January 30, 2017
Miguel Castro is an experienced media programme leader, who has worked first with Open Society and now for seven years with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a #Media4EU interview with EurActiv’s founder Christophe Leclercq, he discussed ways to sustain the media’s role. To him, different types of projects are relevant, ranging from domestic coverage to content exchange agreements and capacity-building programmes.
In the aftermath of recent developments in the political sphere such as Brexit and Trump’s election, would you say that the media have a special role in fighting populism through fact-based information? Or should rather the media itself adapt to recent trends?
To me the answer seems pretty obvious: the media and all society play a fundamental role in creating a proper, evidence-based debate around not just politics but also the social and economic issues. So a free flow of information between institutions is pretty fundamental.
Some media organisations are self-critical and say that there is a disconnect between them and the people. For example, during one of the #Media4EU interviews in Spain, Publico.es said that the media is part of the establishment and therefore the new political forces use other platforms. How do you react to that?
I don’t really know what this “establishment” is. There’s a set of institutions that need to understand what their audiences, their constituencies and the general public want and what their attitudes towards different issues are. In this sense there is definitely a very clear disconnect. Even we as an institution need to do tremendous efforts. It used to be fairly simple, by following the media you would get a sense of what society thinks.
Nowadays, that has changed significantly: conversations are more fragmented and the number of voices is incredibly larger than it used to be. That makes for a very complex picture, in which what used to be called the silent majority now has a process to get its voice out pretty easily. If you add to that the fact that the conversation span is much shorter, that makes understanding what society thinks very complex.
So have we, as media institutions or other institutions operating in the social space, adapted to this phenomenon and been able to understand how those conversations operate? Not really. One example of that is how much polling has misled us over the last couple of years in terms methodological support and approaches to polling that need to be reviewed. So, yes we need to do a much better job at learning what our constituencies want and think.
Could you summarise briefly how the Gates Foundation works with the media?
We have a team that has traditional press relations with the media. They produce our press releases, pitch stories and manage the messaging of the foundation’s leadership, just like any other private and public organisation. Besides that, we are an entity that provides grants to organisation in programming, advocacy, policy, government relations etc. I am part of a team called Global Media Partnerships, a grant-making portfolio which invests in organisations to help not just inform but also engage audiences on topics that are we believe priorities for the societies we work with. These include poverty reduction, gender equality, global health and others, mostly related to The Sustainable Development Goals.
You cooperate with four media organisations in Europe on developmental issues, including The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and also EurActiv. In fact, in the Media4EU series we also talked to the editor of Planeta Futuro. I understand that you are expanding the network of media you cooperate with, notably in Africa. Is that to be closer to the grassroots?
Actually, the European portfolio is the lightest one. We have worked in Africa for a long time and in the US before that, so our working Africa is only expanding but it’s nothing new. What we have now is an opportunity to do more on a national basis, since in the past we used to do more pan-African work. We are currently collaborating with media organisations in countries like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and others.
In Europe we also work indirectly with a number of organisations besides the ones you mentioned. The European Journalism Centre has created a fund called Innovation And Development Reporting which has financed more than 80 projects on issues related to development and global health. Over the last four years, hundreds of media organizations have applied to it so we support it quite strongly with almost 1 million dollars.
In relation to my very first question regarding the role of the traditional media, social media and populism, do you focus on journalism-driven media? Or are you expanding to social media?
You’d have to develop more what you mean by social media versus journalism-driven media. In general we do care about journalism and storytelling, and part of the role played by journalism cannot be replaced by any other type of communications. But keeping people informed can happen through so many platforms today! In the end though, we still consider journalism as the primary one.
Do you encourage sharing content between the media groups that you support? Or on the contrary do you prefer purely original content?
Now we would very much look forward content-exchange agreements and cooperation of all sorts. Personally, I am a great fan of curation, so I think this could be an opportunity for media organisations to have new packs on specific issues enhanced greatly by cooperating and curating content created by others, obviously with proper attribution to the original creator. We have a project managed by the European Journalism Centre, through which large media organisations such as Le Monde, El Paìs, The Guardian and Der Spiegel will start producing content together to inform their audiences in a coherent way about the current migration and refugee crisis. It will start in January of next year and last for almost one year and a half.
Let’s talk about a huge issue for the media: revenue models. Leaving aside traditional models like subscriptions, advertising, sponsoring etc. should there be more support from non-profits like the Gates Foundation and others from the public sector? Do you see yourself as an alternative to EU or national public funding?
