Gates Foundation and Journalism
The Rich Disruptor
By Ian Graham
10 September 2018
For nearly two decades, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent more on media partnerships than almost any other philanthropy.
A growing number of philanthropies are cultivating partnerships with news media. By funding journalistic content, philanthropic donors hope to drive up awareness of issues central to their missions, spark policy action, and alter public behavior. These partnerships have left donors with the task of determining what forms of journalism translate into tangible action and how they can measure the social impact of reporting. Journalists and media development professionals, on the other hand, have wondered whether these partnerships can provide long term benefits for media outlets that represent more than a simple exchange of cash for stories on very specific issues.
Since its founding in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent more on media partnerships than almost any other philanthropy. With a US$ 40 billion endowment (2018), the foundation is the largest private philanthropy in the world and concentrates its spending on portfolios dedicated to global development, global health, global growth and opportunity, and education and poverty eradication in the US. The Foundation is slated to spend US$ 20 million on media grants in 2018 with additional funding going to an insights team that conducts media research. Much of the budget for media grants is administered by the foundation’s Global Media Partnerships and often directly subsidizes reporting on less frequently covered topics such as health and development.
In recent years, Gates Foundation funding made it possible for the South African newspaper the Mail and Guardian to launch the largest health desk on the African continent and also enabled the US edition of the Guardian to run a solutions-oriented series of stories on homelessness in the United States. The Global Media Partnership has also collaborated extensively with other major outlets such as Der Spiegel, El Pais, the Financial Times, and Al Jazeera.
To learn more about the strategic aims and philosophy underpinning the Gates Foundation’s engagement with media, we sat down with Miguel Castro, Senior Officer for Global Media Partnerships the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Miguel was a lecturer at this year’s CMDS course “Funding Media in a Digital Age” and has worked at the intersection of philanthropy and journalism for nearly 15 years.
Q: What would you highlight as some of the most pressing challenges facing journalism and the media development sector today?
Miguel Castro: The philanthropic support for media and the media development space hasn’t changed that much over the past decade. There are new trends, things that have happened that have affected the way that we work, changes in funding, but at large there hasn’t been a transformation within the media development sector that can compare with the transformation that has happened in the media industry or society at large. The way people communicate with each other, the way people are influenced by news, information, platforms, and the institutions that mediate have been thoroughly disrupted, but philanthropy has not been. There is a little bit of a re-definition, and it isn’t a black and white question, but generally I feel the media development sector is due a transformation.
Q: What sorts of things have you done to bridge the gap between a rapidly shifting media sector and a stagnant media development sector?
Miguel Castro: Let me start by saying that we invest a lot of time and effort into research and asking hard questions about how the sector in which we are operating functions. What are the levers that can be pushed and pulled to affect change? Who are the right actors? What are the media consumption habits of the populations we are trying to impact? We have the luxury of having significant time and resources to ask hard questions that will inform strategy and implementation. We were aware of the importance of metrics, analytics, impact, and that whole world of measurement quite early. We were asking hard questions to the media industry and our journalistic partners at a time when they weren’t really able to answer them. Our first concerted effort around media impact, measurement, and metrics was at least eight years ago, which from an industry perspective was quite early. We had a hard time finding people who were sophisticated enough to have answers. We did find them eventually, and slowly a space has developed in which there are answers, commercially viable tools, centers at universities, and a lot of individuals doing amazing work. The analytics units of some media organizations like the Financial Times, the Guardian, and El Pais are very powerful insights machines. This has all happened over the past eight years, and we are in a different place today. All of this really high-end innovation has come out of asking questions about engagement.
Q: The Gates Foundation has a reputation for focusing on tangible results of reporting and viewing the media as a partner for social change. How do you go about assessing whether a given project has been a success or failure?
Miguel Castro: That is the 1-million-dollar question. As I said before, we’ve devoted eight years of our time and at least ten percent of our budget to media measurement at large. That includes trying to figure out the performance of our grantees and portfolios, but it also means looking at sector-level questions about media impact, how to do better analytics and insights work, and the research that is needed to do better grant-making in the future. This framework [for measuring impact] varies, but it usually starts with volume data, the basic analytics that everybody has from google analytics and many other tools that allow media organizations to figure out volume and reach on their own platforms. This includes time on site, unique views, page views, you name it. Some of this gives you an idea of reach. There are intrinsic limitations to volume data, but you have to start there.
Then, it comes to two other blocks [of analysis]. The first is based around determining how the consumption we measured with those earlier metrics is affecting the lives of audiences. There are potential micro, mezzo, and macro impacts. For example, at the individual level, I read a story, and I am so touched by it that I donate to a particular organization or it changes my attitude on a certain issue. We can also ask: “Is this journalism, this product, affecting my understanding about an issue in any way? Is there a change in my values because I have been exposed to truth that my value system didn’t recognize before?” All of this can be measured with traditional survey work. This ranges from the pop up surveys that a fair number of media organizations do to more sophisticated survey instruments like the USC Annenberg School of Communication’s Media Impact Project which uses a methodology called propensity score matching.
