JFF Interview: Mary Fitzgerald, Open Society Foundations

[Cross-posted from JFF.]

Fresh from a 7-year stretch leading international journalism non-profit openDemocracy, Mary Fitzgerald is a British journalist and editor, who has taken up the newly-created role of Director of Expression at the Open Society Foundations in London. 

Originally hired to lead a new Information Democracy Program formed out of a long-mooted merger between the Program on Independent Journalism and the Information Program, Mary now works within a new cross-cutting and interdisciplinary Global Unit as Director of Expression, overseeing not only journalism and tech, but also arts and culture initiatives.

We talked in January 2022 about her new role, OSF’s changing relationship with journalism, what she hopes to mobilise in addition to grant-making, and what success – and failure – would look like.

Sameer Padania (SP): So you were hired a while ago, but as part of some big transitions that OSF is making, your role has already changed a little. Can you talk us through that new role and where it sits?

Mary Fitzgerald (MF): I’ve just taken up the newly-created role of Director of Expression at OSF.

I was initially recruited and joined back in June 2021, to head up what, at the time, we were calling Information Democracy, which was a merger of the global Journalism and Information Programs. The Information Program focused on technology, platforms, AI, surveillance, digital rights, and so on. And the Journalism Program has supported fantastic independent media organisations all across the world, some operating in really difficult circumstances, with a focus on building sustainability amongst the organisations and networks it supported. So we were thinking about Information Democracy as “journalism and tech” broadly. It was really important that progressive philanthropy starts to think about these issues in a joined-up way, as I don’t think you can disentangle them – so I was really excited to be working on both of those briefs and thinking about them together.

And then, as part of the ongoing OSF transformation process, my role was expanded. The Director of Expression is a new role within the newly created Global Unit at OSF. When we think about expression at that level – the brief for the role is across journalism, tech and also includes arts and culture – broadly speaking, we’re thinking about who has the power to speak and to be heard, which means everything from the ways that we protect and advocate for the rights of journalists, artists and cultural producers, to say what they want without fear of censorship or punishment, to the ways in which technology amplifies and distorts certain types of speech, looking both at the content and distribution.

SP: How is that Global Unit going to work, and how is it going to interact with OSF’s regional centres?

MF: What this Global Unit is really focused on is challenges, problems, opportunities, potential solutions that have use or application in more than one place. In other words, where an intervention can be scaled or de-risked or leveraged to create meaningful change in more than one jurisdiction, or in ways that overlap across many geographies.

The new Global Unit has a number of newly-created roles as well as Director of Expression – there are also Directors of Equity, of Justice & Intersectionality  and of Climate Justice. And we’re thinking as a Global Unit of working in a much more joined-up way, so I’ve been working really closely with my colleagues at Justice, Equity, and Climate because we’re trying to un-silo the way that we try to tackle problems.

The same is true of the six regional centres that OSF has – Latin America, Africa, Asia-Pacific, MENA, Europe, and of course the US. And in the Global Unit we’re going to be working really closely with colleagues in all those regions who themselves support journalism and tech initiatives, and arts and culture. But we want to join up the way that we’re thinking about that work at both the very local, very granular level, with what’s happening at the global level when it comes to, for example, protection strategy or coherence.

SP: So Journalism has gone from being an independent thematic program with its own strategy to being merged into, first, Information Democracy, and now in the broader global area of Expression, as well as into the regional centres. Do you feel that OSF still thinks of journalism as a core and intrinsic thing that it needs to support, or is that evolving?

MF: What I get speaking to other colleagues is that there’s a shared recognition of the fundamental role that journalism plays in democracies and holding power to account. The thing that really important that we don’t lose in this strategy process is that, while journalism is a very powerful tool for effecting change, if you try and instrumentalise it, it stops being a powerful tool, or you risk damaging its ability to be a powerful tool. And funders have to be really careful about the ways in which suggestions or inferred priorities with their programmatic work can distort the journalism space and create unintended consequences, false incentives, etc.

So we all know that the history of journalism funding is littered with white elephants. Tools that have been built that were not used, that didn’t deliver what they were supposed to, and that cost a lot of money. And I know from the other side of the fence that small hungry media organisations will run towards where they believe funders want them to be, and that a whole bunch of industries have sprung up because there’s funding for them, but these distract from the core purpose of journalism – and we’ve got to be really careful and avoid those pitfalls. And that’s something that many funders in the journalism space are aware of, but the challenge is ensuring there’s alignment with those partners they work with.

OSF is going through a huge strategy-making process this year, so this year is still a year of transition. And there are plenty of questions we’re asking ourselves, which we don’t necessarily have the answers to yet.

