Spend your money wisely: this is the mandate given to program officers of philanthropic, government, and multilateral donor organizations. Each year they are given a certain budget, and they are expected to use that money as effectively as possible to further the objectives of their program. But how do these individuals gauge the impact of their investments? How can they cooperate with other donors to seek holistic solutions to complex problems? And to what extent should they be preparing for the likely challenges of the future, or focusing on the urgent problems of today?

In part one of this series I looked at the history of media development, the major players in the field, and some of the current obstacles – from regulatory reform to linguistic divides – that stand in the way of a healthy media ecosystem. In part two I examined points of agreement and tension among those directly involved in media development, and the recommendations that they made to a group of donors who gathered in a subsequent meeting. In this third and final post I will attempt to summarize the main themes at the meeting of funders, and look at the field of media development from the funder’s perspective.

Has Media Freedom Waned Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall?

Eric Newton, Vice President for Journalism at the Knight Foundation, began the three-day meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar with a series of maps from Freedom House charting media freedom since 1989 until today. While it is difficult to aggregate imperfect data across entire countries, much less the whole world, these global maps show a slight decline in media freedom over the past twenty years. Why is there an alleged decline in media freedom worldwide when over $600 million has been spent on media development during that time? For Newton, the explanation lies in the fact that “governments and funders have failed to recognize and take advantage of the incredible potential of digital media.” He points to the Knight Foundation’s own $25 million News Challenge initiative as an attempt to push the innovation and adoption of digital media tools and applications. Newton says that this is the third major meeting of funders involved in the field of media development. “It didn’t work in London,” he said, “it didn’t work in Paris. So now we’re trying Salzburg.”

Amadou Ba, the co-founder of AllAfrica.com and executive director of the African Media Initiative then took to the podium for his keynote address. He began by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” He also cited Amartya Sen who claims that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any country with a relatively free press.” Ba feels that media is “an essential public good, which informs people of their rights.” He recounted a conversation he once had with an unpopular African leader who Ba had hoped would increase federal media investment. “Why would I help feed the monster that wants me out of my seat?” the leader responded. For Ba, the response shows why healthy media is such a crucial ingredient in the recipe of democracy.

But, despite the clear importance of press freedom, he feels that funders have little to show for their millions of dollars of investment. Unlike Newton, Ba doesn’t see a lack of engagement with digital media to be the problem, but rather a lack of trust by donors in the local leadership of African media outlets. Unsurprisingly, his answer is to invest more in networks like the African Media Initiative, which brings together owners and operators of major media companies in Africa to increase cooperation, coordinate on relevant research, and advocate for better media regulation.

More Investment or a Better Understanding of What Works?

Troy Etulain, the senior advisor for Independent Media Development at USAID left the first evening’s discussions unsatisfied:

“There was talk tonight about ‘underinvestment.’ That’s too vague. What’s the logical math? If there had been more investment would there have been more development?

Much of the conversation during the next day remained stuck on this issue of whether or not funding in media development over the years has been effective or not. Marguerite Sullivan of CIMA presented numbers from a study which found that globally $600 million has been spent on media development. Forty four percent went to training and twenty eight percent was direct assistance to support the operational costs of media organizations. Sullivan noted that among US government funders there are almost no experts in the field of media development (four people in USAID and one person in the state department) and that media development at USAID is a sub-sub sector of the Democracy Assistance program. For Stewart Chisolm, the senior program manager of OSI’s Media Program, the level of direct investment in the media organizations is still too low.

Mark Koenig, challenging the assertion by Newton and Ba that media development has failed, presented research which showed that media assistance had the highest degree of positive correlation of impact among all of USAID’s Civil Society initiatives. Brian Levy, an advisor at the World Bank, also presented research which shows a positive correlation between information access and effective development.

