Money & Business

"Almost" Journalism: Advocacy Groups Try Their Hand at News

By / Apr 3, 2014 (Zoonar RF/Thinkstock)

Seeing an opportunity to increase their reach and enhance their influence, advocacy organizations have begun to approach content like traditional news organizations. As newspapers struggle to stay afloat, these groups have helped fill an investigative reporting gap.

Content marketing is certainly a big deal these days (two words: Red Bull), but some nonprofit websites lately are looking a little more like actual news outlets than pure branding plays.

And in an age when modern journalism is often stifled by massive budget cuts—take, for example, Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, which appears to be shuttering—it can feel like a breath of fresh air.

In a recent article for Slate, University of Arizona professor and noted media pundit Dan Gillmor praised organizations that don’t shy away from doing news in the name of advocacy, saying that, in many ways, such worldview-focused organizations do the public an important service.

“Yes, BuzzFeed, Vox, and ESPN’s new FiveThirtyEight, and a host of other large and small new media operations are extending the news ecosystem,” he wrote. “But so are Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cato Institute, and a host of other organizations that do serious reporting about some of the key issues of our time. The latter are doing advocacy journalism—coverage with a clearly stated worldview—and often leading the way for traditional journalists.”

In Gillmor’s 2010 book, Mediactive, he described reporters working for these organizations as “almost-journalists,” using investigative reporting techniques to shine light on issues that ultimately serve the organization’s goals.

While this mindset is at odds with the traditional approach to journalism espoused by The Washington Post or NPR, it does have a significant place in the online space, as readers have become more accustomed to a mix of opinions in the digital realm.

As journalism with a transparent a political slant has become more common—think First Look Media‘s Glenn Greenwald or the conservative Washington Free Beacon—there’s plenty of room for a viewpoint in news coverage.

Added Upworthiness

A significant example of this trend in action came last month when Upworthy announced a set of agreements with Human Rights Watch, ProPublica, and Climate Nexus, three organizations in the investigative nonprofit vein. (ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning organization, is less advocacy-focused than the other two groups.)

“We don’t think it’s quite enough to promise to bring more attention to these topics: We’re also proud to announce we’re teaming up with some experts in these fields to get the coverage just right,” Upworthy said on its blog.

This approach, already a good fit with Upworthy’s business model, helps the startup improve its bona fides while putting organizations already well suited to talk about certain topics in front of their readers.

As GigaOm‘s Mathew Ingram notes, however, advocacy groups venturing into the journalism world should proceed with caution.

“[O]rganizations like HRW have to be careful that they don’t damage their ability to [fulfill] their mandate, which of course isn’t to commit acts of journalism but to help those in need and in some cases work with local governments or agencies,” Ingram wrote. “And they must also be circumspect in some cases for legal reasons, which might get in the way of their ability to report on breaking news from a human-rights perspective.”

What’s your take? Is there room for a more journalistic approach in your organization’s content efforts? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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