The New Era of Media Development, Part II
It is a telling sign that Wikipedia has no entry on media development. Rather, the search results suggest that perhaps you are looking for "ICT for development". Indeed, what is the future of media development when we're still unsure about the future of media in general? And, for that matter, where should funders invest their money to ensure that the same social benefits associated with traditional media (a sense of community, good governance, an informed citizenry) remain while journalism increasingly moves beyond broadcast, and beyond financial sustainability.
In part one I looked at the history of media development, the major players in the field, and some of the current obstacles - from regulatory reform to the linguistic divides - that stand in the way of a healthy media ecosystem. In this folow-up post I will continue to summarize the discussions which took place at a meeting earlier this month at Salzburg Global Seminar where representatives from the field of media development and funders who have supported their work all gathered to discuss how to more effectively "strengthen independent media."
The week-long meeting was divided into two parts, first convening practitioners involved in media development projects for three days, and then representatives from funding organizations for a separate, succeeding three-day meeting. (Some funders were resistant to participation from non-funders, I was told as an explanation for why the two meetings were held separately.)
A recurring tension during the meeting of practitioners was whether investment in the field should focus on lowering the barriers to participation (by bringing down the cost of connectivity and making intuitive tools easily accessible), or on training programs which teach participants how to use new media tools to build community, monitor government, and promote development. Erik Hersman, one of the co-founders of Ushahidi, feels that if enough citizens have access to participatory media tools like Ushahidi, then a culture of tinkering will necessarily follow without costly training programs. Josh Goldstein echoed Erik's observation, pointing to the pervasive use of MXit, a mobile social network in South Africa. Ramsey Tesdell of 7iber, however, was skeptical of the "if you build it, they will come" mentality. "Technology is easy," he said, "it's building a community that is hard." Others added that there is no shortage of online tools available to all, but that active participation is still restricted to mainly elites.
The role of "quality" in media development was another repeated tension. Joyce Barnathan of the International Center for Journalists felt that the conversation was too focused on quantity - in terms of encouraging a larger number of media producers - and not enough on the quality of the content that is produced. Ivan Sigal of Global Voices, in language reminiscent of Pierre Bourdieu, observed that "quality" is often a coded word to distinguish those who are allowed to speak and those who aren't; that the concept is often meant to serve individuals inside exclusive institutions. Benjamin Glahn, the facilitator of the meeting, put it in more diplomatic terms: "quality is a process, not a static achievement."
Rob Faris of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society noted that much of the conversation over the three days focused on augmenting the supply of media - that is, encouraging more people to produce more and better content - but that there was little discussion about the issue of demand for content, especially from developing countries. All participants agreed that media literacy education is a fundamental component of a healthy media system. At Global Voices, for example, we have been encouraged by high school teachers and university professors who integrate our content into their syllabi.
During the second and third days of the meeting a number of the participants presented their projects. In addition to some of the latest work of Appfrica Labs and Overmundo, which I wrote about previously, we also heard from Tihomir Loza and Alexey Leonchik of Transitions Online, Serhii Danylenko of the pro-am journalism Ukrainian journalism portal Highway, Alex Park of Moby Group, John West of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Arturs Mednis of Jaffa.lv, and Ramsey Tesdell of 7iber.com.
A generational divide between younger activists who grew up using digital tools and older representatives from major institutions who are wary of the changes taking place in the media field was readily apparent. Arturs, Ramsey, and Sergii - all in their late 20's - said they couldn't be bothered with the paperwork, bureaucracy, and reporting requirements that are necessary to receive funding from major foundations. They would rather spend their time holding workshops, building websites, and creating community. Older participants in the room were all appreciative of their work and their voluntary ethos, but were concerned that the lifestyle isn't sustainable once marriage, mortgage, and children enter the picture.
By the end of the three-day meeting the participants agreed on a summary of major discussion points to be presented to the funders for their consideration. There was agreement that funders need to find ways to support the work of passionate and talented individuals like Arturs, Ramsey, and Sergii. One possible solution is to support intermediary funders like Rising Voices and Mobile Active which can give more attention to small scale innovation that often stays off the radar of large philanthropic foundations. Funders should keep in mind the need to reduce barriers to access as much as implementing training programs. This can be done by working with telecommunication companies to convince them that lowering their fees will increase their number of customers, or by working with regulatory agencies to increase competition and encourage more service providers to enter the market.
There should be more cooperation among donors so that successful media development projects have a clear pathway from initial start-up funding (for example, a microgrant to test the idea) to second stage funding in order to scale up, and finally sustained funding of staff and recurrent costs. Donors can also cooperate to streamline the application process so that media development project leaders spend more time on their work and less time writing separate proposals for each funder. Donors should avoid financing closed, proprietary tools and rather invest in open source tools and open source communities. Funders should be more up-to-date with innovations and trends in digital media and there should be more open communication between the funding community and the media development community. Funders can also take better advantage of their role to encourage cooperation between complementary (and even competing) projects.
In the third and final part of this series I will summarize the discussions that took place in the funders' meeting. Were they receptive to the suggestions made by practitioners? How do funders measure the impact of their investments? What do they see as the hallmarks of healthy media? What can be done from the funder's perspective to encourage sustainability in a field that is as chaotic and fast-paced as media? All this and more coming soon.