International Reporting Project closes amid funding shift for foreign news

The Indian Ocean, taken from a propeller plane. Photo courtesy of the International Reporting Project.

Mental healthcare in post-Ebola Sierra Leone. Vaccine preparedness in Mozambique. A major earthquake in Nepal. Waterless toilets in Ecuador. Climate change adaptation in Morocco. Nuclear security in Kazakhstan. Water and infrastructure in Lesotho. Education disparity in Mongolia. Re-examining a conflict’s origins in the Central African Republic.

These stories are years and continents apart, but they were all told by journalists who sought funding from the International Reporting Project (IRP) to make them happen.

But after two decades of supporting reporting around the world, last week IRP, where I’ve worked the past four years, announced it would close its doors this month. John Schidlovsky, IRP’s founder and director, summed up the reason in a note to alumni: “After 20 years, the year-to-year battle to raise sufficient operating funds finally caught up with us.”

Reporting fellowships have become such an integral part of the way we cover international news that it’s easy to forget what an innovative idea it was 20 years ago. Schidlovsky was a foreign correspondent, based principally in India and China, for The Baltimore Sun in the 1980s. But as newspapers began shuttering their foreign bureaus in the ’90s, he foresaw the impending threat to international news: Africa, Asia, and Latin America, regions that were already relegated to the back pages on an average day, would recede even further from the global conversation.

He founded IRP in 1998 with the intention of filling a gap, sending journalists to tell stories from places mainstream media could no longer afford to cover in a meaningful, sustained way.

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In the two decades since, IRP’s core mission has changed little, but the foreign correspondent landscape has evolved significantly. Other reporting fellowship programs have followed, like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), creating additional opportunities for journalists, and more have emerged in recent years. Today, it’s a fair assumption that a handful of the international stories appearing daily in major outlets around the globe are made possible by fellowships.

We’ve been watching a slow, organic shift in the way international news gets made.

International journalists have benefited in recent years from the volume and variety of opportunities. But as the number of fellowship programs has increased, the number of funders has not. In this new competitive setting, something had to give.

We’ve been watching a slow, organic shift in the way international news gets made. Though we find no one to blame for IRP’s predicament, our perspective, straddling both the non-profit and international journalism worlds, may prove instructive to others looking ahead with trepidation.

 

Substance vs. flash

A paradox all non-profits face is that they are expected to spend money responsibly (the dreaded “overhead” remains a dirty word) but also manage public promotion of their work in order to attract potential funders. It’s hard to do both.

At IRP, our mission was to pay journalists to cover under-reported stories around the world. All our program money went toward reporting fellowships, with direct results: One fellowship equaled at least one story, and often several, that would be placed in mainstream outlets around the world and seen or heard by thousands or millions of news consumers. The line from funders to IRP to journalists was a straight one, and one we’re proud of.

We didn’t want to spend money to make money, we wanted to spend money to report.

It also hastened our demise. In order to remain competitive, we would have needed to spend a lot more money on ourselves, rather than our programs. We needed a massive website redesign, which would have set us back tens of thousands of dollars. We needed to hire several more people and brainstorm new ways to contribute to international journalism. We needed to buy expensive plane tickets and hotel stays to attend the conferences our peers and potential funders were attending. We needed to host events featuring our alumni, flying speakers in from distant destinations and printing glossy promotional material, to create more opportunities for people to hear about our accomplishments.

In short, we didn’t want to spend money to make money, we wanted to spend money to report.

 

A growing dependence on direct philanthropy

Twenty years ago the idea of reporting fellowships was the next big thing. Today, we’re already several years into a new phase of philanthropic intervention: direct support of news outlets.

Direct support used to raise eyebrows over ethical concerns. In fact, one of the reasons the fellowship model works so well is that the non-profit organizations accepting the funding can act as a buffer between the funder and the journalist or publisher. But as noted by Dr. Martin Scott, a professor of media and international development at the University of East Anglia in the UK, since 2009, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone has made grants of at least $1 million to The Guardian, NPR, Al Jazeera, PBS’s Newshour, PRI, and others to support “international public service journalism.” Plenty of other foundations now contribute directly to some of our most-read news sources.

The result may be rendering intermediaries like IRP obsolete: You don’t need individual stories pre-paid by fellowships if your budget is already being covered by a grant.

Gates was IRP’s primary funder for more than a decade, enabling hundreds of stories, many of which would eventually end up in the above-mentioned outlets, but with that extra layer of distance enshrined in the fellowship. The Foundation ended its support for us in 2016, and it appears that its direct funding of news outlets is going strong. Just last week, both Bright Magazine and Africa Check publicized their 2018 Gates funding.

However, concerns about news outlets taking money directly from funders remain. A new report from the Charles H. Revson Foundation makes the case for philanthropic support of journalism, though its focus is on local news in the US. The report quotes “an editor at a major non-profit news organization” who argued that the danger of foundation support was its fickle nature, often changing gears unexpectedly in accordance with a foundation’s own internal restructuring: “Non-profit models come into being, philanthropy supports them, they’re the flavor of the month, then the philanthropists move on and the journalism isn’t sustainable without that support.”