SP: What are those big questions as they relate to journalism specifically?

MF: The high-level goal for journalism, which I don’t think it’s going to change, is ‘how can we strengthen, rebuild, reinvent, reimagine journalism so that it can better hold power to account?’ That’s the overarching goal. With technology we’re asking, because it’s related, ‘how can we make technology more accountable to the societies in which it operates?’ – which of course has direct relevance to journalism… But focusing on the journalism question, ‘what are the ways that we can both protect and sustain and strengthen those organisations operating in really challenging environments across the world?’ These are often the only organisation within the country that’s holding power accountable – that’s the bread-and-butter work we’ve done for a long time, and we’ll continue to do. But also, how can we make interventions in the sector which have catalytic effects?

So, you know, running a nonprofit, openDemocracy for seven years, I would constantly be saying, “well, funders should create a shared office space that we could all use, I need to share really high quality HR and finance functions, we need better and pooled legal defence, wouldn’t it be great if there was an open source platform that we could all actually use that was really secure, but it had really good SEO rankings and had a community built around it that could build out this the type of functionality we need.” And of course, it’s very easy when you’re on that side of the fence to create a shopping list of things that you want funders to do.

But now, I’m on the other side of the fence, I’m asking myself quite seriously, beyond picking winners and beyond giving grants to particular organisations, which is obviously a very important part of the work, what investments can we make, which could have a really helpful catalytic effect for a number of organisations working in different regions and places? And in addition to that, what can we leverage beyond grant making to make that stuff real.

So I’ve been learning a lot about impact investing.

SP: How are you assessing what opportunities there might be in that investment and impact investment space more broadly?

MF: We’ve just commissioned a piece of scoping work on this, because there’s still a lot we have to learn. It’s a global piece of work, that’ll report back, I think, in Q1 of this year. And I’d say that there’s more that’s going to come from us as we do more scoping and strategy work this year.

SP: We’ll await that with bated breath! What about the other kinds of things beyond grant making?

MF: Well, there’s also all the other things you can bring to bear when it comes to advocacy, strategic communications, litigation, to defend and enhance journalists’ right to do their journalism, media organisations’ right to operate, to de-capture or de-risk the operations of certain media organisations in parts of the world.

And really, the reason I joined more than anything was that I recognise that it’s going to take more than grant making, OSF is a massive organisation, has far more resources than many others in this space. But even our resources, and even if you doubled them, the grant making would not address the scale of the challenge. And so it’s about how do we blend grant making with other types of intervention? In this kind of asymmetric warfare we’re fighting to be greater than the sum of our parts and be able to move organisations to places where they become, for example, viable investment propositions or are able to work with others and access other resources, which make them more resilient and sustainable in the longer term.

SP: With the proviso that you’re still in a strategy development period, and that questions need to be asked and decisions taken, what’s the general direction of travel for OSF’s journalism funding in terms of numbers? Are you looking at an overall increase in resources to the field?

MF: The first thing is that [2022] is going to be a transition year – it’s going to be pretty much business as usual, one-year grants, that’s the way our budgeting process is working, and not dramatically more resources in terms of grant making. But the direction of travel that OSF’s going – and the leadership has been really clear about this – is bigger, longer-term bets, which means fewer [of them], but more resources, in all, going to journalism. 

So as I say, the grant making budget will be just one component of the resources that we bring to bear to support journalism – there are other vehicles, from investing to impact investing to other kinds of support.

Overall, the reason I’m here is I believe the contribution to the field will be greater overall. But that won’t necessarily translate into a doubling or tripling of grant making alone. And that doesn’t, by the way, mean that we would only fund large global organisations within the Global Unit, the usual suspects, what’s really important is that we continue to innovate and keep our edge and spot new things and take risks.

SP: So can you give me a concrete example of how the split between global and regional/local funding might work?

MF: There’s a lot more work that’s being taken up by regional colleagues. Let’s say you are a newsroom operating in Country X, somewhere in Africa, and you want a grant to continue doing the work that you’re doing, which is impactful journalism that challenges power to be accountable. So then the grant making would probably be done through the Africa regional office [rather than from what was the Journalism Program]. The Africa Regional Office has a strategy, executes it, it gives country-level or region-level grants.

But… if the newsroom in Country X is, for example, trying to build technology, a new CMS [Content Management System] which has potential for application by newsrooms in other countries and in other regions, then that would be something that we at the Global Unit would work with them on, because that’s something which has the potential to scale, and have use or application in more than one place. And of course, it doesn’t have to be technology, it could be training, convening, cross-border investigations, or an innovation for the business model that we think might be applicable elsewhere. So all of those would be the types of work that we will be partnering on.

