The last few years have been an extraordinarily difficult time for independent media and press freedom. The crisis in journalism business models continues, driven by the linked plagues of audience distrust and the collapse of advertising revenue. Audiences are objecting to being made the products of media; many now believe they should be the customers instead. Even in countries with a history of a range of credible, independent media - such as the United States - there is a clear need for a new approach to build trust and bridge divides amongst polarised citizens.
Meanwhile, the rise of misinformation and disinformation has had a major negative impact on media ecosystems and audience trust, especially when targeted at destabilising elections. This trend shows no sign of abating: it is likely we will see increased pressure on free speech globally, through “fake news laws”, autocratic leaders undermining the media, and the further spread of sophisticated misinformation, such as deep fakes on encrypted messenger services. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that media has become the least-trusted public institution globally, in 22 of the 28 countries surveyed. 63% of respondents said they did not know how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods, or if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organisation.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, the freedom of the press is under increasing attack. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories every year, indicates that “hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists.” Significantly, challenges to press freedom are becoming more prevalent in traditionally ‘free’ states such as the US and Europe. The Index shows that the Americas have suffered the greatest decline in their index score, with Europe and the Balkans experiencing the second heaviest deterioration. The report explains that “as a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as ‘problematic’. Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.” Furthermore, according to our Inflection Point report, 64% of journalism entrepreneurs in Colombia report that violence and threats led to self-censorship, while the politically motivated attacks on Rappler in the Philippines has been a first-hand lesson in how authoritarian regimes undermine independent media. We expect further setbacks without a concerted effort to resist this trend.
Our team - first as Omidyar Network's Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative and now as Luminate - has supported media organisations and companies through an era of immense upheaval, where technological intermediaries have revolutionised how information is disseminated, influencing citizens’ day-to-day information consumption, choices, and ultimately, national narratives. Over this period, we’ve invested in many of the most pioneering independent media entrepreneurs and organisations around the world – from the Pulitzer Prize-winning International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to the powerful Forbidden Stories project at Freedom Voices Network, which publishes the work of journalists that have been imprisoned or harmed.
In late 2017, this work was given renewed momentum. We committed $100 million to supporting independent media and investigative journalism, tackling misinformation and hate speech, and looking at ways in which technology can help create healthier information ecosystems between stakeholders including citizens, corporations, and governments. We've spent $56m of that across the four different impact areas at Luminate. This year, we have taken the opportunity to review our Independent Media investment strategy to consider what has worked, and what hasn’t.
Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.
Supporting the media: key lessons
Join forces, maximise impact
Co-ordinated, cross-border, collaborative investigative journalism has had a significant impact on holding power to account. We have witnessed this in powerful collective efforts catalysed by portfolio organizations including the Paradise Papers (ICIJ), the Gupta Leaks (amaBhungane), the Danske Bank money laundering work (The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), and other narratives that have reverberated globally, particularly in the areas of corruption, organised crime, and transparency around armed conflict. These organisations are largely non-profit. Their work has created huge impact by holding power to account, improving accountability, and changing the way that journalism fundamentally works.
Digital ad-based revenue models have failed quality journalism
The modern digital distribution system distorts economic value derived from good reporting. Google and Facebook account for over 70% of the $73 billion spent each year on digital advertising, and 99% of the growth in that market. Meanwhile, public trust in journalism is further eroded by an ad-based model of social distribution that rewards emotion over truth; reach over engagement; clickbait over quality. Financially speaking, things might get worse before they get better.
Trust: good for society, good for business
Media organisations that inspire trust in their audiences are better able to generate loyalty and revenue. At The Ken, an innovative Indian “membership-based” news organisation, journalists spend a significant proportion of their time responding to readers’ questions and tips directly. There's no “customer service” department: those who write stories are also the ones in conversation with their audience communities. This builds trust and credibility and ensures that readers feel represented. The result? The Ken was profitable just 18 months after it launched.
Regulation is not enough for a free press
To promote media plurality in different markets and ultimately a free press, the right regulation is necessary but not sufficient. Press freedom is often suppressed by authoritarian leaders who ignore or abuse freedom of expression policies and principles that are enshrined in the law. In many countries, authoritarian leaders, thin-skinned politicians, and monopolistic corporations actively attempt to curtail the role of independent media in civic space, via both legal and extrajudicial mechanisms - such as through internet shutdowns, defamation and libel cases, revoking licenses to operate and the intimidation and murder of journalists. While the right policy is important as a foundation for the free press, it's often not sufficient to ensure that journalists can do their jobs without suffering attacks.
