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Nov. 23, 2009, 9 a.m.

Natalie Fenton: Has the Internet changed how NGOs work with established media? Not enough

[The publishing power of the Internet has opened up new possibilities for NGOs seeking to spread their messages. But is this new access changing the kinds of messages NGOs create, or is it reinforcing old paradigms? Natalie Fenton of Goldsmiths, University of London, examines how the online landscape has changed NGO communications. This is the third part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

Publicity — both for campaigning and for fundraising — is a central aspect of all NGO work.1 For many NGOs, particularly the large, resource-rich organizations, responding to a media-saturated environment has meant a growth in press and PR offices increasingly staffed by trained professional journalists. These professionals apply the same norms and values to their work as any mainstream newsroom albeit with different aims and intentions. They use their contacts and cultural capital to gain access to key journalists and report increasing success in a media-expanded world.

Early exponents of the advantages of new communication technologies2 proclaimed that new media increase access and create a more level playing field. In reality, however, resource-poor organizations have been forced to rely on long-standing credibility established by proven news-awareness and issue relevance. They find it much harder to keep up with changes in technology and the explosion of news and information spaces, and much harder to stand out amidst the countless online voices competing for journalists’ attention.

This essay draws on a range of interviews with a variety of NGOs and journalists conducted throughout 2007 and 20083 to consider the NGO as news source and the nature of its relationship to the professional journalist in a new media environment.

To be noticed, NGOs are now expected to embrace all of the opportunities available to them in the digital world — from blogging, podcasts, and social networking sites to their own online news platforms and beyond. Below, I refer to this opportunity and expectation as both the seduction of space and the tyranny of technology. Servicing these different communication channels and technologies requires investment of time, money and technical skills, resources that are not equally available to all. Certain organizations, and particularly those that are resource-rich, may be getting more coverage (often online). But even in these cases, to better secure coverage, NGOs must modify their content to fit pre-established journalistic norms and values — a media logic that has led to “news cloning.”

Cloning the news

Here, “news cloning” refers to the practice by NGOs of providing news that mimics, or indeed matches, the requirements of mainstream news agendas. Davis4 notes how research on various campaigning organizations5 points to increasing use of professional press and publicity methods for political and economic gain. The large resource-rich organizations maximize this political and economic gain by employing trained journalists in press offices that often simulate professional news rooms. As one interviewee notes:

Certainly everyone in a particular section were journalists and intentionally so. When I was there I was the first one, I think, to have been a journalist. It was something new. That’s changing now, and they are wanting more journalists to come in. When I went for my interview, the boss said, it’s all changing and we’re very excited about media. [Interviewee A: Press officer of a large international NGO talking about a previous job in a similar organization]

Every NGO interviewee in this study reported an increase in media-related activity; the larger organizations have experienced a steady increase in paid press officers, most of whom have professional journalistic backgrounds, over the last ten years. These NGO news professionals spoke frequently of how they knew intrinsically what makes a news story:

I like to think I could bring a certain kind of instinct to it. [Interviewee A: Press officer, large international NGO]

Of how they used their network of journalist friends to shift stories:

My football team that I play for is the Press Association. Not that they actually work for the Press Association anymore but they work on the Daily Mail, The Independent, they’re all hacks and we play other hacks. How easy is that. It’s not like the well meaning press office sends out a press release saying “this is really important”, rubbish. [Interviewee A: Press officer, large international NGO]

Of how they perceive themselves as journalists:

Because I like to write the story. Because, having been a journalist, I want to do all of it. Often, the text we give them is used word for word or it’s word for word but with the third paragraph of it put first and then the second paragraph fourth or whatever. [Interviewee C: Press officer, large international NGO]

These large and resource-rich organizations “work” the mainstream news on a daily basis and seek to provide ready-made copy to fill the ever-expanding space available to news in the digital age. This may make these organizations very news-friendly and ensure they receive more media coverage. But there is little evidence that NGOs have managed to change news agendas and challenge normative conceptions of news criteria. On the contrary, pressures to reproduce these normative conceptions are increasing. The result is news cloning:

There is definitely pressure to kind of move on to something that might be perceived to be more newsworthy. [Interviewee H: Press officer, small international NGO]

Those who do news cloning can be seen as “political entrepreneurs”6. Their ability to be entrepreneurial is determined by the resources available to them. These resources include financial aspects (the capacity to maintain a press office and employ specific staff); the cultural capital associated with class, professional status, and expertise; and the legitimacy and credibility gained through previous activities within the political and media fields. In this way some NGOs have followed a “media logic”7 that conditions how they behave — how they provide news gatherers with material that conforms to the pre-established criteria of what news is.

