Three pillars support our main goal
Citizens and civil society organisations that want to combat poverty and inequality in their societies cannot do so without access to information, independent media and freedom of expression. Conversely, media needs these organisations and citizens to know what is going on. What issues are important to their readers, listeners and viewers? By enabling independent reporting and public debate on them, independent media can contribute to positive changes in their society.
Free Press Unlimited is strongly committed to this main goal: a diverse, professional information landscape consisting of independent media and journalists that drive (social) change in their society.
Three issues are crucial to ensuring local media can fulfil their important social role. We call these our intermediate goals, the pillars under the media landscape. These pillars must be firmly rooted, before we can achieve our main goal.
1. Journalists must be able to do their work. This requires, among other things, proper legislation that guarantees their safety and the freedom of expression, but also that (government) information is accessible.
2. Media and journalists must be committed to the interests of the population, act as its watchdog. It is therefore necessary that they have the right contacts – and cooperate where appropriate – with other social players, such as media organisations or stakeholder groups. Media must reflect the diversity in society.
3. Media professionals must be properly educated, so they can deliver the quality to which their audience is entitled. Media must be able to be and remain independent of government or big money lenders.
All our projects contribute to one or more of these intermediate goals. For instance, in Somalia we organise ‘Councils of Peace’, where media representatives and government enter into the dialogue with each other in a respectful manner. We help Kunafoni WebTV to enable Malian youth to deliver objective news through rap and involve them in the social problems in their country. And together with the Iraqi photo agency Metrography we reinforce and professionalise independent photo journalism in this country.
This is how we measure the effect of our work
Of course we want to know if our work makes a (positive) difference. That is why we systematically monitor and evaluate all our projects: what has been achieved and where do we need to give more support? Have we picked the correct strategies or should we adapt them? Is the change happening as we predicted, in other words: is our Theory of Change (ToC) still correct? This is how we learn valuable lessons about what does and does not work. And because we continuously assess the effects and results of our work, we can provide sound accountability to our supporters and donors. This process is known as MEAL and consists of the following English terms: monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning.
In 2018, we evaluated the Speak Up Zambia project, in which we educated citizen journalists (particularly female) for three years to report the news from their slums in a professional manner. We investigated what our support meant for the work of the citizen journalists involved, community radios and to their audience. One of the conclusions: the project had limited, but demonstrable impact, for example improvement in the service provided by the local government. These findings were based on focus groups, a large number of one-on-one interviews and stories gathered with the Most Significant Change methodology.
What were the conclusions? Many citizen journalists told how, thanks to the training, they found the courage to call the authorities to account. An increasing number of community radio stations broadcast their reports or brought the news from the slums themselves. And thanks to these reports people managed to find the way to the municipal services and demand better service. However, it was mainly thanks to the tenacity of the citizen journalists that public services responded much faster. They succeeded in making sure that garbage was cleared more effectively, the broken roof of the school was repaired and they looked into how single mothers could register their children without permission from the father.
Partners harvest their outcomes
We first used the Outcome Harvesting evaluation method in 2017 in Somalia and Pakistan. In 2018, we also used the same method in other countries. Although we also learned the limitations – it is still difficult to uncover the negative effects of a project in reliable manner – the method once again gave us valuable insights. One major advantage of Outcome Harvesting is that this also measures results we had not set as goal in advance, but which are important to our partners. Last year, we harvested outcomes in six countries: Somalia, Congo, Nepal, Pakistan, Iraq and Indonesia. Together with our partners we assessed whether our Theory of Change is still correct.
In March 2018, six Congolese partners and Free Press Unlimited came together in the capital, Kinshasa, to harvest the outcomes of No News Is Bad News in Congo. They summarised who they had influenced, what that meant and how the programme had contributed to that. A total of 42 results were put on the table, both positive and negative. For example in 2018, the Minister of Media and Communication recognised the importance of community radios to the election process (Congo went to the ballot box in December 2018).
There were also some gems among the ‘unplanned’ results. Like the showers and places to cook that women in Bukavu prison were given after a critical radio broadcast from one of our partners. Or the association for support of albinos that was founded in Kivu after a radio programme that denounced discrimination against albinos. An example of an unintentional negative consequence of the publication of a report by partner JED about the safety of journalists in Congo, was that JED founder, Thsivis Tshivuadi, received severe threats and was forced to flee his house.
Most Significant Change
What is the most important change that, partly thanks to the cooperation with Free Press Unlimited, you have experienced in recent times? That is what we ask journalists involved in our projects, by means of the Most Significant Change (MSC) method. Was it really useful to them? By interviewing them we retrieve stories that would otherwise remain unheard in normal evaluation methods. In addition to registering ‘indicators’, we ask journalists themselves to say what the effect of our work is. Also with this method, we ask for both positive and negative experiences.
In Bangladesh, after five years, we evaluated a programme of our partner Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC), in which 21 young women and Dalits (‘untouchables’) were trained to be radio journalists. Of course we also deployed the Most Significant Change method here. It was with good reason that the programme won multiple international and national awards, but what did the student journalists think of it? Could they develop into professional journalists and were they indeed change-makers within their community, as was our goal?
