For more than 10 years, Humanity United has been dedicated to cultivating the conditions for enduring peace and freedom. HU supports and works alongside partners who strive to advance human dignity and change the systems that enable violent conflict and human exploitation around the world. A member of MIF since 2017, Humanity United is part of The Omidyar Group, a collection of independent organizations and initiatives that pursue different ways to improve the lives of people and societies. Humanity United is focused on specific portfolios of work: Peacebuilding and Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, in addition to a cross-cutting Public Engagement portfolio. Its Independent Journalism and Media (IJAM) program operates within the Public Engagement portfolio and supports investigative reporting, journalism networks, and robust duty of care and support for journalists. Here, Liz Baker, Senior Director of IJAM, highlights HU’s journalism strategy, its evolution as a media funder, and what the organization wants to learn alongside its peers.
Nina Sachdev, Communications Director, Media Impact Funders: Humanity United became an independent organization in 2008, after starting as a part of the Omidyar Network. When did Humanity United start funding media, and why?
Liz Baker, Senior Director, Independent Journalism and Media Program: Unlike many of the other Omidyar Group organizations, Humanity United did not start as a media funder. Instead, we work at the intersection of human rights, peacebuilding, locally grounded action, and influencing systems that contribute to forced labor and violent conflict—and journalism is a piece of that. While funding journalism began as a tactic, we now recognize it as directly in service to HU’s mission and programmatic work. The journalism we support helps explain and report on complex and hidden subjects, hold those in power to account, and create the opportunity for action and change.
Getting to this point began with our first investment a decade ago in The Guardian to cover the issue of modern slavery, an area of interest for both organizations. The initial grant was tactical, made to complement and catalyze HU’s other work, but both The Guardian and the HU quickly recognized there were larger shared strategic goals and the relationship evolved, always with a clear and respected editorial firewall.
The success of this partnership helped us to recognize the impact that deep, nuanced reporting can have and the critical role that independent journalism plays to help us make sense of the world around us. We moved toward investing in media and journalism partnerships as a key strategy, creating the Independent Journalism and Media program and transitioning to longer-term strategic investments in values-aligned organizations.
Nina: How has HU’s media funding approach changed over time?
Liz: Our media funding approach has changed as we’ve incorporated feedback from partners, grantees, and other funders and sought to align our funding with our organizational values—including moving toward a trust-based approach. We learned that when we support mission-aligned journalism organizations over longer terms and with general operating support, these organizations can be flexible and nimble, and their work remains relevant to the broader programmatic work of HU. Now, rather than focusing on increasing specific content or beats, we are trying to shift norms and practices in the field, which we believe will have a more lasting impact (and experience has shown us that content related to our programs will still be published because it is newsworthy and important).
Moving many of our grants to general operating support (when possible and practical) and trusting values- and mission- aligned organizations to tell the stories they feel are the most important has been a natural move. We focus on supporting the how, rather than the what. This transition gives our media partners the freedom to make their own decisions about how to use their funds and ensures they are able to tell the stories they think are most urgent. It also allows them to pivot when necessary, which was particularly important in a year like 2020 with constantly changing organizational needs, on-the-ground realities, and critically important stories. We have also found that multiyear funding allows for grantees to have more security and prioritize their core work of journalism over burdensome reporting requirements, which is especially important for smaller media outlets.
Nina: When you think about the importance of media and journalism as tools to surface solutions to human trafficking and exploitation and other pressing global issues, what key themes stand out?
Liz: Aside from admiring the sheer courage and dedication of the journalists doing the work on these subjects, it’s important to recognize the context they are operating in. Many put themselves at great risk to tell these stories and hold power to account, and most are local to the place they are reporting from so will not leave once reporting is published. This means we have to be thinking about duty of care from day one. Moreover, the journalists who are covering these issues are often grappling with accurately and fairly reporting these issues in context, as well as solutions to these structural problems. In addition to the sheer scale of this challenge, these reporters are often working in isolation and under stressful, even traumatic conditions, with limited institutional and financial support. This is why we are also trying to invest in networks like Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and normative shifts within the industry, supporting organizations whose values align with our own. Specifically this means supporting:
- High quality investigative and trauma-informed reporting and networks that help develop this capacity;
- Locally led journalism from reporters who can best shape narratives and include perspectives from communities at the heart of the stories being told;
- Journalism organizations that value diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in their reporting, including seeking diverse voices and perspectives throughout the reporting process and in their organizational practices and processes; and
- Journalism organizations that meet the actual needs and challenges faced by front line reporters by investing in resilience, health, trauma, safety, and security.