That’s the difference between the way the global unit is working – it’s looking for scale, or leverage or an investment which can’t be made locally because of risk or whatever else – versus regional grant making, which is focused on in country- [or region-]specific interventions.

SP: It sounds very neatly divided, but presumably it’s going to be more complicated than that as things progress…

MF: So that really is still being worked out. It’s always a potential pain point… If OSF can get this right – the sewing-up of the global and the local – then we really have the opportunity to effect really meaningful change at capacity. And if we get it wrong, then it’s going to be a huge mess for us and for the field and for everything we care about. So that piece of work, how that actually works, is definitely part of the strategy process of 2022.

But my perspective is that, at large organisations, it comes down to a ‘coalition of the willing’. Can you work with colleagues, with partners both inside and outside your organisation, on really shared, defined, tangible, realisable goals that everyone’s motivated by? And when you have that alignment, structure is not a problem. It’s having the right culture and then having the right alignment on what we’re trying to achieve.

SP: You’re moving into philanthropy after having run an independent media organisation for 7 years. How has that transition been for you and what are you bringing with you from that into your approach to philanthropy?

MF: I think some of the biggest impact and success we had when we were at openDemocracy was when we worked with others who had different skills and experience. When we teamed up with Foxglove, to sue the UK Government over not disclosing the details of its big NHS data deals with Palantir. When we worked with women’s rights organisations to expose how women and girls being misled in fake pregnancy crisis centres across the world – very grassroots organisations, feminist grassroots organisations got involved in that one. Or you have really experienced human rights lawyers who work on data rights and data protection.

If we had just relied on our journalism alone, we could never have effected the change we needed to make. We needed to bring in outside skills and expertise, and work really, really closely in a very interconnected way with other parts of civil society and other sectors. There’s not enough of that happening in civil society, where you get real blend of skills and experience and some really unusual and different professional backgrounds around the table. And I think there’s not enough that happening for that in philanthropy. And so that’s a lesson I drew from openDemocracy: that you have to have that range of skills and experience to crack difficult problems. I think that’s the lesson that philanthropy needs to [learn], that’s the direction philanthropy needs to go.

SP: Can you be more specific about what that looks like at somewhere like OSF?

MF: I think this is true, not just of OSF, but of philanthropy generally, we can’t as a sector only be recruiting, hiring and employing the usual suspects. If we’re serious about making change in, for example, areas like technology, we have to think quite differently about the way that philanthropy operates and what skills and experience we need. And I would urge any philanthropy to be looking to do exactly this.

As for the different skills we can leverage, one of the great advantages of OSF is it has a Justice Initiative, which is full of really smart lawyers, and it has an impact investing shop – SEDF – inside its organisation. The Soros organisation has a for-profit investment shop as well, which is separate from OSF.

But we need to be thinking as a sector about how you bring in those different skills and experiences. It doesn’t mean you have to have them on your team – that depends on your headcount, your hiring ability, your budget, all kinds of things – but how we work in a cross-disciplinary way to effect the change we’re trying to achieve. I think it’s really, really important. And we need a wider set of skills and experience to be brought to bear. Whether that’s in-house or not, doesn’t really matter. It’s how it’s building coalitions of the willing to focus on problems and on things you want to change.

SP: People talk about collaboration a lot – but what does it practically mean? There’s a big power dynamic in ‘collaborating’ with a funder…

MF: What I’ve heard a lot of is people talking in theory about how to collaborate, in theory about how these things should look, studying places where it has worked, where it hasn’t, and trying to design models and structures for another collaboration.

Thing is, the only way we’re ever going to get people to collaborate, is if they are motivated by… it can be ambitious, but a realisable and Absolutely Crystal Clear goal. Right? So the change that you want to see happen, the campaign that you want to win, the advocacy thing that you need to get through, whatever it might be, it has to be really tangible and real, everyone has to be bought in to really wanting this thing to happen. And really seeing how those that they’re working with can help effect that change. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. Just becomes a talking shop, becomes theoretical, or people are too busy. It has to be their priority, they have to believe that it can happen, they have to see how those they’re collaborating with are going to help them get to the destination.

And then there has to be really, really high-quality, clear communication and information-sharing. And I’ve seen so many coalitions where everyone’s worried about who else is in the room, and whether they’ve got the representation right and all the rest. And when you start worrying, when you get bogged down in process like that, you’re never going to get anything done. So I think smaller, nimbler collaborations focused on really, really clear and tangible results, with an approach with the humility and open mindedness of everyone involved, but also laser-like focus and alignment on what they’re trying to get done.