A 2017 paper by the NYU media professor Rodney Benson similarly asks whether foundations could “solve the journalism crisis.” In an interview with Nieman Lab, Benson articulated the most common concern about philanthropic intervention:

A lot of people who work in foundations are very conscientious, but they have tremendous power and there’s very little oversight of that. There’s very little reporting on the philanthropic world…. Yet this sector is growing; its power and scope are growing. We treat it as if it’s this unalloyed kind of good, but it’s more complex than that.

To distinguish between optics and tangible conflicts, we’ll have to keep watching.

 

Outsized influence

A handful of familiar names—MacArthur, Ford, Omidyar, Knight, Carnegie, Gates—have become synonymous with non-profit journalism, presenting another concern: The voices of a few are dominating the entire journalism landscape. (Disclosure: You can see CJR’s major funders here.)

Observers worry this pervasive presence will tailor media coverage to funders’ agendas, even unintentionally. There is already a coziness between funders and grantees, given the natural alignment between what foundations advocate for and the issues non-profit journalism deems important.

These fuzzy ethics have already led to thoughtful assessments. Scott, the East Anglia professor, has been working with colleagues to investigate what he calls “humanitarian journalism”—which is typical of the journalism IRP has supported. His research probed the subtle influences donor funding may have on the “independence, role perceptions, and ideology of the journalism it supports.” In a case study of IRIN, for example, he found that “donor power operated entirely indirectly and always in concert with the dominant professional values within IRIN,” while cautioning that “contextual variables in the journalist–donor relationship” warrant scrutiny of all such relationships. The Revson report, too, argued that “foundation support for journalism…has been focused…on deepening coverage of particular issues” in lieu of others, a version of influence.

Part of my job, organizing IRP’s group reporting trips, was to meet with local NGOs to see what projects might be of interest to foreign reporters. Because of the Gates Foundation’s expansive contributions to health and development causes around the world, I learned early on that it would be impossible to avoid projects that were being funded by Gates (and avoidance would be its own form of bias). Everyone was funded by Gates.

While we were careful to mitigate any influence, all too often we enabled a bunch of Gates-funded journalism fellows to report on a bunch of Gates-funded projects around the world, taking quotes from employees whose paychecks were dependent on Gates.

The underlying point is that we’re not just on the cusp of upending the way international news is made and paid for—we’re already there. And maybe it doesn’t have to be bad. The more we’re aware of it and open about it, the more we can work to proceed with integrity.

 

The (temporary?) empathy gap

Last week in CJR, Yardena Schwartz addressed a growing concern among freelancers that, in the Trump era, deeply reported international news is a harder sell than ever. This squares with my experience; I lost count of the number of IRP fellows who dejectedly relayed that an editor had told them they had no space for a piece that didn’t include a “Trump angle.”

It would be tempting to take comfort in the renewed energy, starting in November 2016, for a robust and independent press in the United States. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm did not extend to international news. Instead, funders re-aligned their focus on other worthy causes, including news literacy, media credibility and strengthened local news. But in the rush to triage what we suddenly realized was broken at home, international stories became an afterthought.

I’m optimistic it’s not a permanent state. We’ve never been particularly good at balancing domestic political news with important stories from the rest of the world, but I also don’t think we’re doomed to be glued to the White House indefinitely. The collective passion of those who care about people and places around the globe will eventually remind funders and consumers that we are capable of learning about more than one thing at a time. Let’s just hope this doesn’t in the meantime lead to more non-profits losing their international news funding.

 

In defense of foreign correspondence

There’s one more shift that’s happened in international journalism in recent years, and it’s primarily a good one: We’re pushing back against parachute journalism and deepening support for local coverage of local issues.

This is great. It translates into more respect for fixers and for the talents of our peers in the foreign press. And it’s an acknowledgement that outsiders can miss key context and cultural understanding. But I hope we don’t choose this moment to turn away from the world and from each other. With post-Brexit, anti-globalist rhetoric swirling around us, we need to continue pushing to spend time in each other’s worlds.

I would never paint IRP as a practitioner of “parachute journalism,” but it’s true that our fellows spend as little as 10 days in the country of their fellowship, with others remaining for several months at a time. It’s never enough. But one of the most satisfying side effects of a reporting fellowship is that a journalist, almost unfailingly, after spending this short amount of time on the ground, will remain captivated by that country for the rest of their career. To take one small example, a year after the Nepal earthquake, which some IRP fellows had experienced firsthand as we carried out a group reporting trip, several of the journalists from that trip returned of their own volition to see the rebuilding efforts and check in with sources they’d met.

And though the majority of our fellows have been American, we’ve had the opportunity to support an incredible diversity of cultural exchange: We’ve sent Kenyan journalists to Morocco, French journalists to Madagascar, Argentinian journalists to Senegal, Indian journalists to Uganda, and so on.

Until the day when such destinations are more accessible, we have journalists who are eager to visit these places and tell three-dimensional stories about them, so that, with time and education, the misleading and simplistic narratives that are so prevalent fall away, replaced with something messier, but more truthful.

We must figure out a way to pay for it.

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Glendora Meikle is the deputy director of the International Reporting Project (IRP).