Beyond Mountains, There Are Mountains:

Notes from 15 Months of Leading the News Integrity Initiative

In one of the many notebooks I filled since joining the News Integrity Initiative, I’d jotted down a story about Anne, a journalist who received several letters from incarcerated men and women, thanking her for hosting a community meeting inside the prison to discuss issues of mass incarceration and re-entry into society. In these letters, the people described feeling like human beings again, valued for their input, and not, for a precious few hours, like someone society has thrown away.

One of the letters in particular had moved her, and she carried it in her bag until she found time to write back and let the person know how much it had meant to her.

Journalists like Anne, who put community at the center of their work, perform these countless, unsung acts of kindness every day, often in workplaces that don’t value it. They go out of their way to help people feel visible, to help them feel like someone is listening to them — not to win awards or recognition, but because it is the right thing to do.

These gestures, large and small, matter a great deal. They can transform people’s lives and have ripple effects far beyond what we assume.

What if this story were more common? What if the public always felt a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for journalists, because journalists were listening and genuinely responding to their needs? What if people from all backgrounds felt powerful because they got to tell their own stories, and collaborate with journalists around important, complex topics? What if everyone had easy access to all of the news and information they needed to make informed decisions in their daily lives and actively participate in civic life?

What if, together, we made this vision a reality?

For 15 months, I have been working to build a coalition of people around the world — from newsrooms and nonprofits, to academics and organizers — who share this vision for news and information as a force for building trust, empathy and solutions in our communities.

Words Into Action

NII has three overarching strategies: building enduring trust and mutual respect between newsrooms and the communities they serve; nurturing inclusive civic dialogue; and combating the spread of disinformation.

To date, NII has made grants to 28 organizations totaling $8.7 million. We have leveraged an additional $2.8 million for NII grantees by collaborating with eight other funders. In addition to strategic investments, we are hosting events, speaking on panels, stitching together networks of people and organizations doing complementary work, and working hard every day to inspire new partners to join our coalition.

To show you what this work looks like in action, here are major highlights from the past 15 months, organized by some central themes that have emerged:

A Global Perspective

Let’s start here: NII believes that information is a human right and that people everywhere deserve access to high quality news and information.

One of my earliest meetings was with Internews, an organization that works in some of the most challenging places on earth to bring news and information to those who most need it. They had an idea, based on all their years of community media development, for building a coalition of global and local media, mobile operators, global brands, and funders to pilot initiatives that could transform local media markets.

With seed funding from NII, Internews, launched United for News. It has quickly become our most ambitious work.

United for News partners are collaborating on two big pilot projects:

  • A socially responsible advertising initiative that matches global brands’ advertising dollars with local, independent media around the world, and
  • A world-wide campaign to increase the frequency and number of female experts used as sources in stories by newsrooms everywhere.

Along with Internews and NII, inaugural partners of United for News include: the World Economic Forum, Bloomberg, Vodafone, The London School of Economics / Polis, Media Development Investment Fund, Global Forum for Media Development, GSMA Mobile for Development, Omidyar Network, Edelman, Group M, AppNexus, WAN/IFRA, Sembra Media, and the BBC’s 50:50 Project.

It is not an exaggeration to say that both of these campaigns, if successful, could be transformative for local media around the world, given the scale and scope of the campaigns and partners involved.


European Journalism Centre

Our other large-scale project: the European Journalism Centre launched a $2 million, two-year “Engaged Journalism Accelerator” to catalyze community-focused journalism and revenue experiments across its network of more than 50 countries.

EJC poured months of careful research and design into the Accelerator, and discovered that the most promising models for sustainability around the world are the ones which are the most public-focused — newsrooms that put the community at the center of everything they do, including their reporting, distribution, revenue strategies, and even their ownership.

As a result, the Accelerator will boost 10–15 of these promising, community-centered newsrooms with grants, comprehensive coaching, and evaluation. They will also bring innovative community engagement strategies, business development support, and peer-to-peer learning to the extensive (and growing) news ecosystem EJC serves.