SP:  As well as helping existing funders share and exchange experiences, JFF is also about encouraging new actors into the space, new kinds of money. How does that – catalysing other sources of money and support – fit in with what you’re hoping to achieve at OSF?

MF: Even an organisation at OSF’s scale cannot effect change on its own, and so catalysing other sources of funding, other partners, other networks… We have to do that, if we don’t do that well, then again, we’ll have failed.

I’m really interested in, for example, the model of the American Journalism Project – I don’t think that’s something that we would seek to emulate at that granular a level, we don’t have the resources or capacity to do that. But I do think there’s space for other efforts like it in other places, there needs to be more efforts like it at the local and national level. 

[For example,] if local family foundations begin to see journalism as something their community needs, in the same way that their community might need a theatre, or a new ward in a local hospital, or whatever it might be. That’s really, really important. Obviously, the philanthropy industry in the US is massively massive, dimensions larger than anywhere else, but there’s enough philanthropy in plenty of countries, particularly in Western Europe, and elsewhere in the world, [so there’s no reason] that these experiments shouldn’t be tried.

SP: You mentioned that you’re scoping out the impact investing space. The Soros Economic Development Fund – a part of OSF you mentioned earlier – was one of the backers of Plūrālis, the blended finance vehicle for helping to protect the independent ownership of independent media. What role has OSF’s support played in helping Plūrālis get off the ground, and is that indicative of the role OSF might look to play in the future?

MF: Plūrālis is a really good example of where we work in partnership with lots of others, and actually play a fairly small role, but a role that can help build confidence and bring other investors to the table. So SEDF put in a fairly small contribution compared with a lot of other investors into Plūrālis. And that has been really positive to see that fund grow and but also grow independently, not with OSF bankrolling the thing. And where we can play that catalytic effort and give other funders confidence, where we can help create momentum, that’s where we really need to be.

But the real experts in this field so far are Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) [who manage Plūrālis] – I would point everyone’s attention to them, and the way they are constantly innovating in finding new ways to funnel money and resources to the field – it’s super-important – and Plūrālis is one example of that. Obviously, we’ve long supported [MDIF], but they are the field leaders really, and we have an extraordinary amount to learn from them, and also a lot of confidence that they are going to play a really key and important role in the future.

SP: Let’s finish by talking – while you’re still relatively fresh from outside philanthropy… – about what key advice you’d give other funders of journalism in Europe.

MF: This is something that’s perhaps already known by journalism funders, but it’s worth repeating from the field that, again, there’s very few circumstances in which project funding is the thing that will help. Journalism and technology are moving so fast, they’re evolving so quickly, you need to pick organisations that you think are aligned on mission, values, goals, but then you have to let them get on with doing the work in the ways that they see fit [by giving them multi-year, core, unrestricted grants, or General Operating Support].

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written project funding applications one year, got the money the next year, and frankly, the methodology, the tools, the plan is already completely irrelevant. The goal of the project that I planned last year may not have changed, but the way that you do it will have completely changed. If it has to be ‘project funding’, then make those parameters broad. There are smart project grants, and then there are projects that die with a level of detail that’s imposed. So for funders who are hitting the ‘project funding wall’ when it comes to trustees, think about how you redesign those project grants to give the organisations you’re placing trust in the nimbleness, agility and responsiveness that they need.

SP: And lastly, not to do with OSF’s work specifically, but more generally, where do you see big momentum, and big gaps in the field?

MF: I’m finding it striking, although OSF was one of the first to do this, that media and tech is being more joined-up in terms of thinking and strategy at lots of organisations, I think that’s good. I could see that happening more at other organisations.

One thing that’s missing, is that there is not enough audience-centred thinking in this space right now. Obviously, media organisations have to know the audiences they are seeking to serve and engage – sometimes they have very granular information, or even grander, aspirational information about that. But what you don’t see in funders is where and who are the audiences that are currently being underserved or badly served, i.e. by news deserts, by disinformation rich ecosystems or environments, media literacy (I hate the word media literacy). 

There are vast swathes of this planet where people are not being reached and are not engaging with fact-based journalism, and I don’t think there’s enough self-critical interrogation of why that’s happened and what can be done about it. So that’s a space like, which audiences are you trying to reach? Why are you going to reach them? What do you want them to think feel say or do. I have not seen that question in any strategy, I’ve not heard that centred in any conversation, but that’s what we’re trying to centre in our strategy and our conversations.

There’s huge momentum in the US around local news, though whether it goes anywhere or not, is a different question…

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