Vanessa Mazal of the Bill & Melinda Gates Global Development Program felt that media development has traditionally been too focused on training reporters, and that more resources should be invested in the business and management aspects of journalism in order to make the organizations sustainable. Nazeer Ladhani of the Aga Khan Development Network stressed that funders should help establish locally managed institutions like the Aga Khan Universities in Pakistan and Nairobi to foster indigenous leadership and implement sustainable training programs in partnership with local companies.

Metrics for Success

How do funders know if their investments have an impact not just on the media landscape, but also in terms of better governance and more effective development? None of the funders seemed content with the current metrics for evaluating media worldwide. Some felt that IREX’s Media Sustainability Index was outdated, to which Mark Whitehouse, director of Media Development Programs at IREX, responded that, rather than criticizing metrics, the conversation should focus on how to improve them. Pia Hallonsten of the Swedish International Development Agency would like to see more longterm longitudinal studies which look at the impact of media development programs over many years.

Peter Goldstein, the director of online communications at InterMedia, presented the initial findings from AudienceScapes, a new media analysis initiative funded by Gates Foundation and set to launch in January 2010. AudienceScapes aggregates data about media from a variety of sources and supplements it with their own questionnaires. Among the topics in their surveys: demographic information, access to ICTs, usage patterns, mobile phone use, internet use, personal finance, health, and agriculture. Goldstein says that AudienceScapes’ data will be available to the public without a subscription, but that they are looking into a business model which would make special information and reports available to paying customers. A sample of AudienceScapes’ policy research with focus on Ghana was presented.

Pippa Noris of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government presented the some of the research and conclusions from her latest book Public Sentinel: News Media and the Governance Agenda, which she has summarized in a post on her blog. Norris stressed that data about the impact of media, and about governance in general, is far from perfect, but suggested that the media development community should collaborate more closely with academic researchers from the International Communication Association, which focuses on the impact of media on society.

Good Media for Good Governance

Much of the conversation over the first two days treated media development as a goal in itself, or as part of a strategy to further other development objectives (like health and agriculture). James Deane of the BBC World Service Trust said he would like to shift the conversation to focus on good governance first, and media as a part of that. Most of the speakers on the panel represented multilateral development agencies like the World Bank, the UNDP, and the Asian Development Bank whose clients are national governments. Deane feels that good media is a requirement for good governance; that quality media outlets serves as irreplaceable public watchdogs. He also notes that good media can help spur economic development by battling government and corporate corruption. (BBC World Service Trust published a 40-page report on “Governance and the Media“ in April, 2009.)

Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which documents how Liberian women blockaded the Presidential Palace until a peace agreement was signed, was one anecdote cited as an example of how media can lead to improved governance. But there were also murmuring whispers of the role of radio stations during the Rwandan genocide, and how media can also lead to chaos and brutality.) Both Brian Levy from the World Bank and Bjorn Forde from UNDP alluded to internal distrust at their organizations toward media. They insisted that they weren’t involved in outright media development, but that they value the role of transparent information in making development more effective. Both David Hoffman of Internews and Eric Netwon of Knight Foundation felt that large development agencies should cooperate more closely with media development initiatives to further the goals of both.

Final Thoughts

As a mostly silent observer, it seemed to me that the representatives from funding organizations were more concerned with convincing one another that they were making an impact than in thinking of ways to more effectively support the work of their grantees and promote cooperation to engage all aspects of a dynamic media ecosystem for the 21st century.

During the first meeting of media development practitioners there was general agreement that most funders were not sufficiently aware of the needs of the organizations implementing projects, and that funders are not up to date on the latest innovations taking place in the media field. One idea was to organize an online one-week fair so that media development organizations and funders can each learn more about the needs of each other. Unfortunately, when this idea was presented at the meeting of funders, there was apparently little interest.

I have personally witnessed several worthwhile media development projects die out because there was no clear pathway from initial seed funding (often won through some sort of competition like Changemakers or Ideablob) to “mezzanine funding” in order to scale up and then sustainability funding to support basic operating costs. If there was more open dialog between practitioners and funders – and among funders – then there wouldn’t be such a high turnover rate and so little expertise in the field.