JFF #027 – New directions at Open Society and beyond

[Cross-posted from JFF.]

First and foremost, our solidarity to colleagues in Ukraine.

Three resources related to Ukraine, journalism and civil society:

– The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has collected many key resources on the current situation in this Twitter thread.

– Media sustainability expert Jakub Parusinski, who has been involved in a range of initiatives in Ukraine, is also sharing key resources via Twitter, including from local independent media.

– Philea, the Philanthropy Europe Association, has set up a page in solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainian members and colleagues – it’s being regularly updated as more statements and actions are being taken. Please let them know if there is something you think should be added.

Back to today’s edition: Looking to the future

We have a new – and possibly exclusive – interview with Mary Fitzgerald, Director of Expression at the Open Society Foundations, about how OSF’s role in the journalism funding landscape is evolving.

As ever do send us your feedback at info@journalismfundersforum.com or on social media. And please keep sharing the subscribe link, to help new readers find us.

–Sameer Padania

[If you prefer to read the emailed Mailchimp version of this newsletter, go here.]


Interview: Mary Fitzgerald, Open Society Foundations

It’s rare to get an extended insight into what and how journalism funders and investors think, how they work, and what future they see for the sector – that’s why we created the interview series, and why we always post it as a full transcript – so it’s exciting to be able to share today’s (possibly exclusive) interview with you…

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 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.

We’ve got an edited in-her-own-words extract for you in this edition, but to read the whole thing – and you really should, as Mary (👇🏽) is an excellent, thoughtful and forthright interviewee – follow the link at the end of this section…

[The extract below is a version, re-edited and re-ordered for clarity, but entirely in-her-own-words, of the full interview with Mary Fitzgerald.]

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?’

When we think about expression at that [global] level – the brief for my role [in the new Global Unit] 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.

There’s a shared recognition [at OSF] of the fundamental role that journalism plays in democracies and holding power to account. The thing that’s really important that we don’t lose in this [current] 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.

[S]omething that’s perhaps already known by journalism funders, but it’s worth repeating [is] that there’s very few circumstances in which project funding is the thing that will helpJournalism 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.

Now, I’m on the other side of the fence [having spent the last 7 years leading a journalism organisation], 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?

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?

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.

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 [in the Unit] at Justice, Equity, and Climate because we’re trying to un-silo the way that we try to tackle problems. [W]e’re going to be working really closely with colleagues in all [six OSF] regions who themselves support journalism and tech initiatives, and arts and culture.

[There is a] 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. 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.

[2022] is going to be a transition year [at OSF …] with 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]. Overall, the reason I’m here [at OSF] 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.

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.

Plūrālis [the blended finance investment investing in independent media to help protect them from media capture] 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.

We’ve just commissioned a piece of scoping work on [how investment and impact investment can support independent journalism], 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.

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. 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. 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.

[W]e 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.

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.

[W]hat you don’t see in [conversations and strategies 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.

To read the full interview with Mary Fitzgerald of OSF, head over here


Till next month, stay well, and stay alert…


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