NGOs as News Providers: Public Goods Journalism

Long, long ago in the pre-Twitter, pre-Faceback age, circa 2000, I was studying the way NGOs communicated about the Battle in Seattle WTO protests when I noticed that these non-profit organizations were providing what was in essence news, that they were in fact becoming a new type of news provider.  But it was virtually impossible to convince anyone that outfits other than newspapers or television stations would one day be complements, partners or perhaps even rivals to corporate news organizations.

I even appeared on a couple of panels to talk about some of my preliminary research:

  • In the NGO News Sphere (full paper below), which I presented at the Global Fusion conference in St. Louis in 2004, I identified Electronic Iraq’s portal as a new form of journalism that relied on a network of information being shared by NGOs and other entities, noting  embodied both modernist values of professionalization but also incorporated a postmodern form of personalized storytelling  that together formed a hybrid cultural product: post-profit public goods journalism.
  • In “NGOs as News Providers” (full paper below) presented at the International Communication Association conference in New York in 2005, I compared three NGOs  (Electronic Iraq, Global Exchange and OneWorld) and found that they were not simply reprinting mainstream news stories but were in fact offering their own original information.  And what they were producing was not always following mainstream news values.  For example, my analysis of sources they used in their “news” reports revealed that One World and Electronic Iraq frequently quoted what might be called non-traditional sources such as citizens and other NGOs, rather than replicating the mainstream media’s pattern of relying mainly on governmental officials/politicians.

But five years ago, the idea that news was expanding beyond the hands of its historic gatekeepers was still difficult for people to get their heads around.  One critic even told me that I was wrong because NGOs are “a joke.”

So it was to my surprise yesterday that someone pointed me to Harvard’s Nieman Labs which, working with the University of Pennsylvania,  has produced a series of essays about their groundbreaking new research on — you guessed it! — NGOs as news providers.  And if the comments I skimmed are any sign, some people still don’t get it.

Nevertheless, now that the idea has the seal of approval from two Ivy League institutions, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about the intersections of NGOs and international news.

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3 thoughts on “NGOs as News Providers: Public Goods Journalism

  1. The idea of non-profit news production always interested me. Hypothetically it’s one way to detangle journalism from the pressure of ratings and circulation, which are to a great extent the determinants of what gets coverage and what doesn’t. However, it seems non-profit news organizations, with the exception of NPR, BBC, and a few others, haven’t yet found a sustainable source of funding for consistent reporting of news. So I think NGOs may provide one of the answers to this problem. While primarily focusing on activities other than news gathering, some funding for issue-specific operations may be diverted to research and write stories, or shoot footage. Although this process runs the risk of having a clear bias, it also offers an opportunity to highlight social issues that otherwise may not get any attention in the mainstream press at all.

  2. Aggregation — like One World — makes it more plausible in terms of generating “enough.” NGOs actually might have an easier job building an audience because potential visitors to their “news” sites could be people invested in the issue. Do “true believers” make more dependable audiences?

  3. They certainly do make more dependable audiences, in fact communities form around these information sources. However, this is not journalism in the traditional sense (if there ever was such a thing–at least journo textbooks claim there was).

    I think the notion of balance is no longer in vogue (i.e. overt political stances), so with the expending range of information outlets, increasingly biased points of view have to compete against each other to create a more heterogeneous menu of news perspectives. So aggregation may be the answer, though Drudge Report, etc. may suggest otherwise.

    The main problem is, as someone once said, “Internet is a resonance chamber of like-minded opinions.”

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