4 things I learned in Perugia at #IJF15: crowdfunding, advocacy, formats and impact

What did I learn at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia?

First, I learned that I want to come back to this event again. It’s just a fantastic experience.

I also learned that the journalism pack is circling around a few common themes:

  1. Crowdfunding
  2. Advocacy
  3. Formats
  4. Impact

Here is a bit more on what I heard people talking about there:

1. Crowdfunding is a feature, fuel for open journalism, not a standalone model.

The role of crowdfunding in the creation of de Correspondent is a short story, but the implications of the way it was established extend into the way it operates today. Paying members created the business, and now they are invited into the daily journalism experience, led by the staff writers.

Frederik Fischer of Krautreporter gave an excellent overview of the crowdfunding journalism market. He made the case that it is a very challenging business to run as a pureplay platform without other sources of revenue. Though, as Krautreporter and Kickstarter both demonstrated, crowdfunding has proven itself as one of many methods for supporting independent journalism in the world.

All this resonated with me given what we’re learning at Contributoria.

I don’t think drive-by crowdfunding is the way forward for journalism. But when crowdfunding is treated as part of the process it can have a profound effect on the way journalism gets made.

2. If journalism can advocate it should.

There were many demonstrations of advocacy layered onto journalism creating outcomes in addition to the reporting. I was surprised not to hear any defenders of the status quo. It’s conceivable we will witness a sweeping and dramatic change in the way journalism relates to outcomes across mainstream media very soon.

Some startups are going all-in as Fusion.net has done. Others embrace it in more targeted ways such as Wired Italy’s asbestos project.

As Ben Rattay of Change.org showed journalism can be a compelling signal telling us where help is needed and inspiring others to get involved.

Jeff Jarvis, Dan Gilmor and other journalism academics have argued for a long time that it’s impossible not to bring bias to the reporting process, but the methods for expressing it were dependent on the media and models delivering it. Now that digital media has taken over and transparency becomes a feature of the reporting process it almost becomes an expectation.

Advocacy in journalism just requires an increased investment in methods for maintaining trust.

Dan Gilmor went as far as making the case for things that journalists should actively fight for such as freedom of expression, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.

“We can’t be neutral here. We should be openly biased toward openness and freedom. Period.”

3. Data, video and storytelling are making NGO work look like journalism

I was pleased that none of the speakers were talking about their successes using social networks for delivering journalism.

Instead, I heard innovative journalists talking about how they try new things on their own platforms or create new technologies themselves.

Facebook made it very clear why journalists are reluctantly using social networks and generally only for driving traffic back to their web sites when Andy Mitchell delivered his keynote in the form of a product pitch. Making the case for why journalists should believe in Facebook and partner with Facebook was a foregone conclusion to him. As the angry Q&A period made clear, what Facebook needed to do was get back to basics and explain why it wasn’t the enemy of journalism.

As proof that the definition of journalism and its role was being tested through different means, Oren Yakobovich, Gabi Sobliye, and Balazs Denes showed how NGOs are using the techniques of journalists to expose human rights abuses and raise social issues through data, video and new tools.

Videre est Credere, for example, distributes cameras and trains individuals in threatening situations and then uses the footage to challenge abusive regimes. It’s a powerful example of journalism outside the context of a media organization bringing about meaningful change to people whose voices can’t be heard otherwise.

Clearly with some personal bias here, the Guardian feels like it is on its way to becoming the gold standard for all this type of activity. Aron Pilhofer gave the Thursday keynote showing the #keepitintheground campaign, the internal editorial analysis tool Ophan, the GuardianWitness platform (powered by n0tice, a platform built by us here at the Guardian which other publishers can also use) and the structural changes Aron has been making to operate this way with even more sophistication.

4. The threats to journalism are more serious and more daunting than ever before

I was late to join the queue and missed several of the most important talks at the event including Snowden’s chat and a panel about ISIS. But the threats to journalism was an undercurrent throughout the event.

Sustainability is always a threat to journalism, but there seem to be a few escape hatches from what seemed to be a sinking ship a few years ago (see crowdfunding above for one example). While the existential crisis may seem less threatening in some respects, there are many indicators that the transformation of journalism into its future self is not only spread unevenly but that it may be weaker than we want to believe.

Andrew Finkel and Yavuz Baydar gave a powerful lecture on media in Turkey. They described the not-so-gradual take over of production, distribution and access to journalism by powerful authoritative forces in the region. It’s a terrible state of affairs now and should be considered a warning shot across the bow of democratic societies around the world who have not reinforced independent media with the policies and resources required to hold power to account without fear of retribution.

The threats are deep but solvable, as Annie Machon and Simon Davies from Privacy International argued. The worst part is that we can be our own worst enemy – as media orgs, journalists and as individuals.

Around the world people are willingly relinquishing control of personal information to entities such as social networks that maybe shouldn’t be trusted to hold that information. Systematic manipulation of the journalism process is a deterrent to democracy itself.

Conditions are much much worse in places like Bahrain where Ali Abdulemam of BahrainOnline was forced into a year of captivity, abuse and torture on charges of having circulated false information.

Why put yourself and your family through such an ordeal? Abdulemam said,

“I want my son to grow up in a better world.”

It was Abdulemam’s simplest of needs that unified everyone in attendance at the event. Journalism can make the world a better place.