There Is Power in Proximity - Reflections on the Skoll World Forum

The Power of Proximity was this year’s theme for the annual Skoll World Forum at Oxford. More than 1,200 participants attended this year’s convening — social entrepreneurs, many of whom have received funding and recognition by the Skoll Foundation, impact investors and funders, and leaders from across nearly every sector from media and technology to educational institutions and foundations.

From the opening session, the theme that resonated in nearly every conversation and presentation was stated best by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, opening next week, in his remarks at the Opening Plenary:

"I believe we honor what it means to do human rights work when we allow ourselves to get close enough — when we stay hopeful, when we change narratives, and when we do uncomfortable things to create a more just world." 

Also speaking in the opening session, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UNWOMEN, Christiana Figueres, lead climate treaty negotiator, and Tara Houska, national campaigns director at Honor the Earth, added perspectives on the power and importance of taking a proximate view of climate change, indigenous rights and full equality for women.

Dinner at the Randolph Hotel with President Jimmy Carter in foreground.

Dinner at the Randolph Hotel with President Jimmy Carter in foreground.

For me, one of the most powerful advocates for the importance of full equality for women is former President Jimmy Carter who has consistently made the continuing struggles for equity of opportunity for women and the end to discriminatory policies a primary focus in his books and public remarks… and he did so again at SWF. At 93, with an energy, vitality and sharpness of mind that is inspiring, he accepted the global treasure award from Skoll President Sally Osberg who also conducted an interview on a variety of topics. (watch video).

Always frank and forceful, President Carter is the kind of transformative change leader we need now more than ever. I took the opportunity to make transformative change leadership the subject for the delegate dinner I hosted at the Divinity School. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter and I hosting the transformative change leadership delegate dinner at SWF.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and I hosting the transformative change leadership delegate dinner at SWF.

With over 100 people gathered at long tables in one of the oldest and more beautiful buildings on the Oxford campus, New America president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter and I moderated a conversation on the attributes of transformative change leadership and invited leaders in the room like Karin Ryan from the Carter Center, Halla Tomasdottir, who recently ran for president of Iceland, and many others from around the world to elaborate on vision, empathy, perseverance, and community, among other themes. This is the focus of the work I convened at Bellagio last summer and will continue this year with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Among the multiple sessions held every day at SWF, we included a track on the future of media which we began last year. Earlier in the week, I moderated a panel that explored the shifting media landscapes across the globe, the challenges news organizations are facing and the solutions that are emerging to ensure that news outlets serve the public interest, wherever they are.

Along with co-moderator, Rachel White, the president of the Foundation, we heard from Jeanne Bourgault, president of InternewsEdith Chapin, executive editor of National Public RadioLaura Flanders, founder and host of GritTVChristi Hegranes, executive director of the Global Press InstituteOluseun Onigbinde, CEO of BudgIT; and Alvin Starks, senior program officer, Equality Fund at Open Society Foundations

We’re all aware of the challenges facing journalists today with diminishing resources especially at the local level, consolidating ownership and political leaders sowing distrust in the work that they do. We gathered to talk about how we preserve independent voices in media and how do we support, sustain and strengthen the organizations that are serving both global and local audiences?

As my co-moderator said in her opening remarks, so many news organizations have struggled in the past few years, as revenue models in advertising have fallen (and crashed in many cases), while at the same time, the news cycle has become unrelenting in its demands. Everyone on the panel has faced these challenges and innovated new models for reader membership, philanthropic partnerships, and collaborative newsgathering approaches that might be replicable for others. Some of that means rethinking a news organization’s place in a global news ecosystem.  
First, some good news.

Readers are engaged and supporting the news they value in greater numbers. In the US, we all heard about the “Trump Bump” last year, the meteoric rise in subscriptions to newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post and magazines like The New Yorker and the Atlantic. Rachel White shared that the Guardian also has seen a rise in readership and revenue with its voluntary reader-revenue business model. NPR’s Edith Chapin explained that typically, after a presidential election, the audience goes down. In 2017, for the first time ever, NPR’s listener numbers went up after the election and only recently have begun to level off. And she says that’s not just true for radio, it’s true for streaming, online traffic, social media, etc.

Your Network is Powerful

Part of NPR’s success, Chapin believes, is its unique mix of local — over 250 local news affiliates across the country — and national and international reporters. Over the past few years, leadership at NPR has been working to knit together its local reporting with national reporting to offer regional coverage that highlights national and international implications of news events without duplicating efforts and squandering resources. That means connecting local reporters on the ground with each other so that stories with national significance can be aggregated for a national audience and connecting local reporters who are proximate with national beat reporters with expertise on the larger issues throughout the organization.

Listening to Media at the Margins

As independent journalist Laura Flanders pointed out, “our power lies in our networks, not in our net worth.” She talked about the low-cost, diverse, multi-platform community media organizations that are doing an extraordinary job under the radar of this enormous multi-billion-dollar industry. In research her group conducted with Project South and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, she found that there are over 3,000 public access TV stations, 600-to-800 low-power community radio stations, and numerous Black-owned media across the country. These independent, hyperlocal institutions are providing valuable news that their communities can use to advance civic understanding and engagement with local issues.

Innovation, new apps, new algorithms and new ideas are great, she noted, but we also need to pay attention to, sustain and connect the local journalism that is already happening and learn from them, because there are also lots of lessons to be learned about how they thrive, survive and serve their local communities.

