Not long ago journalism was self-contained, its success was measured according to the revenues that media outlets received from subscriptions. But nowadays the situation has changed, as the market has shrunk and third party donors have started supporting journalists. Success is now measured by the impact a story has.
“The term impact comes from market-based research derived from a military idea. Impact is where bullet meets target, it has a cause and an effect,” explainsed Eric Karstens, writer and consultant, who led the panel discussion “Journalism and Impact: strange bedfellows?” at the 9th annual edition of the International Journalism Festival.
He was joined by the director of the European Journalism Center Wilfried Ruetten and the analytics expert Stijn Debrouwere who looked at how stories can have an impact after their publication. The audience also had the chance to listen to what journalists including Emanuele Bompan, Stefano Liberti, Pierre Morel and Elisabetta Tola had to say from experience with stories that ‘have legs.’
As impact in journalism in not strictly straightforward, according to Karstens, a qualitative assessment must be carried out. It includes the evaluation of impartiality, balanced reporting, fairness in terms of gender, the assessment of the numbers of sold copies, level of reader engagement and the level of real world effect, which is increasingly hard to measure.
Does a journalist have to measure impact?
If a journalist decides to apply for a grant given by the European Journalism Center, one of the conditions is to achieve some sort of impact with the story.
“Being a journalist myself, measuring impact was very awkward. You didn’t really think about the impact in the old days. You just forgot the story after it was published, as new stories came up the next day,” said Ruetten, who has worked in German public and private broadcasting as a reporter and producer.
“Now we see stories that have legs. Cause and effect are very hard to measure, but we have developed our own measurement tool and we can track Facebook likes, Twitter feeds, link-backs. Journalism is becoming more about being relevant and holding everyone, including itself, to account. As we usually scrutinize everyone, it is time to see where the impact of our work changes society,” Ruetten added.
Communication struggles are affecting impact
Italian journalist Stefano Liberti was one of the panellists who shared his experience. He produced the web-documentary The dark side of the Italian tomato that covered the entire production chain of tomatoes produced in Italy and exported to Germany, France, Asia and West Africa.
It all started from an investigative report in southern Italy where journalists met people working in the tomato fields, mainly African migrants working in poor conditions. As the journalists understood that tomatoes were processed and exported everywhere around the world, they decided to apply for the journalism grant by the EJC that allowed them to form a group of data journalists, editors, cameramen and a photojournalist and to travel to the fields in Ghana.
“The project achieved good visibility; we are still invited to present the project all around. The grants give us opportunities to work on projects, to set up a team with different skills. This kind of storytelling is very challenging for us,” said Liberti.
Liberti admitted that what he learned from the lack of follow-up after he presented the project is that every project should be accompanied by a communications strategy. This is sometimes hard to fulfill by journalists as they haven’t been trained to do so.
The other web documentary producer who discussed impact was Elisabetta Tola. Her project Seedversity tries to answer the question of whether the world will be able to feed everybody in 20 years, when the world population is expected to be around 9 billion.
A group of journalists, including Tola, explored countries such as Senegal, Ethiopia, Iran, France and Italy to interview farmers and agronomists who are reverting back to local varieties of seeds or selecting new varieties that are more productive.
The project gathered lots of video footage and data that was assembled on the web and in audio form. When the audio was broadcast on radio stations, listeners responded very actively.
“It was very difficult to measure impact, but we have seen this issue is very poorly researched. We were invited to a couple of national exhibitions on food and many researchers wanted to know more and asked us to be more involved in discussions and projects, ” explained Lota.
Other projects like Rebuilding Haiti, which deals with the reconstruction of the country after the earthquake in 2010, aimed to give readers a factual perspective, but then decided to reveal the possible outcomes of the reconstruction through fictional elements.
Freelance photographer Pierre Morel stressed the importance of a good communications strategy, which includes contacting NGOs and relevant organisations that will allow more viewers to see the publication.
“Give it a second life: it is important to re-use the content, publishing it in a newspaper, participating in awards and competitions to make the project popular,” said Morel.
“With projects like this one you need to keep on tweeting regularly. Also, reach global audiences by translating it into English. In case of news, your story should go again on the top, ” he added.
With projects like Follow the money 2, a visual game that tried to give the Italian reader a choice on how to use public funds, journalists collaborated with policy-makers.
10,000 people completed the visualisation and the results were brought to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was interested in reading about real people with real stories.
According to Emanuele Bompan, a journalist who worked on the project, in measuring impact the number of views is less important than the level of engagement. “When we measure impact, we need to focus on the quality of the impact, rather than the quantity. It is important to keep the project alive,” he also said.
Stijn Debrouwen, an analytics expert, believes communication strategies are indeed the real problem of journalists: “they just present the truth, asking them to start thinking how that impacts readership is sort of sacrilegious. Suddenly you ask the journalist to take a stance: to put forward a vision of how their stories can make a change.”
But with some stories, impact cannot be achieved automatically. In this respect, Debrouwen mentions the environmental journalism niche in which so many journalists produce stories about disasters and global warming, but many pieces end up not having any particular impact.
“It needs a concerted effort that brings impact. Measuring impact is not impossible. There are problems with this, with engagement in social media, but it does provide a general overview,” Debrouwen concluded.
The discussion ended on a positive note, stressing that intelligent journalism includes impact that is developed over time.