We must strive to prevent attacks on journalists
Too much of the press freedom community's work is reactive, rather than preventative. Monitoring and reporting violations against journalists is incredibly important work. Without this record of attacks on the media, and the calls to action that accompany them, we would have seen a further retrenchment of press freedom. However, we - as a community that supports free and fair media - need to strengthen the means that we have at our disposal to defend journalists. In particular, we must think about how to take more preventative, rather than reactive, measures to ensure that the cost of attacking journalists is higher. Forbidden Stories does this by ensuring the stories that the enemies of the press are trying to suppress are kept alive, which reduces the “reward” to bad actors that silence journalists. However, we can do more: for example, by demonstrating that if there are political attacks on journalists, that we will fight back - as per the international support for Maria Ressa.
Lack of funding hamstrings independent voices
There is a dearth of both philanthropic and for-profit capital for media organisations and companies at all stages. There are very few media funders, and their money is often not sufficient. Most of the organisations we fund in this space are reliant on just two or three sources of capital, making them vulnerable and limiting their scale. At this very turbulent time for independent media and press freedom, it is critical that new philanthropic dollars invest in the sector. The lack of funding for journalism is especially notable outside the US. For all foundations that care about boosting democracy during this critical period, we urge you to join us in supporting the media.
We must think about how to take more preventative, rather than reactive, measures to ensure that the cost of attacking journalists is higher.
How will we invest in media in the future?
Luminate will invest in independent media in contexts where media plurality is under threat, in order to promote journalism that holds power to account and informs the decision-making of individuals. We hope to catalyse robust media ecosystems in the countries where we operate, ultimately to reduce the abuse of power and give citizens the evidence-based content they need in order to make decisions that improve their lives.
Our investment strategy will have five areas of focus:
1. Direct support of investigative journalism
Directly supporting non-profit, hard-hitting investigative journalism initiatives, even those without potential for financial sustainability, will allow us to have an outsized impact on the accountability of those in power. We will invest in cross-border, collaborative journalism, especially data journalism that mixes engineering talent with editorial experience to generate new insight.
2. Invest in financial models for editorial independence
By investing in experiments to develop financial models that enable editorial independence, we will establish benchmarks for sustainable, quality journalism. We will experiment with new approaches, but are especially interested in companies that develop trustworthiness as a differentiator and build direct and engaging relationships with their audiences.
3. Restore trust in the media
We can begin to restore trust in the media by ensuring that audiences have confidence in and feel represented by the media they consume, while concurrently preventing the spread of mis- and disinformation. We will evaluate the effectiveness of a variety of ex-ante preventative measures (e.g. aiming to change the approach of the social media platforms) and ex-post approaches (e.g. tools that filter out misinformation) to combat mis- and disinformation through a combination of research and experimentation.
4. Redouble our support to press freedom
We can help to defend press freedom through innovative, and where possible 'preventative', investments. We will invest in strategic litigation and landmark emergency defence cases, to help prevent future politically motivated attacks on journalists. We will seek to work with key governments to increase diplomatic responses to press freedom violations, increasing the cost of attacks on journalists. We will strive to ensure that each of the countries we operate in has more than one or two independent media outlets, to lessen the impact if one voice silenced. We will take risks on innovative approaches to supporting the free press, such as The Daphne Project, to increase the range of tools to tackle this problem.
5. Invest in ecosystems and attract new funders
We will stimulate innovation and scale the impact of our investees. We will invest in developing media ecosystems though accelerators and the stimulation of innovation, such as our SAMIP program in South Africa and Velocidad across Latin America. We will also launch an effort to bring in more capital to the independent media landscape, through global and regional vehicles that will allow “new” investors in the media to participate in supporting the sector.
We can begin to restore trust in the media by ensuring that audiences have confidence in and feel represented by the media they consume, while concurrently preventing the spread of mis- and disinformation.
What does success look like?
As a result of our investments, we hope to see:
- Original, ground-breaking pieces of journalism from our portfolio that hold power to account.
- Profitable businesses producing high quality journalism in our portfolio.
- An increase of representative reporting and diversity in stories, sources and staff.
- More evidence, especially outside the US, on ‘what works’ in addressing mis- and disinformation.
- Several landmark cases that change legal precedent, or policy, around freedom of expression.
- More abundant capital alongside which we can co-invest on media deals.
Wish us luck, and hold us accountable.