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Rethinking “Sustainability” in International Media Development

September 9, 2009

Look13040As an international media developer, I am frequently bombarded with concerns regarding sustainability and evaluation. Media development, particularly journalism development, is a very tricky field to create project sustainability, and an even trickier field to evaluate using the tools of the day.

The difficulty with journalism development sustainability is that journalistic outlets – newspapers, magazines, radio, etc. – face a whole slew of economic, social, and political barriers, including limited advertising revenue due to an undeveloped marketplace, a culture unused to how such outlets operate in a marketplace, cultures that distrust information openness, governments with a history of censorship, the list goes on. There are a lot of forces working against them, and few if any working for.

When speaking of evaluation, how exactly does one measure journalism development’s impact? Things like ad revenues, subscriptions and readership, and public opinion can certainly be measured. But, if your goal is to promote independence, access to information, democratization, and the role of media as a watchdog over the powers that be, how do you measure these impacts? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it can be extremely difficult.

What I am interested in doing, in the context of this post, is take sustainability and evaluation one step further and voice concerns over how these concepts can actually harm journalism development projects. This is not to argue that they can only harm it, because they do present important approaches and conceptualization to achieving intended outcomes in ways that may not be so easy without them. I am merely going to argue drawbacks that can come with them.

Sustainability is a Good Goal for Development, But It Can Also Cause Harm

Henri_Huet,_LIFE_cover,_110266In principle, I agree with sustainability as a goal for development. Of course we want to think about the future of a project, where it will be once we are no longer directly involved, what it will produce, and that it necessarily has an end, as far as our involvement is concerned. We don’t want to start projects that will forever depend on us, or that won’t provide long-term benefits for recipient countries. And, we also don’t want to promote short-term thinking in recipient countries, since that is very often a major obstacle to their development. To this extent, I champion thinking on sustainability.

However, I also think sustainability thinking can cause harm to projects. First, like all prevailing ideas, it can become too entrenched and difficult to openly question or examine. Second, we might not see other benefits of projects that are not directly related to our dominant views on sustainability, and thus might never begin important projects for fear that they might not produce something that stands on its own forever and ever, or be something we could reproduce elsewhere. Third, we might place far too much importance on sustainability, and not take on projects that in and of themselves help build toward important change, even if our project lives a relatively short life. Fourth, we might get too caught up in what we think of as sustainable and not see other outcomes that are sustainable in other important, and perhaps unpredictable, ways.

The Example of My Journalism Development Project in Ukraine

To get inside of these issues, I will use the example of a journalism development project I ran in Ukraine. Without going too deeply into it, the gist is that I started a community newspaper in a village of 7000 people, with the local high school as my headquarters, and students and adults as my primary contributors. The idea was to create a local form of media, to teach local people how to utilize media and journalism for the betterment of their community, open up channels for information flow, and promote the idea that people benefit when information is free.

The “problem” being addressed: I started this project in Dobrotvir, Ukraine, a town founded in the 1950s by the Soviet Union around the construction of a power station. Dobrotvir was still trying to coffee and aspirin its way out of its Soviet hangover. That means that democracy was still often a misunderstood idea, and considered something the government was supposed to just give you. Media, particularly local, were still largely controlled by government, and thus viewed skeptically as propaganda. Unless you were a local power person, you didn’t want to express yourself in public. Students were much more likely to be humiliated publicly for acting out of line than being praised for their achievement. Moreover, students were heavily discouraged from thinking for themselves, or expressing opinions at all. Adults, particularly ones that remember life under the Soviet Union, were often afraid of trying new ways of doing things for fear of public failure and humiliation. In fact, people generally would rather avoid any reason for being judged in public or creating any sort of public change.

The Perfect Way to Chip Away at the Remnants of Soviet Cultural Barriers to Change

1905-05-20_Saturday_Evening_PostThis project ended up being the perfect way to chip away at some of the Soviet barriers to change in Dobrotvir. My first and most important move was to put the students, as opposed to adults, in charge of what stories they would write (which of course shocked many of the teachers and adults when they heard this, since they were so used to being in charge of deciding what students do) in order to empower them to be heard publicly. I focused the issues on positive stories, including community projects, local activities by students, and commentaries on popular culture, in order to keep things safe early on, and create a positive public attitude toward the paper. By the end, as we gained the trust and credibility of the community, we moved into edgier material like “positive thinking” and “democracy.” Thus, a public forum for expression was born.

This project had many other important benefits.

