Come with me on an appointment to the well-appointed offices of a major philanthropic foundation. Join me on my rounds as a wannabe hell-raiser turned fundraiser, an independent journalist by conviction who has had tobecome a businessman by vocation. During my Nieman year I sat in on a business school class, but little did I know then that my life would turn into an ongoing business school in which a failing grade can lead straight to bankruptcy court.
Today, like many days, I am out beating some very well endowed bushes for support of the Media Channel (www.mediachannel.org), which our company, Globalvision (www.globalvision.org), created in 1999. It’s a nonprofit public interest Web site that brings together more than 520 affiliates, including the Nieman Foundation, under one virtual roof, and is now the largest online media issues network in the world. Our mission is to try to do something concrete and continuous about the declining standards of and public trust in journalism.
This is an issue that Nieman Fellows have been debating for years, in pursuing the foundation’s mission to “elevate the standards of journalism.” But today the situation is far worse. This is due to the increasing concentration of media ownership brought about by corporate mergers, as well as by market fragmentation. This has fueled a growing sense—seconded by, among others, FCC Chairman William Kennard—that our media institutions are now undermining our democracy rather than strengthening it. Merger mania has had an internal effect within the media world as well, fusing the news biz and show biz to turn many TV outlets, in television writer Larry Gelbart’s words, into “weapons of mass distraction.” Reporting from other parts of the world has been slashed, as has much news of civic import at home.
Developing a New Media Constituency
To challenge these practices, we are trying to develop a new constituency within our demoralized profession, as well as among the public, which in every poll expresses dissatisfaction with the quality of media coverage. That’s what mediachannel.org hopes to help do. Our site relies on the Web’s ease of connections to link critiques about the media to tools that can be used for change. For example, we encourage participation in campaigns to get journalists out of jail and protest media decisions or omissions. Through a simple click, we can mobilize e-mail campaigns and link users with other groups who share similar interests. On our site, we can create space for collaborations on strategies and joint programs. More than just a clearing-house of analyses about the problems of media, we report on solutions and offer resources to help achieve them.
To report on these developments, debate these trends and propose reform strategies, mediachannel.org connects a wide variety of individuals and organizations. Many come at these issues with differing perspectives, but until now, there was no one place where journalists and consumers of the news could find out about one another, about the work they do, and the content they produce. Until there was a Media Channel, no one place existed to find this kind of reliable information from all of these worldwide sources.
Just as public radio and public television positioned themselves as desirable non-commercial alternatives to the commercial broadcast spectrum, we were confident that the importance of public online media would eventually be recognized and supported. Part of this confidence was derived from our belief that democracy is at risk when the public is not well informed about issues of civic import. Therefore, it follows that the battle to revitalize journalism must, by necessity, become a critical component of the larger effort to resuscitate our anemic political culture. Despite all the talk about “information super-highways,” we wanted our smaller roadway to emerge as a popular independent destination for those looking for well reasoned, robust discussion and commentary about what is and isn’t being covered and, then, what can be done about it.
Searching for Funding
Early on, it was apparent that trying to change the media with a Web site and media issues network could not become a commercially viable proposition. We recognized that we needed to find ways to attract funding from nonprofit, socially responsible supporters. So we decided to go the dot-org route, affiliating with OneWorld.net, a large and successful global nonprofit online network based in the United Kingdom with hundreds of civil society/NGO partners. We customized their technology to become the backbone for our site. Like many Internet aficionados, we hoped that our evolving space could become a home for much more diverse content and in-depth reporting than is found in the increasingly entertainment-oriented mass media, as well as in staid media reviews. We were also among a number of online media outlets determined to establish a public-service beachhead on the Internet. This would not be easy amid the inundation of IPO-financed dot-com sites determined to turn this exciting new medium into a shopping mall and hyper-commercialized arena for entertainment, pornography and the promotion of old media enterprises.
We are still believers. But after a year and a half in the trenches, we now know how difficult it is to build and sustain even well-known independent media voices, particularly during this era of mergers and consolidation. Sometimes we feel like ants in an age of elephants, but we also remember how the tortoise beat the hare.
The challenge always returns to money: Who is going to pay for independent voices to be heard?
Our first stop in the search for funding took us to foundations that we had reason to believe would share our public interest mission and be willing to help us to succeed. But what we soon discovered is that those who inhabit the world of philanthropy haven’t yet totally wrapped their collective heads—or their funding agendas—around the notion of assisting new media online initiatives. Many have yet to warm to backing old media such as documentaries or issue-oriented series, much less the fast-moving world of the Internet. To add to our problems, few progressive foundations seem to have as a priority the issues confronting journalism or to grasp the Internet’s potential for helping to address them. A few invest money into making media products, such as The Markle Foundation’s support for Oxygen Media. But far fewer appear ready to help change the ways in which media operate.