We collected seventeen stories, supplemented those with ten in-depth interviews and desk research, and came to the conclusion that both the trainees and the community radio stations had changed. The trainees broke through (gender) stereotypes and felt more self-confident; they received recognition and work, and were drivers of change in their families and communities. ‘Now I have a job as a presenter and I make my own programme. Even officials know me. However, the most important thing is that I have given a voice to the poor and disadvantaged Dalit community that I come from,’ Subroto Halder tells us. Conversely, the trainees also had an influence on the community radio stations that trained them. The content became more diverse and the radio makers were more committed to the interests of women and Dalits.
Midterm Review No News Is Bad News
One good example of our approach is No News Is Bad News. In 2018, Free Press Unlimited put a lot of time and energy into a thorough interim evaluation (the Midterm Review) of this programme. The two most important questions were: what have we achieved in the last 2.5 years? And what can we learn from how those results were achieved, or not achieved? In other words: has change occurred in the way we anticipated?
A Midterm Review like this determines in part how we will proceed with No News Is Bad News, so we wanted it to be carried out as well as possible. So we used various research methods, deployed 20 students to test our Theory of Change and asked external experts for their assessment of the evaluation. In this way, we think we can avoid being unwittingly biased in our conclusions; the Midterm Review is, after all, an internal evaluation.
We investigated what had changed for our partners, media and journalists in relation to the baseline situation, before No News Is Bad News started. And we organised Outcome Harvesting workshops and gathered Most Significant Change stories to determine whether our strategies worked. We examined a total of 39 strategies on the basis of 247 harvested outcomes and 107 stories. We drew up good examples of projects that have raised the safety of journalists and gender equality, successfully held the authorities accountable and helped media to stand on their own two feet.
The key question – what does and does not work – resulted in an amendment to our Theory of Change. Because, of course not everything went according to plan. Some strategies proved to be less relevant or effective, others worked far above expectation. Our three intermediate goals remained intact, but in several cases, we changed the path towards reaching them and the results we wanted to achieve along the way.
For instance, in the case of intermediate goal 1 (journalists must be able to do their job) we discovered that we should not focus only on legislation and political influence. Economic factors can also make or break press freedom – think of media being bought up by governments or media conglomerates that want to push independent media out of the market. So we added that to our Theory of Change with strategies for the survival of independent media.
The Midterm Review gives a good idea of what works and what doesn’t, but also gives us new questions. Does more gender equality in the media automatically lead to content that does more justice to women? Is educating citizen journalists the best way of providing news to media-impoverished and under-represented groups? And which business models are in fact the most effective for various media in conflict areas? We want to be able to give a well-substantiated answer to these questions and more. That is why we have drawn up an ambitious research agenda, into which our Knowledge & Quality team can sink its teeth in the coming years.
Innovative revenue models
Free Press Unlimited can do a lot, but we are (still) not good at supporting media organisations to remain financially independent (intermediate goal 3). That’s not surprising, since the entire media sector is desperately searching for new revenue models. But it is a clear and recurring question from our partners: how do we keep our independent head above water at a time when governments are buying up media, social media giants are swallowing advertising revenues and the general public thinks that news is free? Last year we already had the new business models of independent online media in Central America examined, this year we brought the Guatemalan Nómada and Confidencial from Nicaragua – that are experimenting widely with new sources of income – in contact with the Russian-Language News Exchange.
The Russian-Language News Exchange has extensive experience with innovative business models and wants to share that knowledge with other partners. For this platform, the revenue models from the Central American colleagues are of interest. Nómada, strong in digital productions, has a set up a separate department that produces videos for commercial customers. It also delivers monthly political and economic analyses for a fee to a number of banks and international organisations. Confidencial prefers to keep control of the content and had almost hooked a major customer when the violence in Nicaragua forced the newspaper to take a step back.
Despite the difference in conditions for Russian-language and Central American media, the similarities are numerous. Both operate in (post-)conflict areas that are rife with corruption, where independent media are under economic pressure. At the same time, this is precisely the media that dare to denounce corruption, so is extremely important that they remain viable. How can they do that without giving up their independence? Nómada and Confidencial have jointly drawn up a list of acceptable customers in Central America and a list with no-go criteria (no corrupt companies, no violence and no discriminatory content). The Russian-Language News Exchange is a textbook example of a successful collaboration between media, where the shared content and expertise saves all the partners a lot of money. The platform also offers training and workshops to NGOs and media. Free Press Unlimited will support these and other experiments with earnings models with a solid research agenda and room for exchange.
In October, fifteen Free Press Unlimited employees, together with students, designers and experts, looked into four pressing issues for which we were looking for an innovative solution. As an investigative journalist, how can you safely look for missing refugee children and the reason for their disappearance? What are the best ways for media in exile to protect their sources in the country of origin? Outside their own offices, in conversation with experts and bombarded with out-of-the-box questions from other ‘hackers’, the four teams came up with creative ideas during this Amsterdam hackathon. There was a prize to be won: that went to the idea for an augmented reality podcast with which our media partners in non-western countries can tell about their work.