There is number of large funding organisations that devote a fair amount of resources to support journalism and in different ways, both directly and indirectly. Personally, I am a great believer in that. I’ve been doing this professionally for 14 years now, so I can tell you that the Gates Foundation makes a tremendous effort. Our media funding is about 1% of the entire budget, so obviously there is an opportunity to do a bit more, but it’s already a lot. However, I would say that there is room for growth in the philanthropic branch. Supporting the media is not a priority neither in the US, where charitable support is almost an industry with a turnover of 358 billion dollars a year, nor in Europe, where there are more than 15,000 foundations. The support for journalism is so small that it is not even quantified by organisations like the Council of Foundations and others, so there is tremendous growth potential.
The perception is that media funding seems to be less of a priority in Europe than in the US. Is this an area where you could help make the case for more spending on media projects?
Well I personally would. However, I think that the ball is in journalism’s court to demonstrate its impact and its value. Let’s not fool anyone: we as journalists, and I am a journalist myself, we’ve operated on the assumption that journalism is important, and that we set the agenda and that people want to talk to us. That assumption is not enough anymore. There is journalism that matters more than others. So when people or foundations make a social investment, they want to have the largest impact possible. Many other platforms currently have a greater ability to demonstrate their value than journalism, so we definitely need to look right at the media industry and have them explain why funding media is important.
Two programmes aimed at improving skills in the media sector emerge from our Media4EU-Tour d’Europe project. One will be targeted at young, bright media professionals: ERASMUS4media. The other would aim at the top management of media companies to speed up their innovation efforts: media4Europe. The first one could eventually be taken up by the EU institutions after a pilot project, while the second should be privately funded for groups that don’t have their own top management training programmes. What do you think?
I would definitely welcome them. However, all capacity-building exercises are only valuable and add something meaningful to the media industry if the entire context is favourable to change. We can create an atmosphere for journalism to develop innovative skills, but then they might go back to an industry that is in disarray and to a newsroom where their editors have much more conservative views, or they might move to the corporate world where the pay is better and the future brighter.
So is the media industry contextually incapable of catering for top individuals who are highly capable? Maybe not, I don’t even know if there will be something like a media industry in a few years. No one really cares about the media as an institution anymore. Their buildings, their salaries, their boards, people don’t care. They want good storytelling, it doesn’t matter whether it is from journalistic institutions or from somewhere else.
That’s why we are thinking of two parallel programs, we see the need to train and develop best practices to energise top management. One of the biggest findings of this project is in fact that editors and publishers confessed they are too conservative. Are you surprised by that?
Well I’m surprised that people are open about it, but not by the finding in itself. I think that innovation is costly, and that no one in a situation like the one of the media industry wants to risk failure. I know a lot of publishers and editors who want to be much more innovative and risk-taking than they actually can be. But there’s also many others who still hope to get back to a time where media was something I don’t think it will ever be again. Their role as the single intermediary between power and society, as the fourth pillar of society is definitely gone. Nowadays it is much more fragmented, and now sometimes individuals are as powerful as institutions that have a hundred-year-old history.
As a European citizen, and not as a representative of the Gates Foundation, you might know about the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the EU in Rome next March. Given the populist developments in several countries, some want to issue a roadmap to re-launch the EU project. Do you think there is a potential to revitalise the EU? Should the role of the media be mentioned indeed as a fourth pillar of democracy?
As a European citizen I would welcome a revival of the idea of Europe and of its institutions, maybe going back a little bit more to some of the original ideas that led to the European Union. In particular I’m referring to the principle of subsidiarity, keeping the power as close to the people as possible. I think one of the reasons why nationalism has grown is because people feel that much of the political power has been taken from the local and the national sphere to the European institutions. It might be an issue of perception, but it is unquestionably there.
As for the role of media, I have lived in an age that has benefited from public service broadcasting, so I love it and I do believe in its value. I don’t think public service media is just for the past, but if initiatives are taken to revive the sector and to have the European institutions support it, they need to be designed in a way that reflects the present.
The focus of the #Media4EU project is currently on two initiatives; one is to boost innovation projects to speed up change, considering the media as an economic sector not only as a communication channel. The other focuses on skills and on the launch of ERASMUS4media. Do you find them useful? Given the slowness of the EU institutions, do you think that non-profit organisations could help jump-start them?
I definitely think there is room for that. I’m watching with interest what Google is doing with products like the Digital News Initiative and others. It’s a private investment, but it goes in that direction. So I would definitely be interested in giving a head start to ideas that derive from the public sector, especially if they are aimed at innovating newsrooms and at entrepreneurship in journalism.Christophe Leclercq