I’m a proper old hack. I used to be on the other end of [press releases] and they just went straight in the bin, not a chance. You just put your journalistic hat on and you think, well, if I got that as a story then would I run it or not? [Interviewee E: Head of media, large international NGO]

As the news space has expanded so dramatically, with 24-hour rolling news and the Internet in particular, the onus upon such “political entrepreneurs” to reach and penetrate all of the various news platforms also increases. The ability to do this consistently and with rigor is time consuming, though not necessarily difficult with a ‘cloning’ mentality. Only those organizations with adequate numbers of suitably trained personnel can sustain the levels of activity necessary to blog, inhabit social networks, develop their own news pages, contribute to online forums, and so on:

So some of this [media work] actually is driven by individual staff members, because there aren’t so many of us. We can’t just hire in things, and we’re on quite tight budgets. It’s largely, who do we know? Can we do it in-house? Can our person who does membership databases spend some time doing this sort of thing? [Interviewee D: Press Officer of a small national NGO]

Smaller, resource-poor organizations that have small press offices with staff that have often come up through the ranks cannot keep pace with the information onslaught on mainstream news sites and platforms of their wealthier counterparts. As Davis8 notes, more resources:

mean more media contacts, greater output of information subsidies, multiple modes of communication and continuous media operations. Extreme differences in economic resources mean wealthy organizations can inundate the media and set the agenda while the attempts of resource-poor organizations quickly become marginalized.

So new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are far from expanding access to, and representation in, mainstream news media amongst resource-poor groups, as much of the early literature envisaged.9 Resources, in particular the ability to spend time and money on keeping up-to-date with technological advances and feeding an insatiable news space still structure access and determine levels of representation.

Seduction of space

The limitless potential of the Internet was recognized across the board, both with excitement because of the possibilities it offers, and with resignation because not all organizations have the resources to invest in it fully. The seductiveness of the space available creates a kind of tyranny for NGOs — a never-ending process of mediated reflexivity and a feeling that they can never do enough but must always keep trying:

We also started using photographs in reports, but that’s now moved on. There is a sense there is a need to not just have decent images for reports that illustrate graphically what you’ve written, but also to have short clips and testimonies from the people that you’re interviewing or, if this is not possible, from the [NGO] researcher. The aim is that those clips could be used by media organizations who don’t have the wherewithal to call in. [Interviewee H: Press officer, small international NGO]

The days of a couple of phone calls, a few press releases, and maybe a press conference are over. This world of source-journalist relations is faster and greedier than ever before. This is paradoxically leading to forces that reproduce existing power hierarchies on both sides. All news outlets are content-hungry, and NGOs need to feed the expanding news space relentlessly if they are to gain coverage. The seductiveness of space invites recognition of the huge potential for coverage but it is only realizable for those with resources and well-established relations with journalists, and those willing and able to fulfil normative news criteria.

The majority of NGOs feel that because of the space that journalists are now required to fill and the time pressures in which to do it, their copy gets picked up more readily and more rarely gets changed:

…journalists are now expected to write copy for the newspaper and write copy for the website and maybe to blog and maybe actually to produce podcasts now as well. So what we are looking at is how we can make the journalist’s job as easy as possible. They will take exactly what you give them. I think that has changed from before, when you gave a journalist a press release or an idea of a story that would then be worked up. I think now we see much more of our stuff appearing verbatim. [Interviewee J: Head of communications, large national NGO]

The sheer amount of news space and multiplicity of news platforms available has also led NGOs to seek out and prioritize the traditional, trusted news forms. They do this for two reasons. First, they believe that the high-profile, high-status news platforms will provide a springboard to all other forms of news dissemination, including all online news as other news organizations constantly fee off these sites10; and second, they believe that these outlets are still the most trusted news sites by the general public and the most closely watched by the powerful. Only two of the organizations interviewed showed any active awareness of alternative news sites, and even then these were sidelined in favour of the “big hitters”:

I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of Indymedia, I don’t know what it is. My view is, if you write for BBC Online, then it gets out there anyway and it gets picked up by everyone. I don’t need to worry about phoning these people up and talking to Indymedia. I need to know that I’m not wasting my time. [Interviewee A: Press officer, large international NGO]

The obvious consequence of NGOs targeting traditionally powerful news outlets with more and more professional adeptness and news know-how is that established news values remain as dominant, and one could argue even more entrenched, than ever before. In other words, the Internet may provide constant possibilities for the fracturing of dominant discourses, but on the whole these possibilities remain unused and untapped. NGOs use new media simply as different ways to get the same story out. And the story is written to fit all the normative dimensions of mainstream news as closely as it possibly can.