First, it gave us a vehicle for staging fundraising events to encourage the local organizations and businesses to support the newspaper, and to teach business and entrepreneurship in a former centrally-planned economy. Second, everyone on the newspaper gained very useful computer skills that will benefit him or her even if they never become journalists. You have to understand that a number of these people had never even turned a computer on before, and by the end, they could use programs like Word, Photoshop, and Pagemaker–skills that can last and be used elsewhere. Third, the students were given responsibility over something their local culture would probably never trust them to have, engendering a sense of personal responsibility at an early age. Fourth, we created the first ever non-government-controlled media outlet in the district (imagine trying to transition to democracy growing up in a place where the only media you have ever known were really just rags of government propaganda). Fifth, at least one of the students on the staff is now studying journalism at a university, citing the newspaper as her source of inspiration (how’s THAT for impact?). Sixth, I was invited to help found similar newspapers in two other communities, greatly extending the reach of this initial project. Benefits five and six, and many others, were never part of the original plan.

The Project Can Die, But No One Can Take Away the Fact That It Happened

Even if the newspaper shrivels up and dies in the next few years, its indirect benefits continue. They happened. They set a precedent that sticks in people’s minds. They become another event in a culture. People remember. Examples are set. Important skills are transferred. Other similar projects can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of this one.

The point of the newspaper was never to found an immortal newspaper. It was to bring about the benefits of the newspaper project. This, at least in part, is what I think media development should be, and why I think the concept of sustainability in reference to media and the developing world is easy to mistake.

Had I placed too much emphasis on the question “Is this sustainable?” I might never have started the project in the first place. I’d never started a newspaper before, certainly not in a language I barely understood. I didn’t know the ins and outs of running, funding, or maintaining a newspaper in Ukraine. But that didn’t stop me. Why? Because I knew that even if the newspaper lasted only a year, it would have passed on important skills and experiences that would outlive the newspaper and sustain some form of crack in the crumbling totalitarian foundation.

My Project Evaluation Had Many Unplanned Benefits to Report

My evaluation of this project after it was complete focused on much more than what I had built into my evaluation plan at the beginning of the project. There were so many more beneficial outcomes, and opportunities I took advantage of along the way, than I could have accounted for. I was trying something I had never done before in a community that had never had such a resource. How could I possibly have accounted for, or planned to account for, everything? There were so many more unplanned benefits to this project than what I had expected in the beginning.

Because I had not rigidly confined this project to all of its planned steps, we were able to take advantage of opportunities and incorporate new strategies. We hadn’t planned in the beginning to conduct fundraising activities to buy our own computer (which would free us from the bureaucratic oversight of the school). But, when the need became clear, we conducted a campaign to meet with local businesses, ask for their financial support, and in exchange provide them with advertising and the feeling that they were contributing to something important. We also conducted the town’s first ever bake sale in local memory, which raised the remaining funds needed. This was never considered part of the original plan, and turned out to be a revolutionary success (it broke through the paradigm that students would never conduct a fundraising activity to benefit a school-related project). These two activities were put almost completely into the hands of the students on our newspaper staff, giving them important fundraising management and implementation responsibility they can use in countless other career paths.

Another example of an unplanned benefit was that we worked with the local library/community center to create a page for them to spread the word on their projects and activities to better their community. In short, our flexibility not only helped us be successful, it helped us to be even more successful than we ever intended. Rigidly planning out our evaluation could have easily left these added benefits out in the cold, with no categorization in which to fit.

A Danger of Evaluation in Journalism and Media Development

A danger of evaluation in journalism development is that one can place too much importance on evaluating the indicators defined for the project, and not enough on those that were not built into the original plan. This can manifest itself in a few ways. One, the developers can face pressure to maximize their planned indicators to increase the probability that their project will look like a success to funders, who are under tremendous pressure to produce results (especially in media development, where it is already very difficult to sustain media and measure their impact). Two, developers can become so focused on their indicators that they don’t take advantage of, or even see, other opportunities and benefits (as eloquently captured metaphorically in the following video).

My argument is not to say that we should avoid building sustainability and evaluation into journalism and media development, or development as a whole. It is more to say to funding organizations and developers that it is important to consider their limitations. In particular, I have noticed that larger funding organizations and developers are placing an increasingly stronger emphasis on these approaches, because they are under pressure to produce substantial and measurable results. This can have especial impact on journalism development, because it is a very cost-intensive form of development.

My cautionary tale is that we should not become too married to these ideas of sustainability or evaluation, or we may divorce ourselves from much of the positive change we could potentially create.

Author’s Note:  This post was originally published with some differences (consider this an upgrade) on The Morningside Post, also titled “Rethinking ‘Sustainability’ in International Media Development“.

A note about the pictures: Look, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post weren’t sustainable. Should they never have been created? Or, did they have some kind of lasting impact?

Photo 1:  Courtesy of Pepso2.

Photo 2:  Courtesy of Cactus.man.

Photo 3:  Courtesy of Fordmadoxfraud.

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