Alternate Media, Alternate Funding

July 26, 2016

A non-profit data journalism blog in India is playing a crucial role in better informing mainstream news content.

Australian sociologist Alex Kerry wrote that the 20th century was characterized by three developments: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

Kerry’s observation, relevant till date, explains that when it comes to media funding corporate capital tends to alter editorial incentives. But alternatives are troubled as well: public sector finance often gives way to government interference, and crowdsourcing or subscription-based models are still challenging in an age where consumers are used to free Internet content. Perhaps the answer is none of these, perhaps all, or perhaps a tentative combination of sorts.

Amidst the experiments in media funding is also institutional philanthropy. This is often finance provided by individual donors or foundations supporting independent or non-profit media, with the idea of fostering alternate media spaces.

For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports media programs in African countries like Kenya and Nigeria that combine entertainment and social messages, such as the recently popular MTV Shuga. Omidyar Network (started by e-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar) backs alternate media in India such as and Newslaundry, as well as sources that “promote transparency, combat corruption, and provide a forum for public debate”.

As part of an effort to analyze media conversation and impact, the Gates Foundation supports the Media Cloud project at the Civic Media group–part of the MIT Media Lab–and where this author currently works as a researcher.

The Media Cloud project is an open-source platform that aggregates content from news sources around the world, and provides a suite of tools to explore media focus for an issue, influential news sources and stories, and their language of presentation.

To understand the influence of a media source or story, the project uses various metrics to understand how certain types of content may shift dialogue. One of these is the number of citations a source receives, which helps identify where certain content may have originated or what new information or analysis it may have brought into the conversation. For example, a Media Cloud study on Travyon Martin’s death found that the story was originally published locally in the Orlando Sentinel a week before it was picked up the mainstream press, with publications like the New York Times citing the Orlando Sentinel for the story.

Using number of citations often helps discover where a story originated from, or reveals certain information or value a source brought into the topic conversation.

A recent study conducted by the Media Cloud project for the Gates Foundation, focused on exploring coverage of women’s issues in Indian news media; this specifically looked at the issues of ‘dowry’ and female feticide. The list of sources investigated included mainstream and local newspapers, government publications, digital-only sources, and blogs. The data gathered covered a period of 12-months in 2015-2016.

The platform offers a tool to allow sources for each investigation to be ordered and visualized by individual metrics. Figure 1 below, for the data gathered on female feticide, shows sources as nodes sized in proportion to their influence based on the number of citations received.

Figure 1: Most frequently cited sources (based on number of times a source was linked to) in India discussing female feticide
Figure 1: Most frequently cited sources (based on number of times a source was linked to) in India discussing female feticide

Amidst the usual suspects in the list of influential news sources are mainstream newspapers such as The Times of India, The Hindu,and the Hindustan Times. Along with these however, is a data journalism blog called India Spend (grey node on the top right-hand side of the picture).

When looking at influential individual stories on female feticide using the same citations metric, the most oft cited story is also by India Spend, titled ‘#SelfieWithDaughter: Can India Save 23 Million Girls?” The #SelfieWithDaughter was a campaign started by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2015 to bring attention to the low gender ratio. Figure 2 shows a snippet of the India Spend story, which carried UN and India census data on the sex ratio in the country differentiated by factors such as urban-rural and individual states.

Figure 2: Snippet of the India Spend story on female feticide, cited most often by other news sources
Figure 2: Snippet of the India Spend story on female feticide, cited most often by other news sources

Research on the issue of ‘dowry’ in Indian news sources continues to show India Spend as an influential source even there. Figure 3 shows the map of frequently cited sources for this topic, with India Spend reflected as a significant node (top-centre of image) amidst mainstream news sources such as NDTV, Aaj Tak, Hindustan Times, Times of India, and The Indian Express.

Figure 3: Most frequently cited sources (based on number of times a source was linked to) in India discussing dowry
Figure 3: Most frequently cited sources (based on number of times a source was linked to) in India discussing dowry

Again, as in the female feticide issue, the most frequently cited story amidst ‘dowry’ stories carried by Indian news sources, was by India Spend. This one (snippet in Figure 4), titled “Don’t Report It: How Bihar Fights Crime”, carried the analysis of an investigation done exploring different data sets to prove how the India state of Bihar was underreporting crime.

Figure 4: Snippet of the India Spend story on dowry, cited most often by other news sources

Between the issues of female feticide and ‘dowry’, India Spend stories were cited by mainstream newspapers like the Hindustan Times and Business Standard, as well as other digital publications like, Firstpost, and The Wire.

The presence of India Spend as an influential source in both these studies is important.

India Spend was started in 2011 by the former Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg TV India, Govindraj Ethiraj. The focus of the initiative was to decode important data from often difficult to read and interpret government records, as well as provide quantitative analysis by looking across various data sets. The objective at large was to encourage more informed and data-driven conversations, and thus enable citizens to participate in governance and government accountability.

Registered as a non-profit, India Spend has received funding from the Bangalore-based philanthropist Rohini Nilekani. While such a source may not be captured as influential based on traditional metrics such as number of clicks, readership size, or social media shares, their articles and content often get cited by mainstream press for their data- based evidence or research credibility, informing debate in larger publications.

Similar to India Spend, the ‘dowry’ study also revealed an influential story by PRS Legislative that reported the findings of a parliamentary committee constituted to suggest criminal law reforms for violence against women. PRS Legislative collects data and resources on legislative and parliamentary proceedings as well as governance initiatives, with the aim of fostering civic engagement and citizen accountability. The distillation of such complex data removes an important barrier in reporting it.

Both PRS Legislative and India Spend are run as non-profits and have been supported by philanthropy.

For many philanthropists today, programs or campaigns aimed at social change, are seen as investments whose impact is important to track. This is both for the purpose of whether the intervention was effective as a proportion of the resources deployed, and for any unexpected positive or negative externalities it may have created.

Media Cloud’s research proving the impact of alternate media spaces such as India Spend and PRS Legislative, suggests that individual donations, subscriptions, or institutional philanthropy may indeed be worthy investments.