Then there is the third block. This is the most important block for me, but it is also the one we know the least about, mostly because it is incredibly expensive. This is the impact at conversation level. When you do a network analysis of the people discussing a given topic, let’s say education, there is a global conversation that can be mapped on social media. There are plenty of large big data or social analytics firms who are sophisticated enough to analyze these conversations. So, if I am investing in a media organization to set an agenda or influence and inform audiences on a given topic, what is their share of the voice? What percentage of that conversation taking place in a given network is a conversation that is triggered by content generated by that media organization? If this percentage grows, good. My content is influencing the conversation more. If it is decreasing, our content is not really doing the trick. Then, you can also analyze the affinity of the language and the sentiment of the language, and see if people agree or disagree with you.
Q: Philanthropies have limited resources to support media, but impacts can often exceed spending levels largely when foundations focus on a specific niche. What is the Gates Foundation’s niche?
Miguel Castro: Our space is development, sustainable development goals, global health, and gender equality, all of these sorts of things that are incredibly underreported topics even in the best of times. There are now very clear market failures. There are very large media organizations, major global brands, closing down environment desks or science desks, something that was totally unthinkable only a few years ago. I mean science just seems so basic, but media outlets can’t afford it anymore because they have to prioritize their engagement. Politics [sections] will always survive. Sports [sections] will always survive. These outlets also need entertainment [reporting] because there is a lot of consumption of entertainment news. So, our niche is to respond to the market failure of coverage on global health and development issues. We do not want the media to stop shining light on the needs of the poorest of the poor. These people are generally neglected, and sometimes if media organization don’t cover these issues [global health and development] with consistency and regularity, they can become even more neglected.
Q: Given what you just said about addressing market failures, do you see your work as generating demand for reporting on health and development, or are you really supporting the production of something people already want?
Miguel Castro: Our experience over the past 7 years of grant-making in our portfolio has taught us that we don’t have to create the demand. We just have to subsidize what appears to be a risk for a lot of media organizations. Time after time media organizations are surprised by how well these topics do once they do them well, once they have the resources, assign the best journalists, and tell the stories of individuals. These are really the ABCs of journalism that are done so well on other topics. One hundred percent of the time media outlets are surprised by the responses they get the moment they do good, high quality engagement journalism on topics like male circumcision, family planning, polio, etc. It is better if they do this reporting with a constructive approach or solutions approach that is not just about denouncing the bad situation a certain group of people in a specific geographic area, as this is a style of journalism everybody is very tired of. People feel exhausted after decades of this type of reporting. As such, it is important to tell a human story that explains context and also tells readers about who is looking for a solution, where those solutions are being implemented, and whether there are other future possibilities. There is growing evidence that solutions journalism, as it is called in the US, or constructive journalism, as it is called in Europe, is a very effective tool for greater engagement. So, is that enough to make it [reporting on global health and development] sustainable and commercially viable? No, but it isn’t in any other area of journalism yet.
Q: Can you say something more about the issue of sustainability you just raised? Some critics might say that funding a public health desk, as the Gates Foundation has done in the past, is not a sustainable approach to journalism or development because the desk might simply cease to exist once funding dries up.
Miguel Castro: So the question of sustainability is a big one, and it raises a lot of red flags for us. We don’t want to create a desk that is gone in a matter of years, and our partners don’t want that either. So, we subsidize and ease the way into engagement by letting media organizations try new things, to be innovative, to be bold. If something works for development issues, imagine what it could do for sports and entertainment. We are happy with that type of result. We know a lot of innovation has to happen in development coverage and in the media industry in general. For the last 5 or 6 years a lot of the most innovative and engaging reporting has been done with data journalism. When space for data journalism was just opening up, we saw it was something almost everybody wanted to experiment with. So, if we had a partner who didn’t know how to experiment with development coverage, we said: “Why not try data journalism? Try some different tools, train some people, try to engage audiences with this topic, and if it works, you can do this across your entire operation.” Data journalism was for a while our experimentation space. Now, it is perhaps looking at how analytics can be catalytic in terms of effectively engaging audiences.
Miguel Castro is a Senior Officer for Global Media Partnerships at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Castro has worked in the philanthropic space supporting journalism for nearly 15 years, having previously managed media projects at the Open Society Foundations. Alongside a career as a reporter for print and broadcast media, he was also a visiting professor of Digital Media & Advocacy Communications at IE University in Spain.