For funders and grantees avidly tracking journalism’s evolution, the annual release of the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media analysis sets the stage for strategy discussions and decisions in the months to follow.
Last year’s much-quoted stat was 1% — the estimated percentage of “total news dollars” contributed by philanthropy, venture capital, and capital investments. The number to know from this year’s report is 39. That’s how many of the top 50 digital news websites now have more traffic from mobile devices than desktop computers — a shift Pew terms a “mobile majority.”
However, while users might be scanning more headlines on their tablets, phablets, phones, and (any day now) Apple Watches, they seem to be spending less time actually consuming news than they do on the desktop. What’s more, old news is not necessarily bad news. The outlook is still surprisingly rosy for local and network broadcasts, although cable news and newspapers are taking another hit.
Understanding these shifting audience consumption patterns is crucial when crafting public interest media projects. “Americans’ changing news habits have a tremendous impact on how and to what extent our country functions within an informed society,” writes Pew Research Center’s Director of Journalism Research Amy Mitchell. “So too does the state of the organizations producing the news and making it available to citizens day in and day out.”
But it may still be quite some time before we have a clear picture of what makes such organizations thrive. “Digital news entrants and experimentation, whether from longtime providers or new, are on the one hand now so numerous and varied that they are difficult to keep track of,” the report notes. “On the other hand, the pace of technological evolution and the multiplicity of choices — from platforms to devices to pathways — show no sign of slowing down. With each new pathway or platform, the old ones continue to be used, posing a nearly unattainable challenge to an industry in financial difficulty.”
In other words, funders who care about journalism should expect to keep investing in it for awhile longer — and to keep analyzing responses along the way in order to see what works best for reaching and engaging audiences. See our AIM Articles section to keep pace with the latest methods for the field.
For philanthropists seeking to involve audiences in key issues, however, news is not the whole story. An array of recent research projects examine other modes for communicating and connecting:
Using humor to spark empathy:
At our recent event Maladies and Miracles: Funding Media to Illuminate Health and Science, Caty Borum Chattoo of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact presented the results of an impact evaluation of Stand Up Planet. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this documentary TV show and transmedia series sent comedian Hasan Minhaj on a global tour to find the best humor emerging from the developing world.
The program was designed to raise awareness of tough global poverty and public health issues by appealing to viewers who might not normally focus on such topics. Applying a mix of methods — including a pre- and post-viewing survey, dial testing of viewers, moderated follow-up chats, and a comparison with audience reactions to a more traditional documentary — the researchers found that not only was comedy effective in encouraging viewers to care more about global health and poverty, but that the empathy evoked might be more effective in motivating action than a films with a sober narrative tone.
“If the goal of global development storytelling is to share insights and change perspectives about people living the poorest countries around the world with audiences who are not already thinking about the issue, then entertainment that creates a connection between ‘us’ (the U.S. and other wealthy donor countries) and ‘them’ (those working or living in poverty in faraway places) offers a powerful tool,” the report concludes.
Defragmenting game impact:
Games offer funders and grantees another compelling option for engaging those who might not be drawn to news or documentary. However, methods for understanding how they shape audience learning and behavior are still in flux. In April, Games for Change released a draft of Impact With Games: A Fragmented Field in order to illuminate how debates are muddying the waters.
“Of course, some fragmentation is natural and even beneficial. Specialization is necessary for deep expertise,” write authors Benjamin Stokes of American University; Nicole Walden, Francesco Nasso and Giancarlo Mariutto of the Michael Cohen Group; and Asi Burak of Games for Change.
“Leaders and academics often have strong incentives to establish their own brand and type of games. And organizations competing for funding have incentive to paint their work narrowly in order to appear at the forefront. Quality requires depth and some silo walls. However, too much fragmentation can seriously limit the community’s potential.”
The authors lay out five critiques:
1) Impact is defined too narrowly
2 ) Key terms (such as “assessment”) are politicized
3) Evaluation methods are inflexible, leading to silos in design
4) Applicants are confused by calls for funding and awards, and debate is harmed by a premature sense of consensus
5) Typologies of game impact are deep but not connected.
Funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, this is the first in a series of reports designed to stimulate conversation and collaboration among stakeholders in this rapidly evolving field of production. Chime in at gameimpact.net.
The transformative power of media making:
While most audience research focuses on how individuals are consuming or interacting with different forms of media, sometimes what matters most is the way that creating media can change lives.
Out for Change: Towards Transformative Media Organizing examines how LGBTQ organizing, advocacy and service groups across the country are applying media strategies in their organizing work.
Written collaboratively by members of the Out for Change Transformative Media Organizing Project (OCTOP) — with Sasha Constanza Chock of the MIT Center for Civic Media and Chris Schweidler of Research Action Design serving as lead authors — the report was funded by the Ford Foundation. Research methods included workshops and interviews with partners and advisors—including those who serve “Two-Spirit” individuals, a third gender recognized in many indigenous cultures—as well as a survey with 231 respondents.
“Through our work together, we learned that many LGBTQ and Two-Spirit organizations have an intersectional analysis of linked systems of race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual identity, ability, and other axes of identity,” the authors note. “Many seek to do media work that develops the critical consciousness and leadership of their communities, create media in ways that are deeply accountable to their base, use participatory approaches to media making, are strategic and cross-platform in their approach, and root their work in community action. We call this combination of characteristics transformative media organizing, and we believe it represents best practice in the field.”
Participatory media work is very common among these groups—six out of ten ask their members to create media, and nearly four out of five share community members’ stories. However, while many of the organizations surveyed agree that media-making can be key for skill-building, healing, and personal empowerment, the researchers observe that “transformative outcomes are not typically recognized, celebrated, or supported by funders. Transformative impacts are the hardest to measure, but often the most important. Many feel that media impact assessment must factor in personal and organizational transformation, not only metrics of audience reach and engagement.”
It’s worth noting, however, that some foundations have taken the value of personal storytelling to heart. For example, see the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Speak Out campaign, which harnesses personal narrative to combat stigma surrounding discussions of HIV/AIDS. We’ll learn more about how this campaign is affecting both participants and communities at our June Media Impact Forum.
“Intersectionality” is another key concept for LGBTQ and Two-Spirit activists, who recognize that bias against gender or sexual identity intersects with that “based on race, class, immigration status, disability, age, poverty and other axes of identity.” However, activists note that media coverage of these issues is often limited to a single focus, such as marriage equality. Creating and amplifying more complex and representative media is therefore central to the work of many of these groups.
Seeking to learn more about the various ways audiences interact with media projects that drive change? Visit our Assessing Impact of Media Research section today.