Lack of knowledge and initiative on the liberal side of the funding spectrumstands in stark contrast to the practices of conservative philanthropies, which for many years have made media a funding priority, pumping large subsidies into right-wing publications, training journalists, and often buying up media outlets. Even Ralph Nader, who has advocated for media reform for years, leaves his thoughts about changes occurring in media to the very end of his just published “Ralph Nader Reader.”
This means that before we can get philanthropists to write checks, there is a long learning curve to convince them that change is necessary and possible. What I have found is that funds to study these issues are often more available than resources to do something about the problem. Perhaps because of Globalvision’s track record in producing nonprofit programming for l3 years, several foundations allocated enough money to get mediachannel.org up and running. They include The Rockefeller Foundation, Open Society Institute, Arca Foundation, Reebok Human Rights Foundation, Puffin Foundation, and recently we have been thrilled to add the Ford Foundation to our funding roster. To secure each of those commitments required months of proposal writing (and rewriting), follow-up calls, meetings and more meetings. You never know how much work goes into raising money until it’s your turn to try. Two axioms sadly hold true: “It takes money to raise money,” and “Those that have money tend to get money.”
We quickly discovered that fundraising itself is a demanding and frustrating business. Folks I thought would and should support what we’re doing didn’t for reasons that range from trivial to arbitrary. Let me cite an example. A foundation known for supporting innovative media projects rejected us, despite staffers there telling us over the course of a year how much they liked what we are doing. They listened and listened. But when we tried to present a well-thought- through revenue and content model that they asked us to submit, we spent months just trying to secure a meeting. They were too busy reassessing their priorities. We read about their plans for backing public interest media in The New York Times only to find out that is not what they really had in mind. (So much for media accuracy!) We watched as this foundation invested millions in one of Oprah Winfrey’s commercial ventures. (Does one of America’s wealthiest entertainers really need foundation support?) In the end, they turned us down without even letting us make the pitch we had spent months fine-tuning. This experience was like the scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption” in which prison inmates are rejected for parole before they even have their hearings.
The ‘Wall’ Comes Tumbling Down
In big media, there is (or used to be) a wall between editorial and business units. In a small media business like ours, it is often hard to keep these two sides of our work as separate as we’d like. I might be a journalist who prefers writing to begging for funds, but running a venture like ours offers me little choice but to get down (and dirty) in the money troughs. This means that time that could be spent on enhancing our editorial work has to go into crisscrossing the world looking for money. We may not be bartering any of our editorial space, but it is no secret that editorial priorities often reflect calculations about what funding might be available. A media site such as ours aspires to be above reproach when it come to accountability and ethics, but we live in a real world where we can’t operate without making tough decisions dictated by budgetary considerations. When I worked for ABC News, I once saw a sign that said, “Definition of network news: When you care the least and spend the most.” In our shop, it’s often, “When you care the most but can only spend the least.”
The good news is that we were successful in our first round of foundation grant-seeking. The site is up and running. Our hope now is that our achievement will inspire more foundations to focus some of their resources in this area of media development. It is ironic that the independent and critical media in Belgrade, Yugoslavia receive more subsidies than their counterparts in Boston, Massachusetts. Much of their money comes from organizations outside that country and from private donors, but there always seems to be much more of it available for those battling oppressive governments abroad than corporate monopolies here at home.
Because no foundation ever provides all of what is needed, a lot of time is invariably devoted to reaching out to many different sources just to get enough money in the bank to prepare a budget, hire a staff, and pay the bills. Since support is usually doled out one year at a time, staff time and resource issues often get twisted around by the necessity of keeping the money pump primed.
I’m not alone in this kind of struggle. An old buddy of mine, now in Congress, tells me that every day he is forced to devote hours to dialing for dollars, a prerequisite in politics that distorts how our democracy functions. I can testify that working in independent media isn’t all that different. And foundations realize this, too, which is why some of them have started to take on the trappings of venture capital funds. Maybe it’s the market logic of our times seeping into every crevice of public life, but most now insist their grantees become more businesslike and find other ways of supporting themselves. One reason: Those willing to give you start-up money do not want you knocking on their doors again and again. So they insist on seeing real business plans and sustainability strategies as a hedge against over-dependence on their grants.