The tyranny of technology: “Because we can, we do”

No organization could not have a website, could they? I mean, you couldn’t not have a website because you would look stupid. [Interviewee I: Head of communications, small national NGO]

In the larger, resource-rich NGOs, once new technology has been accepted as part and parcel of one’s media presence it becomes an endless process of revamping and updating. This is no small task, and frequently organizations reported a growth in staffing to deal with the new roles created (or required) by this new technology. Contrary to claims of new technology breaking down communication barriers due to ease of access and relative low cost, the relentless marketing of new software and new communication fads and fashions put ever more pressure on NGOs to maintain technological faculty at no small cost. The endless amount of space available, the multiplicity of news channels all requesting information and material along with the need to ‘keep-up’ with new technology trends was felt as a substantial pressure by many:

We currently have a sense in the organization that we do need to be venturing into new media but we’re held back by resources and time. [Interviewee F: Press officer, small, national NGO]

Organizations with small press offices simply can’t keep pace with the demand of 24-hour news, putting them at an immediate disadvantage:

Obviously the 24-hour rolling news programs are in themselves a problem. They almost discourage things because as soon as you get a news item then somebody else will pick it up and then somebody else will pick it up and so everybody wants another quote. [Interviewee G: Head of communications and policy of a medium national NGO]

Of course, the tyranny of technology is also accompanied by the communicational possibilities that the Internet offers outside of the mainstream news arena. Despite the perceived importance of gaining mainstream news coverage, and the efforts and constraints that this imposes on the activities of NGOs, the Internet has enabled resource-poor NGOs to gather information and disseminate their work more readily than ever before, particularly within and among their own publics. In an investigation into the websites of international and national environmental NGOs in the UK, Finland, Spain, Greece, and the Netherlands, Tsaliki11 argues that the Internet is most useful for intra- and interorganizational networking and collaboration. Rather than bringing in new forms of communication, on the whole it complements existing media techniques for issue promotion and awareness-raising.

There is also a growing literature on the use of the Internet by new social movements for oppositional political mobilization. Much of this literature agrees that although such activity may not point to identifiable new political projects, it does point to unprecedented political activity of a global nature.12 This form of networked technopolitics links marginalized groups and builds counter discourses. It resists the construction of a one-size-fits-all politics by insisting on the preservation of a multiplicity of political identities. Many of the grassroots groups involved in these new social movements consciously reject the mainstream media and seek to establish other, alternative means of communicating their message.13

As with other established communities (such as politicians and interested political groupings on the inner circle of Westminster14), so with the voluntary sector: The use of the Internet for intra- and interorganizational debating and sharing of information seems to have increased sociality and interactivity and augmented communicative ties. Internal communities of interested people are built and reinforced through the networks facilitated by new communication technologies:

We did some work on a very high profile campaign on Internet repression which caught the eye of a lot of bloggers and gave us a good reputation with them. So we started reaching out to the bloggers. We have now what we grandly call the e-Action Task Force, where there’s about 200 or so bloggers that we regularly send information to and encourage them to blog about those issues on behalf of our organization. [Interviewee B: Head of press, UK division of large, international NGO]


It appears that the Internet has given NGOs more opportunity to peddle their wares and get their voices heard, to build communities, and to exchange information and engage in communication. When it comes to mainstream news, however, these voices have been trained to deliver what mainstream organizations are crying out for — news that conforms to established, unchanging news criteria and provides journalistic copy at little or no cost. As a result, the line between the professional PR agency and the large-scale campaigning NGO has blurred into near extinction.

For those that do seek coverage in the mainstream media, the expansion of news platforms has resulted in the tried, tested, trusted, and thereby credible NGOs rising to the top of the pile. These are NGOs who can provide journalistic copy and have learnt the rules of the game. As news now comes from everywhere, conforming to normative news values is more crucial than ever before for gaining coverage.

This raises a critical question: If NGOs are simply doing the job of journalism — putting together well-researched, legally tight, impartial and objective stories — does it matter that it is them and not the professionals in news organizations that are making the news? Does it make any difference? There are three important rebukes to this line of argument.

Firstly, we need NGOs to be partial, occasionally illegal, and passionate about their cause — if they continue to mimic the requirements of mainstream, institutionalized news, then arguably they will fail in the role of advocacy, become no different than elite sources of information, and lose the position of public credibility (that comes by dint of distinction from elite sources15) that many are now enjoying. If all NGOs conform to the dominant “media logic” then they are all journalists and everybody’s story is newsworthy. And of course, by definition, then nobody’s is. This is a pluralism that succumbs to the rule of the market, where multiplicity merely translates into more of the same, albeit packaged in different ways and designed to attract the journalists’ attention — an attention that is increasingly preoccupied with market conditions.

