Editor’s note: In November 2017, Science magazine published the results of a multi-year study—funded primarily by Voqal, a national collaboration of EBS licensees that work to advance social equity—in which 48 small media outlets were recruited to write articles on specific subjects on randomly assigned dates. Harvard Professor Gary King and his team wanted to better understand the impact of journalism on the national conversation. The researchers found that news by small- to medium-sized outlets can have a significant impact on how Americans discuss issues. Here, Voqal’s founder, John Schwartz, discusses why Voqal took this research on and what it means for the philanthropic community.
By John Schwartz | Director and Founder, Voqal
Voqal has long funded media content and distribution, spending millions of dollars annually. It seemed prudent for us also to support ways to measure the effects of that funding. Though we believed that our grants were having a significant impact, it’s a big step forward for us and for our grantees to be able to measure results.

Using a sophisticated analysis that took into account the volume and complexity of the data set—all Tweets sent during weeks of coordinated media coverage vs. those in “control” weeks—Harvard Professor Gary King was able to measure specific instances of journalism not only increasing discussion of related topics, but also changing the way the public discussed those issues on Twitter. The majority of the participating outlets were small, independent news outlets including such publications as Truthout, In These Times, Ms. Magazine and The Progressive. It is important to note that newsrooms remained independent—they were not asked to take a particular stance on a topic, just to address it in their coverage.

The study demonstrates that even small news organizations can have a significant impact on how Americans discuss issues online. Philanthropic organizations working to expand democracy and influence the national conversation on key issues should take note: Independent news sources with a median outlet size of 50,000 subscribers have a proven impact on the national conversation. Specifically, the study found that if just three outlets write about a particular topic, it can increase public discussion of that topic across social media, boosting traffic on the subject by 63 percent over the course of a week, as compared to a typical day’s traffic.

We think that King’s study is an eloquent answer to funders who have long asserted that media impact was essentially unmeasurable, or rendered irrelevant by the partisan divides in our country. Note that King’s team found that progressive media outlets influenced the conversation on public policy topics among people registered in both major political parties. Though filter bubbles and self-reinforcing social media echo chambers are a problem, the study’s findings reinvigorate the traditional view that the answer to fake speech is to respond with correct speech, because it shows that ideas flowed across ideologies and all U.S. regions.

While not directly related to the idea of measuring media influence, there was an additional unintended result of this research that is worth mentioning: News organizations that participated in this study became far more collaborative. This collaboration led to more engagement from users, higher quality content and professional development for reporters and editors.

Smaller outlets lack the resources of the larger media entities. Luckily, media-focused philanthropies can fill that resource gap. Funding King’s research, and the concrete evidence it provides that such media has influence, turned out to be a way for Voqal to prove that these small independent media outlets are worth funding.

Additional research related to the influence of the media is vital. King’s research proves that media impact can be quantified scientifically. Further work is needed to identify ways that such impact can be maximized. It is for this reason and others we encourage other media funders to seek out organizations and individuals embarking on this type of cutting-edge research and offer them the financial and organizational support.