18 Jan 2012

Running a hybrid - NGO and media cultures combine

A little while ago, I posted an old op-ed column by Rakesh Rajani, in which he asked "What if NGOs were newspapers?" And I promised to follow it up with some thoughts on our situation here at Daraja, where we are an NGO that runs newspapers, to see how accurate Rakesh's ideas were. Well, here goes.

Rakesh's main point was that NGOs are not subject to the strict deadlines that rule newspapers' work, or to the same kind of pressure that newspapers face to give readers what they want. A reporter who misses a deadline finds that their story isn't published. A newspaper that comes out late risks missing out on sales and undermining their readers' trust. And if a newspaper writes about things that don't interest their readers then that paper won't get bought again. The nearest equivalent pressures on NGOs have often very little to do with the community - their "beneficiaries" - and more to do with keeping their donors happy.

In other words, NGOs aren't as strongly accountable to the community as newspapers for doing their work on time or for doing it well.

To be fair to NGOs, there are some that manage to serve multiple masters pretty well - the community, their donors, their board. And there are often very good reasons for missing deadlines. Rushing work to meet a deadline can mean that quality slips, as any newspaper editor or designer will confirm. This is a problem that newspaper have no choice but to contend with, but one which NGOs can avoid.

So how does this play out in practice?

Well, as an NGO running newspapers we are subject to the pressures of both. We can't afford to miss deadlines, to put out papers that readers won't buy, or to upset our donors too much by straying from our main objective - to make local government more responsive and accountable.  Our donor support means we're under less financial pressure than a newspaper that's funded only by sales and advertising, but unless we get readers and advertisers, the papers won't survive long. All this can make life complicated, creating some tensions that are not easy to resolve.

How do we balance quality versus quantity, for example? Should we expand to new regions with Kwanza Jamii, or focus on raising the standard of our existing papers? Should we make Kwanza Jamii Njombe weekly (rather than fortnightly)? This would create a better relationship with our readers, although it would also put quality at risk by adding extra pressure on the editor and his team putting the paper together?

And what if the big local story of the week has no direct connection to local government accountability - the funeral of a local MP's relative, for example? Should we push stories like that aside to make more room for something that we think is more important but which less people will really want to read? In practise, we try to find a balance, and of course to make the important content as interesting and attractive as possible. But trying to produce creative and attractive content on local government budgets, for example, under a tight deadline is tough.

There's a cultural issue as well. Our office is made up of some people with NGO backgrounds, others with media experience, and a couple of people with both. For the media people, working long hours in order to meet deadlines is expected and accepted without complaint, and the need to keep readers happy is deeply engrained. I suggested that we could skip an issue over Christmas, but they said no, saying that we would lose readers' trust and respect as a result. As a result, the Kwanza Jamii Iringa team spent Christmas Day in the office. Not many NGOs in Tanzania would be able to persuade their staff to do the same, but these guys persuaded me to let them do it.

On the other hand, for the staff with NGO backgrounds, the focus on quality is clear. Texts are edited, re-written, re-edited and sent round for comments and/or approval before anything is finalised - a luxury that a newspaper can't really afford.

To finish, an idea: we could separate our papers' staff out into two separate organisations. An NGO (Daraja) would work on the public interest content, focussing on producing quality content related to local government accountability, under a little less deadline pressure. And a private sector organisation would produce the parts of the paper that have little or no relation to local government accountability - sports news, for example - and handling issues of distribution and advertising. The private business would be free to make a profit, giving them a strong incentive to produce a popular paper. And the NGO would be able to concentrate on what interests us most - making local government more responsive and accountable. Any thoughts?