Secondly, in the competitive environment of news sources, those with established positions of advantage and “bureaucratic affinity”16 are likely to retain a level of dominance. In the end, new media is just a different way to get the same stories out, and being able to get it out is still, on the whole, a privilege of the well-resourced.

Thirdly, rather than conveniently ignoring or maybe even welcoming news cloning, we need paid journalists in news organizations to expose the inadequacies and shortfalls of thoroughly mediated democracies if we are to retain a journalism that can be said to be for the public good and in the public interest.

Natalie Fenton is a Reader in Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communication, Goldsmiths, University of London, where she is also Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Media Research Programme: Spaces, Connections, Control, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Co-Director of Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy. She is currently directing a large-scale research project on new media and the news, part of which involves an investigation of NGOs as news sources in a digital age. She has published widely on issues relating to media, politics, and new media, and is particularly interested in rethinking understandings of public culture, the public sphere and democracy. Her latest book, New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age (2009) (ed.) is published by Sage.


Allan, S., Adam, B. and Carter, C., eds. Environmental Risks and the Media. London: Routledge, 2000.

Altheide, D.L. and Snow, R.P. Media Logic. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage, 1979.

Anderson, A. Media, Culture and the Environment. London: UCL Press, 1997.

Benkler, Y. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale: Yale University Press, 2006.

Davis, A. “Public Relations and News Sources.” In S. Cottle, ed., News, Public Relations and Power, 927-943. London: Sage, 2004.

Davis, A. “Comparing the influences and uses of new and old news media inside the parliamentary public sphere.” Paper presented at the Futures of the News symposium, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2007.
Fenton, N. “Mediating solidarity.” Global Media and Communication 4, No. 1 (2008a), 37-57.

Fenton, N. “Mediating hope: new media, politics and resistance.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 11, No. 2 (2008b), 230-248.

Klein, N. No Logo. New York: Flamingo, 2000.

Fishman, M. Manufacturing News. Austin: University of Texas, 1980.

Gaskin, K., Vlaeminke, M. and Fenton, N. Young People’s Attitudes to the Voluntary Sector. London: National Council for Voluntary Organizations, 1996.

Manning, P. Spinning for Labour: Trade Unions and the New Media Environment. Aldershot: Avebury, 1998.

Miller, D. and Williams, K. “Negotiating HIV/AIDS Information: Agendas, Media Strategies and the News.” In J. Eldridge, ed., Getting the Message: News, Truth and Power, 126-142. London: Routledge, 1993.

Norris, P. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Norris, P. Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Rheingold, H. Smart Mobs: the Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002.

Schlesinger, P. “Rethinking the Sociology of Journalism: Source Strategies and the Limits of Media-Centrism.” In: M. Ferguson, ed., Public Communication: The New Imperative, 61-83. London: Sage, 1990.

Tsaliki, L. “Online Forums and the Enlargement of the Public Space: Research findings from a European project.” The Public 9 (2002): 95–112.

  1. A more detailed discussion of this argument can be found in Natalie Fenton, ed. New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. London: Sage, 2009. []
  2. Klein 2000, Norris 2002, Rheingold 2002 []
  3. These interviews formed part of a larger project on new media and the news in the Goldsmiths Media Research Centre: Spaces, Connections and Control, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This involved more than 150 semi-structured interviews with a range of professionals from a cross section of news media stratified by type of media, geographic reach, professional roles, and commercial and public sector broadcasting. It also included a range of news sources including NGOs. The sample of NGOs drawn upon for this essay was stratified by purpose (both those whose main purpose was as service providers and those whose main purpose was acting as pressure groups); geography (whether local, national or international) and size (calculated on the basis of annual income), although it was by no means a fully representative sample. Interviewees included both general and senior managerial staff in departments/ units aligned with media relations/ publicity; but did not include those with prime responsibility for online communication (often of a technical persuasion) where these differed from those involved primarily in media relations. []
  4. Davis 2004: 31 []
  5. Miller and Williams 1993, Anderson 1997, Manning 1998, Allan et al. 2000 []
  6. Schlesinger 1990 []
  7. Altheide and Snow 1979 []
  8. Davis 2004: 34 []
  9. For example, Putnam 2000 and Norris 2001. []
  10. In the UK this translates into The Today programme on BBC Radio 4; the Press Association; BBC 1 evening news; The Guardian and The Times followed by the BBC website. []
  11. Tsaliki 2002: 95 []
  12. Fenton 2008a, Fenton 2008b, Benkler 2006 []
  13. Fenton 2008b []
  14. Davis 2007 []
  15. Gaskin et al. 1996 []
  16. Fishman 1980 []
POSTED     Nov. 23, 2009, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     NGOs and the News
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