with other media development funders to ensure that our support contributes to the strengthening of the entire media ecosystem. Without ensuring the safety of journalists and sensible media policy, for example, the new sector of online investigative journalism groups won’t have the impact they seek.

    Donor collaboration can be a difficult art, as Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation makes clear in his blog post, “Who are the journalism and media funders, why do they meet…and now what?“ I first met Newton several years ago in Salzburg at an event that aimed to create more structured collaboration between media funders. In fact, at that event Newton bemoaned the fact that similar events had failed to establish greater collaboration in both London and Paris. Earlier this year the Center for International Media Assistance convened media funders once again. As I write, the Media Impact Funders group is convening media donors at Stanford University to discuss new innovations in media development. There is also the Global Forum for Media Development, which held its 3rd World Conference last year in South Africa.

    One alternative model to the busy calendar of donor conferences could be something along the lines of the International Human Rights Funders Group or the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, dedicated organizations that facilitate working groups among donors, commission research to further the field, and facilitate workshops on specific topics like evaluation.

    At the very minimum, I always find that a few blog posts and Skype calls can go a long way to promote greater collaboration.


    I know this is a lot to digest, but the entire point of this blog post is to solicit feedback from a community of media development and accountability experts to help us improve our thinking about how Omidyar Network’s Government Transparency initiative can most effectively add value to the media development ecosystem given our experience, expertise, and objectives.

    I’m especially interested in critical feedback regarding what I have written above. But I’d also like to hear opinions about what has been left out and what risks we might not be taking into consideration. Thank you in advance for leaving comments below, or for reaching out to me directly at [email protected].

    As principal of investments, David Sasaki develops Omidyar Network’s government transparency portfolio in Latin America, focusing on Brazil and Mexico. He makes investments in for-profit and non-profit organizations that enable civic participation and promote greater transparency and accountability in government. David joined Omidyar Network in 2011 after advising Open Society Foundations on investment opportunities and emerging technology-related policy issues in Latin America. Previously, he directed research at the Technology for Transparency Network. David was also the founding director of Rising Voices, an initiative of Global Voices, which promotes the use of citizen media and Internet technologies in under-represented communities worldwide. David earned a BS in political science, with concentrations in Latin American and third world studies, from the University of California, San Diego. He frequently speaks and writes about issues related to technology, innovation, governance, and journalism.

    This post originally appeared on David Sasaki’s blog.

    Tagged: accountability collaboration investigative journalism knight foundation media development media donors non-profit omidyar network open society philanthropy

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