When I’m in a mood to grumble that the world owes me a living, this approach seems pernicious. When I recognize that, in fact, it doesn’t (which is most of the time), I appreciate that grantees are encouraged to be more focused and disciplined. On the positive side, this has had the effect of forcing us do to more planning about hard-nosed business models and to develop multiple revenue streams. On the negative side, it leads to producing business plans that are then evaluated by risk-averse program officers who often make lousy venture capitalists because of inexperience and naiveté about what it takes to run a business. They often impose a higher bar of due diligence than even the private sector. Their questions can sometimes sound like the Spanish Inquisition as they probe for details on the capitalization of the venture before you have even started reaching out for financial assistance. As you listen to their concerns shift from social values to financial bottom lines, our noble mission can start sounding pretty fuzzy-wuzzy. Soon our mission seems to get lost in concepts such as “monetization.”
Sure, to stay in business a venture has to function like a business; we must earn more than we spend. On the other hand, some foundations have to be reminded that there are two bottom lines: One is about money; the other is about public service.
Fusing Our Goals
To blend these two goals, we have shaped mediachannel.org as a public-private partnership, or in the words of Jonathan Peizer, the thoughtful technology chief of the Open Society Institute, a dot-org, a fusion of dot-org and dot-com symbolizing the integration of our mission-oriented nonprofit work and meticulous business strategy. (For more on Peizer’s thinking, read his essays on mediachannel.org.) Our business model envisions providing services for those who want to improve the media. On the site we provide services for media reformers and policy advocates worldwide and also services for journalists. Though not all of our proposed services are up yet, plans call for a section of classified ads, online courses offered through affiliate schools, discounts on professional purchases, and access to tiers of free-based, specialized information, to cite just a few. Other sources of potential revenue are still in development, and we know that if the site is to survive, it will, in time, need to be self-sufficient.
The problem is that no business can achieve sustainability overnight, as so many dot-com businesses have discovered, as so many have fallen like dominoes. We believe it will take us three years to get to the point of sustainability, and we are proceeding step by step to get there in a phased-in development cycle. Our bottom line is that we trust that there is a viable market for what we are “selling.”
Mediachannel.org is produced by Globalvision New Media, a company that was established with the idea of critiquing news as well as generating coverage of it. We have plans for a new syndication service, and we’ve found some investors in Europe where, not surprisingly, there is more openness to projects critical of the U.S.-dominated media culture. Those investors brought in—first as a consultant, then as the chairman of our board—James Rosenfield, the former president of an American television network. Soon Walter Cronkite was invited to join us as an advisor along with other respected journalists. These investors recognized that by aggregating content and affiliates mediachannel.org could eventually help Globalvision achieve its commercial aspirations through a global news service designed to report unreported and underreported stories—“news not in the news”—by mid-2001. Our investors put their money where their convictions are. They, like us, want to do well and, in the process, do good. These investors also introduced more businesslike approaches to us, which we hope will lead to higher levels of financing (in the short term), and a possible merger with one of our affiliates, a leading high quality global media outlet, down the line. Who could have thought that a loud, self-styled critic of media mergers like myself might one day be involved in attempting a media merger? But the reality is that independent media have to build synergies just like big guys in order to survive.
As mediachannel.org demonstrates its global reach and editorial range, corporate underwriters are being approached in a way that echoes the public broadcasting model. One leading transnational corporation is already on board and others are in discussion with us. Many companies want to reach the opinion leaders in the audience we are developing, and this makes our site appealing from that perspective.
Creating a New Business Model
What we now have is an evolving new business model. Will this strategy succeed? Nothing is forever, but Globalvision has been in business for 13 years since being cofounded by me and Rory O’Connor, who also had worked for years as a print, radio and network television journalist. So far, we have done more than simply survive, even if we have yet to fully thrive. We are proud of a prolific body of important work. But can we continue to grow? We hope so, especially if and when other media mavens who share our values decide to leave their unhappy media sinecures, loosen their golden handcuffs, and throw in with a socially responsible media venture like ours with colleagues who want to make a living and a difference.
As much as we may want to marry money and meaning in our media work, we’ve learned not to minimize the importance of running a business capable of making money. But in this age of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and in this new virtual market called cyberspace, this isn’t always easy. As a friend of mine recently joked, “How does an independent journalist end up with a million dollars?” Her answer: “Start with two million.”
We are determined not to let that happen. Economic strength helps any company become more successful in whatever it does, but as the demise of so many once cash-rich Internet startups demonstrates, money alone is never enough. Capital is necessary, perhaps, but rarely sufficient. Good ideas matter as do values and commitment. In our years as journalists turned media entrepreneurs, we have had good times and bad, been upwardly global and downwardly mobile. But we are working to change that equation as we also try to be an innovative force for change in journalism.
Danny Schechter, a 1978 Nieman Fellow, is the executive editor of mediachannel.org and the author of “The More You Watch, The Less You Know,” (Seven Stories Press); an ebook, “News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics l960-2000” (electronpress.com), and “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” (Akashic Press).