The Power of Collaborative Storytelling

In Nigeria, Oluseun Oligbinde, started BudgIT, an online platform for amplifying real stories from real people to a national audience. He explained that in Nigeria, the mainstream media is often tied to the government and doesn’t always report on stories that are critical of politicians. The organization he founded which he describes as a civic tech organization uses technology to make public data more accessible, transparent and understandable to citizens and public institutions with the goal of telling “the stories that make the political class uncomfortable as much as we can.” He says their work has made an impact on the mainstream media, which has taken up more investigations stemming from the work BudgIT is doing in collaboration with its audience.

Shaping the Values of a Civic Society

Alvin Starks talked about the relationship between storytelling, journalism and values. “It allows us to understand who belongs and who’s othered,” he said. In his work at the Open Society Equality Fund, he’s interested in analyzing the role that media takes in shaping social and political ideas. The #MeToo movement, he noted, has been driven exclusively by a very strong media value space, from Tarana Burke to an international wave of reporting that influences how we think about gender, equity, and workforce issues. The media provides a “very important amplifying role” in that conversation.

Last year, he and his Equality Team sponsored a “Communities Against Hate” rapid-response initiative around the uptick in hate crimes and created a fund to receive ideas about how we respond to this alarming — and “not normal” — trend in the US. They partnered with media organizations to create content for investigating, understanding and talking about it in meaningful ways.  Starks says when we talk about the threat of authoritarian governments suppressing the media’s voice, we need to take a look at whose voices in particular are being suppressed, and champion them.

Trust, Proximity and Diversity in Media

Internews’ Jeanne Bourgault told us that only 13% of people in the world has “unfettered access to the full range of news and information that they need to effectively participate in their lives.” Her work deals with the other 87%. She said that while fake news and the perception of fake news may be a problem in the West, we should know that in Burma and the Ukraine, it’s at a whole other level. She says we can learn from the experiences of news organizations in those countries and from countries like Afghanistan, where trust in the media is at an all-time high — it’s the second most trusted institution in the country. Internews has worked there to build a network of community-run radio stations, what she calls the NPR of Afghanistan, that relies on local journalists reporting on issues and news that matters to the people of Afghanistan.

At Global Press, Christi Hegranes talked about training local women in developing countries to become principled practitioners of journalism. Once they are trained, Global Press Journal hires them to report on news in their communities. She says international coverage of developing communities has become increasingly reductive. Stories of war, poverty, disaster and disease are the primary narratives that international communities get from the developing world and that’s unacceptable because it isn’t true.

All of the Global Press correspondents’ stories are published first in their own language and then in English. This is important so that Global Press is accountable to local, non-English-speaking audiences as a core piece of their commitment to accuracy. Add to that the fact that these stories are coming from local reporters who know their communities and the perspectives of the people who are living through these events and the authenticity of these stories provide context and nuance to an international audience that is sorely lacking when a reporter drops in on communities abroad. It’s truly an incredible, inspiring program that offers a living wage, health insurance and maternity leave to women journalists in their communities, reporting on what’s happening on the ground there. Where was Christi 35 years ago when I was looking for local correspondents in the Middle East?

Solutions Journalism, Hope and Change

Rachel offered her experience with the Guardians’ Upside series, a Skoll-funded far-ranging solutions journalism project introduced this year that focuses on our ability to act together to create change. She said that the series has received an incredible response from readers, surpassing all expectations. The editor of Upside fervently believes that it is the responsibility of news organizations to not only hold power to account, but also to offer hope and new ideas to readers, and they are responding positively.

In these turbulent times, having independent, reliable, local news sources that strive to provide audiences with factual, actionable information is more important than ever. And with business models shifting and a lack of resources at many news organizations, particularly independent ones, collaboration and the sharing of innovative ideas that work is vital to the survival of news that serves the people it reaches.

I’m so pleased that we had the chance to bring this and similar conversations to the Skoll World Forum as part of the Future of the Media initiative. I hope you’ll take a look at this and other panel videos that are available at the Skoll World Forum 2018 YouTube channel.

Halla Tomasdottir, me, my granddaughter Vasser and daughter Laura celebrating the end of an incredible SWF.

Halla Tomasdottir, me, my granddaughter Vasser and daughter Laura celebrating the end of an incredible SWF.

There were exhilarating, inspiring, and important connections made throughout the week — part of the magic of putting good people in the same place, ready to share ideas and partner for greater impact. This year, I shared the experience with my daughter-in-law, Laura Turner Seydel, a committed environmentalist who found many sessions that focused on innovative solutions to sustainability, and my granddaughter, Vasser, who commented that five days at Skoll was like another semester in college!

Scott and I with Sally Osberg.

Scott and I with Sally Osberg.

There were bittersweet moments too as we said goodbye to Sally Osberg who is leaving the Skoll Foundation after being its leader from day one — nearly two decades ago when the visionary entrepreneur Jeff Skoll choose to focus on social entrepreneurs for funding from the new foundation and in doing so, greatly raised awareness and strengthened the whole field of social entrepreneurship. I joined the Skoll Foundation board two years ago and sitting in sessions at the SWF — something I’ve done with my husband, Scott, for each of the 14 years, except for one — is a special privilege. 

On a personal note, this year in particular, I felt the power of proximity myself in the intersection of the work of three nonprofits whose boards I sit on — Acumen, Sundance and Skoll. Witnessing the impact of these partnerships, from the proximate position of being on their boards, I left Oxford this year more convinced than ever that being proximate is powerful and important for feeling the urgency of need, for learning about the innovations and solutions in every sector and witnessing the change that can result when transformative change leadership flourishes in partnerships of purpose.

Feeling inspired,

— Pat