Both Internews and EJC have gifted leaders and incredibly talented teams, and like United for News, we believe the Engaged Journalism Accelerator has the potential for catalyzing far-reaching change — across Europe and beyond.

Building Trust by Bringing People Together

Building enduring trust in news and information, and in each other, cannot happen unless we bring people together in person to listen and learn from one another. Research shows that cohesive societies are possible only if we also feel connected to people who see the world differently than us.

Free Press has been pioneering a model — “News Voices” — in New Jersey and North Carolina for several years now: through community meetings, they bring together journalists and everyday people to discuss local issues, and nurture collaborative projects between local reporters and the public.

Just a couple of weeks ago, News Voices director Mike Rispoli shared a story of residents and journalists coming together to create positive stories about Atlantic City, New Jersey three full years after Free Press brought them together for the first time. As Mike noted in a series of insightful tweets, building trust takes time, especially in places where there was little or no trust to begin with. And yet, with patience and care, this work can create meaningful relationships and spur action for the benefit of the whole community.

Sometimes grassroots work like News Voices is criticized or questioned for its ability to scale. But small, locally-focused projects and organizations can create a durable network of support and action that is its own kind of scale, and we are foolish to dismiss the importance of this to the community.

That’s not to say that grassroots community engagement work can’t scale. EducationNC’s “ReachNC Voices” is proving it can, through a clever combination of in-person community conversations and technology that delivers personalized, local, and actionable data to people via texting, Facebook Messenger, email, web-based chatbots, and EdNC’s website. In fact, EducationNC is constantly pioneering ways for reaching new audiences. They also want to become the best in the world at facilitating community conversations.

One of the most interesting takeaways from their work over the past year is discovering that when people take a survey, they would like to know what their friends and neighbors also said. Moreover, where EdNC could provide localized data in surveys, people were much more likely to respond and engage with the survey. The public also wanted to know more about the end result: what did EdNC do with the survey results? Did they publish a story? Pass along the information to policy makers? Share the survey results with the public?

These discoveries should be encouraging to newsrooms everywhere, and they reinforce what I have heard directly from the public time and again: people are eager to offer their expertise and diverse perspectives to reporters when the experience is collaborative and not extractive.

In case you need further convincing, Radio Ambulante’s extensive network of listeners have been asking the team behind the Radio Ambulante podcast to help its fans organize in-person meet-ups to listen to and discuss podcast episodes. So with seed funding from NII, Radio Ambulante will be launching “Listening Clubs” this fall in Medellín, Colombia, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Quito, Ecuador, Mexico City, Mexico, and New York City, New York.

What is particularly exciting about the Listening Clubs is that the resources needed to jumpstart and spread community building and civic engagement are modest when an organization like Radio Ambulante has already carefully built a trusting relationship with its audience.

Supporting Actionable Research

In all three of our major strategies (building enduring trust, nurturing inclusive civic dialogue and combating disinformation), NII is supporting research that newsrooms and other media-related organizations can readily apply to their work. But supporting the research is only half the battle. We are also aggressively connecting researchers and journalists, through training, events, and real-time information sharing networks, in order to apply that research, and surface obstacles and potential solutions for building long-term trust in news and information.

We are especially focused on how to help newsrooms understand and manage the increasingly sophisticated and constantly shifting disinformation landscape. Trailblazing work by Data & Society and First Draft News demonstrates that when newsrooms report on extreme ideas, they are unintentionally giving more oxygen to and spreading those ideas much farther than the ideas would have traveled on their own.

In fact, if I have learned anything through this disinformation work over the past 15 months, it’s that newsrooms would be wise to better understand the research of how people consume and process information. There is a pervasive belief that profiling people with extreme views will allow the public to see just how extreme (and therefore unacceptable) those views are. It is important, they will argue, to expose people with extreme views in order to mitigate their danger. While this may seem intuitively like the right approach, multiple research studies suggest otherwise. The way people respond to information that confirms or conflicts with their opinions is complicated.

This is why we’re also supporting the work of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. They are leading a unique effort to unpack and translate wide ranging research — from sociology and behavior economics to psychology and neuroscience — that can help newsrooms use evidence-based approaches to their reporting, in order to create and strengthen community connections, and bridge divides in communities.

