November 20, 2014

How Nonprofits Can Navigate the New Media Landscape

is2014_newmedialandscape.jpgIn 2009, Clay Shirkey predicted, “For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases.” Meaning, as print news becomes obsolete, nuanced approaches to information-sharing will emerge that will meet the intended goals of journalism; consumption of information will change; and reporters will no longer be the only ones who are breaking news. Shirkey also said, “Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments.”

Fast forward to 2014, and this prediction still holds true. There are ample opportunities for nonprofits to help inform, shape, and create stories for the media.

At the 2014 Independent Sector Conference in Seattle, I attended the session, “Navigating the New Media Landscape,” which brought together expert panelists: Andrew Sherry, VP of Communications for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Sharon Pian Chan, Director of Journalist Initiatives, the Seattle Times; and Joe Neel, Deputy Supervising Editor, NPR. The session was facilitated by Susan Feeney, Partner at GMMB, and explored the range of new media models and venture journalism experiments.

“As a civil society, we need more quality information,” explained Feeney. “New venture journalism has been incubated thanks to nonprofit and foundation support.”

According to the 2013 Foundation Center report, U.S. foundation support for media has increased by 21%, rising from $568.2 million in 2009 to $687.6 in 2011. The activities funded range from media platforms (55%) to journalism, news, and information (28%), to media applications and tools (6%), and more.

“How will citizens inform themselves and become engaged in the future, beyond the way that daily newspapers have dominated in the past?” Sherry questioned. “The Knight Foundation pushes experimentation [by funding] the tools and techniques.” He shared an example of an initiative that demonstrates their approach to funding — the NPR One app — which personalizes the listener’s experience by curating content suited to their interests.

Experimentation through initiatives such as these apps has synchronously impacted the work of legacy media. Readers experience the media through a more customized lens, underscoring the possibility of vertical news coverage and deeper storytelling.

“The news cycle is really short,” explained Chan. “Shining a spotlight on a problem worked when you were the only show in town. Now, with so many audiences receiving information from different places, newspapers need to think about how they light other people’s candles, and how to get to illumination.”

While newspapers previously focused on creating stories and moving on to the next one, a priority that has emerged is facilitating deeper conversations with readers and showcasing their feedback. “The story is the starting point to create the conversations,” Chan added.

When asked what nonprofit organizations can do to build relationships with media, the panelists provided sage advice. Below are five opportunities for nonprofits:

#1 Be a connector

Reporters are always on a deadline, and they are always looking for relevant people to quote that can offer a unique perspective. As it can be daunting for individuals to jump into an on-the-record experience, nonprofits that have established relationships with their constituents and experts in the field can be a great intermediary. “Nonprofits have connections to individual stories that journalists need,” Chan explained. “For example, if we’re doing a story on the Affordable Care Act, nonprofits have the relationships and can connect us to people on deadline.”

#2 Demonstrate your expertise

“Market through generosity,” urged Sherry. “Contribute something to the field. If you’ve produced something that’s data-driven, you can use that to pitch as an op-ed or to a journalist, or you can Tweet out your information.” He later suggested, “Create an interactive experience [with data]; data can change the conversation.” Neel also suggested, “Use data that comes out of a poll and use it to build a series on a subject, such as the social determinants of health.” For more advice no this, also consider these newsjacking tips from Media Cause.

#3 Know the publication

“Be a dogged researcher,” Feeney recommended. “[Ask yourself:] Have they done a piece on it already?” It is unlikely that reporters will cover the same story twice, so it’s important to craft your pitch in a way that tells a different angle or fills the gaps in coverage. Research the reporters that are covering the beat that is most relevant to your issues, and build those relationships early. Neel shared that he receives about “1,100 PR-generated emails a day.” Your nonprofit can stand out and cultivate relationships needed to cut through the noise by follow tips 1 and 2.

#4 Think global, write local

Don’t forget op-eds and letters to the editor! “While topics might be global, news is local,” explained Chan. “Write an op-ed that talks about the issue from the local context.” For example, during the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, an example of a good op-ed could discuss this issue from a local’s point of view. While both these submissions do not require many words, there is an art to creating successful submissions. To learn more about this art, check out these helpful guides that Chan has created:

#5 Know the rules

While the media continues to transform itself, journalist ethics and standards remain the same. It’s important for nonprofits to remember the standards: names and credits on images and quotes matter; you also cannot take back information that you’ve given to reporters on the record. Also, don’t expect reporters to take in anonymous sources: they are mandated to back up their stories to ensure the integrity of their work. Of course, this varies depending on the sensitivity of the topic.

Also, with the rise of social newsgathering, nonprofits should consider these ethical challenges if your nonprofit seeks to gain more media visibility. Remember: Everything you Tweet is on the record. If they’re looking for a quote from your organization and you don’t provide it, what you Tweet or post on Facebook is fair game.

While much of Shirkey’s prediction has come true, one thing is for certain: the playing field for news contributors has widened substantially. Nonprofits are in the right position to operate with journalistic integrity and play an active role in creating or contributing to the news. The shifting new media landscape requires recognition from nonprofits to identify their unique position to pitch the story as the starting point, and to continue the conversation.

[Image above: Speakers from the “Navigating the New Media Landscape” session at the 2014 Independent Sector Conference in Seattle. From left: Susan Feeney, GMMB; Andrew Sherry, Knight Foundation; Sharon Pien Chan, Seattle Times; Joe Neel, NPR.]

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Joleen Ong
Joleen is a strong advocate of the nonprofit sector’s role in bringing about social change, and the power of technology to make this happen. At NTEN, Joleen is the editor of NTEN: Change, the quarterly journal for nonprofit leaders, and helps to support NTEN’s 50,000+ community members meet their mission through technology. Joleen is a published writer and researcher on the topic of nonprofit fundraising, communications, marketing, as well as international human rights and labor relations in Asia and Latin America. Prior to NTEN, she was the Communications Manager at Social Accountability International in New York for five years, where she focused on supporting programs to advance workers rights in factories around the world. Joleen earned her MS in Nonprofit Management from the New School, and BA in International Studies and Spanish/Anthropology at the College of New Jersey. She has led presentations on the topic of nonprofit marketing, communications, and sustainability worldwide. She is also a member/blogger of the Integrated Marketing Advisory Board (IMAB) and frequent webinar trainer for FundsForNGOs. Joleen is also the editor of two award-winning social justice documentaries that focus on responsible procurement with Fair Trade on college campuses, and military recruitment.