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The rise of international nonprofit news

“As populist governments gain more power, multilateralism faces threats, and the message of isolationism gets stronger, journalists have an even greater role to play in explaining important international issues and encouraging conversation and debate.”

Nonprofit journalism in (and about) America has exploded in the last decade to more than 200 (and growing) nonprofit newsrooms, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.

They have succeeded in attracting financing: The 180-strong INN membership generates an estimated $325–350 million in annual revenue. But more importantly, they’re providing a public service in America, covering everything from criminal justice to education and filling a gap left by mainstream media on important domestic topics. (Half of the 2018 Online Journalism Awards news finalists came from nonprofit newsrooms.)

But when it comes to international news — including about some of the defining issues of our era — we haven’t seen the same surge in quality, nonprofit journalism — yet. This, despite the fact that readers want more international news — and may be willing to pay for it. (More on that in a second.)

We’re all aware of mainstream media’s retreat from international news over the last few decades. This trend is also true of digital newcomers. Only 6 percent of American digital nonprofit news organisations focus on news about foreign affairs.

In a survey conducted by IRIN, the global nonprofit newsroom I run, our readers found mainstream media coverage of one of the most dramatic aspects of international news — humanitarian crises — to be “selective, sporadic, simplistic, and partial.”

When a group of academics studied the coverage of four humanitarian events in 2016 (the ongoing crisis in South Sudan, the Aceh earthquake, the UN’s first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, and the UN’s annual appeal for humanitarian funding), they found just 12 English-language international news outlets that reported on all four (they include IRIN, as well as the BBC World Service, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera).

The trouble is this: When commercial and mainstream media failed to adequately cover important issues in America, nonprofits stepped in to fill the market gap and received a significant boost from philanthropists and foundations. However, the institutional funding landscape for nonprofit journalism about international news is much more fragile.

In recent years, many of those few specialist news providers who try to provide deeper coverage of international issues have struggled financially. The International Reporting Project closed in February; Humanosphere, which covered global health and poverty, followed suit shortly thereafter. GlobalPost, which promised to “redefine international news for the digital age” was acquired by WGBH; and News Deeply — a mission-driven B Corp that made waves with single-issue verticals on the Syrian conflict, refugees, water and peacebuilding — has had to shut down several of its platforms.

A recent study on foundation funding for international nonprofit news found that “there just isn’t enough donor money to go around. “Domestic non-profit news outlets in the USA are currently experiencing a ‘Trump bump’ in the form of a significant increase in funding from private trusts and foundations. But journalists producing international coverage do not appear to be experiencing similar increases in foundation income,” it said. Only a small handful of foundations fund international news, it noted, and support for international coverage still forms a tiny proportion of their grant-making portfolios.

My guess is that things are about to change.

In an interconnected world with unprecedented levels of migration; climate change threatening middle-class Americans; outbreaks like Ebola crossing borders at speed, and conflicts in places like Syria having global ramifications, deep, broad, and nuanced journalism about these critical issues has never been so needed. And as populist governments gain more power, multilateralism faces threats, and the message of isolationism gets stronger, journalists have an even greater role to play in explaining important international issues and encouraging conversation and debate.

Given what’s at stake, I suspect those foundations at the forefront of this emerging frontier of journalism (like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and Open Society Foundations) will soon be in greater company. And if our experience in the last few years is anything to go by, the tide may already be beginning to turn: I certainly feel a heightened sense of urgency and interest in our conversations with potential funders. Since our spinoff from the United Nations in 2015, we have expanded our institutional donor base (which also includes governments) from four to 12.

My bet is that readers are more interested, too. Humanitarian emergencies like the war in Syria; the influx of more than one million refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to Europe; the Rohingya crisis; even the war in Yemen have all helped re-awaken an interest in international news.

Two years ago, in a book about Africa’s media image, I wrote about the struggle to find a market for the kind of news we produce. But I but noted that “with time, we hope that experimentation, best practice, and an increasing recognition of the oppor­tunities created by an informed international populace will lead us to a more stable (financial) footing.”

Call it wishful thinking, but I see international nonprofit journalism starting to take off in 2019 the way American nonprofit news has — with publishers, funders, and readers alike recognizing the need for journalism about the trends shaping our lives that can engage global citizens, hold the internationally powerful to account; and help us understand our complex world can so that we can begin to change it for the better.

Heba Aly is the director of IRIN, a nonprofit newsroom covering humanitarian crises around the world.

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