JFF #003: The blurring lines of journalism

[Cross-posted from the Journalism Funders Forum website, where you can sign up for this newsletter.]

This month, we’re looking at how boundaries in the journalism field are blurring and how different actors are taking advantage to try new things out. 


  • Journalism is transitioning from a more or less coherent industry to a highly varied and diverse range of practices.
  • NGOs and funders – alongside trying to influence media – have begun backing or setting up independent journalism units, usually on themes they care about.
  • Others in journalism are focusing on developing and upgrading the infrastructure and connective tissue of the field – its tech, collaboration and organisational development.
  • And with “live journalism” opening up new avenues for engagement and revenue, some are exploring how journalism and theatre/performance intersect.
  • Although blurring boundaries and hybrid approaches raise new questions, they also help us think about new forms of value in journalism and reaffirm the core values of public-interest journalism.

We hope you’ll enjoy the reading and we’re keen to get your feedback. We’re collating our resources in a commentable Google sheet, as ever – please jump over and tell us anything you think we’ve missed, e.g. research, articles, links and resources.

Journalism in the time of flux

What journalism is, and who’s allowed to say they’re doing it has always been a shifting area. As Dutch academics Mark Deuze and Tamara Witschge put it in 2017, “Journalism is transitioning from a more or less coherent industry to a highly varied and diverse range of practices,” so you can either “rally the troops, close ranks [or] dive, head first, into the chaos”. 

If you’re interested, Deuze, Wiebke Loosen and other researchers are trying to help us navigate that chaos by building X_Journalism, a collaborative database of types of journalism (here was their original attempt). And another project, Worlds of Journalism, has given rise to a wealth of studies on different and evolving journalism cultures worldwide. 

Deuze and Witschge conclude that “going beyond boundaries is what is productive in this time of flux”. They’re talking to fellow academics about what to research in journalism, but it applies to doing and funding journalism too. 

So we’re going to carve three pathways for you through this tangled forest.

Civil society, funders and public interest journalism

Think back just ten years, to the era of alternative media and indymedia. Civil society, activists and funders spent time and effort trying to influence the news – by persuadingsupporting and incentivising journalists and media to cover their topics and issues of concern (and monitoring how they do it). This is still the case, and while there are critiques, there are people working to ensure these relationships are as productive as possible

In recent years, many in civil society have integrated journalistic techniques and/or journalists into their teams – not just to do communications or advocacy work, but in journalistic roles (like at Global Witness). 

Recently, however, a few organisations – funders included – are coming to understand that supporting or even setting up independent investigative and public-interest journalism units can be a viable and credible alternative. We’ve long had, and increasingly grown to appreciate, for-profit trade and specialist publications covering important beats like housing and finance. But these newer, largely non-profit units are funded or incubated by foundations or NGOs to investigate and report on, yes, the issue areas they care about, but they are staffed and run by journalists, and, crucially, are strictly editorially independent. 

A wholly unexhaustive and unscientific selection might include, for example, newsrooms doing investigations and producing newswires focused on the environment (Greenpeace-funded Unearthed, and Climate Foundation-funded Carbon Brief), human rights and supply chain issues (Humanity United-funded Modern Slavery section at the Guardian, and multi-donor-funded Transparentem), technology and the public interest (multi-donor-funded The Markup), and illicit financial flows (Dutch independent Follow The Money, and the Tax Justice Network-incubated). 

Do you know any other examples? Send them our way via klomp@ejc.net or tweet to @sdp or @ejcnet

Some are uncomfortable with this model – whether because they think it challenges what they feel are clear boundaries between journalism and advocacy, for example, or because it diverts potential funding from other topic-neutral public-interest journalism organisations. Others accept it as a diversification of the field, and others still celebrate it as, for example, “stakeholder media“, or an evolution of our monitory democracy

What’s next? Maybe the next time you encounter a fundraising leaflet in your newspaper, it will include independent journalism as one of the things your donation will make possible.

Organisations providing infrastructural and technical support to journalism

As incumbents shrink, merge, disappear, the field of journalism is developing new forms of infrastructure and systems of support – organisational, technological and intersectional. 

Of course, we know about cross-border journalism networks, which provide a powerful scaffolding for investigative and other journalists to collaborate, coordinate and share across borders, with powerful and lasting effects.

This kind of collaboration is growing inside borders too. As power in many countries devolves from central government to various local and regional authorities, this has exposed significant gaps in the public’s access to information and scrutiny of power, especially at the local level. In-country networks like the UK’s Bureau Local can help. It provides a platform for many other social actors (including lawyers, information activists and concerned citizens) to collaborate and work on investigations in a coordinated way with high-quality tools (and is being adapted by Correctiv in Germany). And the multi-foundation Civitates Fund is supporting a range of new & existing national coalitions (including journalists) in Europe to help protect civic space and the digital public sphere. 

Field networks like GIJN can provide connective tissue for the diverse and emerging interests and actors in their respective fields. Others have gone further, by providing actual back-office services to media (e.g. the freelancer-focused De Cooperatie in the Netherlands, and the US-based News Revenue Hub), or, in the open source field, to developers (through the Centre for the Cultivation of Technology). Might these models spread further? 

And as researchers tell us that ‘hybridity’ is, like, so 2017, perhaps funders are becoming more open to journalism-focused tech groups (e.g. OpenNewsMeedanSourceFabric), or to organisations that blur the boundaries of media, technology, data and advocacy (including election-monitoring initiatives like the West African Situation Rooms).

From digital actors to physical actors

A growing number of journalism organisations large and small are branching out into live events – from fact-checking to storytelling to civic engagement experiences – which can bring brand and financial value as well as social value. (Sameer has been tracking examples here, following on from his 2017 IJF panel with Danish, Dutch and French examples.) 

A related emerging trend blends journalism and theatre, using theatrical techniques and genres – current affairs, documentary, verbatim, testimony, even headphone-based – based on journalistic material and investigations. Organisations like Bureau Local have collaborated with theatre-makers to create pieces based on their investigative work. (Reveal in the US, among others, has done similar work.) In contrast to his day-job as Head of Digital Delivery at the FT, Robin Kwong has set up a Contemporary Narratives Lab with academic and theatre partners to explore this area too. We’d love to hear of other examples from around Europe and beyond! 

We hope that gives you a few jumping-off points into all that chaos. 

As will a hot-off-the-presses report we haven’t had time to read yet – US-based funding network Media Impact Funders has just released Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. Sounds right up your – and our – street. 

(And Sameer was interviewed about media and philanthropy for CAF’s Giving Thought podcast – one for your commute.)

What else we’re reading this month

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