We see the components of this work as interlinked, and these different aspects of journalism together reinforce each other and help enable a more resilient and robust environment to support independent journalism and create the content that inspires action and change.
Nina: How are you measuring the effectiveness of your journalism grants? Is there work coming out of your IJAM partnerships that HU considers especially successful in terms of impact?
Liz: Journalism organizations know their work matters—ask them how they know, listen to their answers to learn how they measure, track, and generally capture their impact, and provide the means to support this work. For journalism, reporting on impact isn’t always simple or accurately reflected in digital analytics, given that this work can be a long-term investment in cultivating conditions for change. At HU, we asked our grantees to help us build a media impact and learning framework in partnership with Impact Architects, and continue to offer ongoing support with any learning or impact they’d like to explore. We believe media and journalism organizations know best about the impact of their work in the world, and we are best served when we provide them the tools and support to help capture that.
One thing we’ve seen is that change takes time. I mentioned our Guardian partnership earlier—that is a decade-long relationship now and we’ve seen impacts from stories years later. But the long-term investment in The Guardian’s coverage is an example of tangible impact, shifting the space where HU’s programs existed, particularly in our work in the Thai seafood industry and an long term focus on labor exploitation in Qatar that helped change how other outlets covered these stories. Our relationship with The Guardian also changed during this time, as we transitioned from a more narrow vertical to supporting more broad reporting on rights and freedom. They’ve also been a key partner to many of our other grantees, amplifying terrific reporting from around the world.
Also, personally, I do take pride in watching our journalism partners grow as organizations, prioritizing needs like duty of care and ensuring they are meeting their team’s needs for physical, mental, and digital safety. I see our support as effective when journalism organizations can invest the time they need to do deep, complex reporting or to continue to expand their networks.
Nina: There are a few high-profile international journalism conferences happening in the next couple months—including the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, and the International Symposium on Online Journalism—that will address long-standing concerns among the international funding community: the safety and security of journalists, and the increasing threats to democracy around the world. What else is top of mind for HU and this community? What conversations are you hoping to spark with your peers?
Liz: Where to begin? Echoing what you said, I think robust duty of care and holistic support for journalism organizations—including digital, legal, mental health and safety—are all top of mind now. I’m interested in learning more about some of the new support programs that are starting (like Reporters Shield) and better understanding how we can support grantees who are at risk because of their reporting.
I’m also interested in discussions around how we can support journalists who are working in non-democratic spaces but continue to produce independent journalism. There’s a lot of energy around journalism as a hedge against authoritarianism, but we also can’t ignore the journalists doing strong, important reporting in places that are not democracies.
And, of course, like many funders I’m interested in ways to support networks and collaboration among journalists at the global, national, and local levels around the world. Reporting stories together means that new perspectives and information can better reach both local and global audiences, helping to both improve local journalism and increase the likelihood that local audiences can access international stories that are about them and their lives.
Nina: What insight or advice would you offer a program funder who may be interested in making international media and journalism grants?
Liz: We talk about the state of local media in the U.S., but the challenges don’t end at our borders. We hear from journalists around the world working in incredibly difficult conditions, and can see the real consequences of cash-strapped organizations barely scraping by. These journalists provide critical services not only to their communities, but also to the broader reporting ecosystem. Support from funders can make a tremendous difference, not only in financial support, but also through the connections and visibility. So yes, I see opportunities to make an outsized impact by supporting international journalism.
I think program-oriented funders in particular can play a key role here, bringing new resources and energy into the space in a way that benefits journalism and also benefits their organizations. But funders also have to make sure expectations are clear within the organizations about what journalism grantees can and can’t do and make sure firewalls are in place from day one.
In our case, building ongoing partnerships with our existing program teams has been essential to our journalism work. Our journalism funding continues to spark challenging conversations among program staff, partners, and with our other grantees, who all believe in the power of journalism but may not themselves differentiate between pitching content, sponsoring content, and supporting independent journalism—or understand the firewall we have in the first place. But these are conversations worth having and they help our organization, our grantees, and the journalism program itself.
At HU we talk a lot about how journalists are sense-makers, and I think that helps capture why supporting them is so important. They shape how we see the world, unearthing and illuminating issues, providing information and context that creates the important conditions for change—conditions like awareness, transparency, understanding, empathy, and accountability—without which many of our goals as funders are not possible. I would argue that journalism is essential to any funder working to advance human dignity and that we should support this critical work both at home and internationally.
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