Inspiring Others

I see NII’s work as movement building. Grants are one strategy (ok, yes, they’re a really important strategy), but you can’t have successful movements without stories that inspire others to join your coalition.

All year long, we have been celebrating 2018 as the “Year of Listening” and featuring innovative, community-focused journalism and civic dialogue projects on our Year of Listening website. And just about every day — whether it’s on Twitter or Slack, in person or via email — I share ideas and stories with others (and encourage others to do the same) to show people that news and information is key to vibrant, resilient, equitable communities. We know it’s true, because NII grantees and partners are proving it every day.

You also can’t have successful movements without patient, long-term funding. NII is a short-term initiative, and I have written before about the tensions and trade-offs of leading a short-term project, while tackling deep, systemic issues. I work constantly to inspire more funders of news and information, as well as to increase overall funding to the field, so that I can pass my baton to future funders of this work. We collaborate frequently with media funders and funding groups across the US and Europe to encourage and mentor funders new to media. I will always raise my hand to help any funder anywhere who wants to know more about how to support local news and information.

I am realistic, but I am also optimistic that our tenacious coalition building will last long after NII has wrapped up, and that because of it, NII’s $14 million, over time, will feel like it had a $50 million impact.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

On a final note, one of the true joys of this work is the opportunity to bring as much support as I can to people like Anne, who take the time to write back when they get letters from community members. And those, like jesikah maria ross, who understand that thoughtful touches at community convenings, like putting fresh flowers on the tables, help people feel valued and welcomed, paving the way for more honest and open dialogue.

One of my favorite books is Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World” which chronicles Farmer’s work to cure infectious diseases and bring modern medicine to the world’s poorest communities through his organization, Partners In Health.

Kidder accompanies Farmer in rural Haiti, where he routinely hikes great distances over rugged terrain to tend to the small number of patients he can reach in a day’s time. One of the themes of the book is Farmer’s rejection of the prevailing views on efficiency and cost-effectiveness in medicine; he is regularly criticized for spending too much time and too much money on too few patients, when there is so much need everywhere. Kidder explains it this way:

All of the serious sympathetic critiques come down to these two arguments: Hiking into the hills to see just one patient or two is a dumb way for Farmer to spend his time, and even if it weren’t, not many other people will follow his example, not enough to make much of a difference in the world.

But standard notions of efficiency, notions about cost-effectiveness, about big people performing big jobs, haven’t worked so well themselves…In public health projects in difficult locales, theory often outruns practice. Individual patients get forgotten, and what seems like a small problem gets ignored, until it grows large, like MDR [multi-drug resistant tuberculosis]. “If you focus on individual patients,” Jim Kim [co-founder and executive director of Partners In Health] says, “you can’t get sloppy.”

If you replace the concept of medicine in these two paragraphs with journalism, you can easily see the parallels. Journalism as an industry still values advertising metrics of reach and scale without any meaningful understanding of what stories and ideas matter to individuals in communities. What seems like a small problem gets ignored, until it grows large, like a collapse of trust in news and information.

The future of local news depends on newsrooms’ ability to build communities of people invested in the work that journalists do, through careful and responsive relationship building. If they focus on individual community members, they can’t get sloppy.

[Farmer] is still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

“I have fought for my whole life a long defeat… and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. People from our background — we’re used to being on the victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in Partners In Health is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

NII invests in people whose work is rooted in these same values — of kindness and generosity for individuals, of being in communion with those whose voices and stories are ignored or dismissed. We support those who will bring on other people along the way to join our fight for journalism that builds trust, empathy and solutions in our communities.

“Beyond mountains, there are mountains” is a Haitian proverb. It means that when you solve one problem, there will be more problems to solve, and so you keep going, keep pushing forward. Beyond mountains, there are mountains in journalism too. We must keep going until people everywhere feel powerful because they have the news and information they need in order to live good lives.

All photos by Molly de Aguiar



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Molly de Aguiar

Molly de Aguiar

President, Independence Public Media Foundation