Focus Pull

5 lessons from the inaugural Impact Journalism Summit

In October, Impact Entrepreneur and Mission Investors Exchange partnered with the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University to host the first Impact Journalism Summit. Funding to support the program was provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“Social entrepreneurship, impact investing, ESG, corporate social responsibility, and all kinds of topics are top of mind for many people, and becoming more and more popular. Yet a lot of people don’t really know that much about it. They don’t really know exactly what it means. They don’t know what to do even if they did know what it means,” explains Brigit Helms, Executive Director at the Miller Center.

The convening brought together 25 participants from leading impact publications to spend the day exploring key issues they face in growing self-sustaining organizations and reporting on the stories that matter. While the conversations were rich and divergent, five themes emerged as priorities worthy of further investigation.

Impact Journalism Summit Attendees

(Back, from left): Laurie Lane-Zucker, Impact Entrepreneur; Christen Graham, Giving Strong; Andrea McGrath, Impact Entrepreneur; Greg Joslyn, Calvert Impact; Michael Voss, Stanford Social Innovation Review; David Bank, Impact Alpha; Matthew Bishop, The Economist; Rainier Dunkel, Broadcast.org; David Bornstein, Solutions Journalism; James Militzer, NextBillion; John Kohler, Redleaf Venture Management; Bochu Ding, CapShift  (Front, from left): Eric Nee, Stanford Social Innovation Review; Shijiro Ochirbat, Reinventure; Allison Lee, Impact Entrepreneur Correspondent; Zulema Bebell, Impact Alpha; Susie Lee, Kellogg Foundation; Erika Seth Davies, Rhia Ventures; Zineb Touzani, Mission Investors Exchange; Melanie Audette, Mission Investors Exchange; Moumita Chakraborty, Institute for Nonprofit News  (Missing from photo): Nathan Eskender, Ford Foundation; Almaz Negash, African Diaspora Network; Isabelle Swiderski, Impact Entrepreneur Coorespondent. Photo by Ricardo Cortez

Fewer outlets, scarce revenue

It’s no secret that, globally, there has been a steep decline in the number of existing or new independent news outlets. While the Internet is broadly blamed for this collapse, it is more accurate to say that, since the mid-2000s, Google and Facebook’s redirecting of ad revenue to their own properties and away from newspapers has been a key contributor.

In September of this year, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights, issued a statement after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Journalism Competition Preservation Act: “Local news is facing an existential crisis, with ad revenues plummeting, newspapers closing, and many rural communities becoming ‘news deserts’ without access to local reporting. To preserve strong, independent journalism, we have to make sure news organizations are able to negotiate on a level playing field with the online platforms that have come to dominate news distribution and digital advertising.”

Impact journalism’s position is no different, with all but a few players struggling to find self-sustaining, let alone profitable, revenue models.

Is there room for solutions and hope, instead of manufactured anger, outrage, and fear-fueled paralysis?

Can this new law help the United States replicate the spectacular rebound Australia’s press has seen since the country pioneered a similar measure in 2021? Can impact journalism benefit from the ability to partner with mainstream media or other publications to negotiate a healthier share of ad revenues? What other subscription or funding models might usher in an era of greater stability for the field?

Pulling focus

Matt Stoller recently remarked in his anti-monopoly Substack newsletter BIG that many people don’t realize the true role of the press in a free society:

It is not to validate problems but to link their cause to an actual policy lever. Sad and awesome stories are everywhere, that’s just life under any form of government. In a democracy, however, we must connect our experiences as citizens to the choices of those in our governing institutions. This is how we empower ourselves and link our efforts to real political change.

Stories frame what is possible. Words frame our realities. In impact journalism, it is crucial for the field to converge somehow in defining concepts and using terms that make new ideas and solutions intelligible to all audiences — not just the initiated or the impact-curious populating its mailing lists.

Isn’t there a greater opportunity here to offer what we know Gen Z (and others) are hungry for: rigorous, unbiased reporting on climate, social justice, financial inclusion, all the cultural trends and mores influencing our realities?

Which motivations are shared? Which themes must be covered? How to decide? Who does decide? Is there a North Star specific to impact journalism and can it act as a key differentiator in an increasingly polarized landscape?

Lead or follow?

As news outlets continue to disappear or be absorbed by larger organizations or private equity firms, there is pressure to conform, to regurgitate comfortable storylines, to cater to audiences who might more readily pay the bills. But isn’t there a greater opportunity here to offer what we know Gen Z (and others) are hungry for: rigorous, unbiased reporting on climate, social justice, financial inclusion, all the cultural trends and mores influencing our realities? Is there room for solutions and hope, instead of manufactured anger, outrage, and fear-fueled paralysis?

Impact Journalism Summit Working Session

Impact Journalism Summit working session; Photo by Ricardo Cortez

David Bornstein, Co-founder and CEO of Solutions Journalism thinks so: “We need to rebalance the way we cover the future of business, and the future of economic activity and capitalism. Where are the ideas coming from? What are the ideas that are being born in the world today and help us understand what the future of economic activity is both from an environmental sustainability lens, but also from a human well-being, and a planetary well-being, and interconnected lens?

Who gets to tell the stories?

This interconnectedness calls for greater inclusion and diversity. As she welcomed the cohort to the summit, Melanie Audette, senior Vice President at Mission Investors Exchange, set the tone: “We’re counting on you. And what we want is to have resources for you so that you can continue to do the good work that you’re doing. And, also, to tell us who is missing from the conversation.”

Even at this carefully curated convening, several participants remarked that some voices were underrepresented or absent, that the map of the current landscape in impact journalism is incomplete. As a result, it is essential to devote resources and energy to cast a wider net for collaborations, to seek out unexpected allies, and to observe not only where stories are being told, but where they are not. In a world where the loudest voices often control the dominant narrative, there is an urgency to offer alternatives.

Mapping the Landscape

A recent Atlantic article dissects social media’s rapid demise and notes the insidious evolution that led to social networks becoming social media — from spaces designed for connection to free-for-all distribution channels for unedited content, strewn about by self-proclaimed influencers living for the applause.

This is changing but what is it changing into? In this yet-to-be-determined future of communication, there is room for new stories to be told.

Laurie Lane-Zucker, founder of Impact Entrepreneur, and initiator of the IJS, knows the real work is just beginning: “We are busy organizing follow-up conversations with participants of the Summit, in order to distill further the key issues from our discussion and to formulate an action plan. Our hope is that early in the New Year we will have developed that action plan.”

“Storytellers are a threat,” Nigerian novelist, poet, and essayist Chinua Achebe once offered, “They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.”

And, so, it is pressing and necessary, perhaps now more than ever, to elevate voices that have been silenced, and to unearth and explain the myriad solutions that already address society’s thorniest problems. Through these values-driven efforts, impact journalism can scale its relevance and accessibility, whilst still maintaining its rigor and integrity.

Isabelle Swiderski founded her design-for-impact agency Seven25 in 2007 to help values-driven organizations leverage the power of design. Marrying an MBA and MA in Design, Isabelle facilitates systems change and social justice and innovation work in partnership with NGOs, universities, governments, entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders globally. She also serves as ... Read more
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