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New Year resolutions for Foundation's media development arm

Say you’re a journalist in a country where independent media is muzzled. Maybe your colleagues are harassed, imprisoned or worse. Perhaps news is so politically polarised that self-censorship is the norm. 

Now let’s say the philanthropic arm of the world’s biggest news and information provider offers you free, professional training. For a week, veteran Reuters journalists share their experience covering wars, politics, economics or elections. You debate ethics and editorial judgment. You become a specialist in investigative techniques. You return to your office, fired up with ideas.

Your next story is a paragon of accuracy and balance. It reveals something truly newsworthy. It’s full of well-sourced golden quotes. It resonates with “so what”. 

Your editor spikes it. 

That’s a scenario played out for real in countless cases where media development organisations like Thomson Reuters Foundation use training to try to raise journalistic standards in countries where free press is lacking. 

The goal is admirable. The theory is that better journalists make for better societies. Their stories ensure people are well informed. They hold governments, institutions and businesses to account. Good journalism bolsters the rule of law, promotes respect for human rights and contributes to economic development and social justice. 

But none of that works if reporters - even the best of them - can’t get decent stories out there in the first place. Maybe that’s due to repressive regimes, media owners with vested interests or simply because their outlets are in financial ruin. 

The jury is no longer out on this - there’s plenty of research to back it up. “Hit-and-run” training has scant actual impact when it comes to getting high-quality journalism widely consumed. 

We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we do have new strategies we hope will make a difference

This is a problem the media development team at Thomson Reuters Foundation has been grappling with as we seek to give our programmes greater oomph. 

Over the years, we’ve trained more than 11,000 journalists in almost 120 countries and in seven languages. In 2014, we held courses in cities as diverse as Nouakchott, Kigali, Almaty, Thessaloniki, Amman, Suva and La Paz. 

We have examples, here and there, that training yields results. Like Shibananda Basu, an Indian journalist who used skills picked up from our investigative training course to expose corruption and wasted funds in one of the biggest state-run hospitals in West Bengal.   

But is such anecdotal evidence sufficient return on investment? 

We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we do have new strategies we hope will make a difference. We want to address every link in the media development chain from the building of skills and expertise at one end to the distribution of top-notch stories at the other. And let’s not forget the Holy Grail: business models that allow independent media to survive and thrive. 

Cue all the tools at our disposal: training, yes, but also mentoring, legal support, project grants, exchanges, fellowships, events, distribution platforms, newsroom consultancies, experiments with new ways of monetising news.

A combination of all will likely bring best results. 

In mid-2014, we launched a three-year programme called “The Wealth of Nations” aimed at helping African journalists investigate illicit financial flows such as tax evasion and money laundering. With funding from Norway's development agency, Norad, our goal is to train 150 journalists - in English, French and Arabic - in highly specialised techniques, then mentor them as they report stories that could make front pages. 

Crucially, we’ll also engage with 12 carefully chosen media houses, embedding experts to help drive investigations, suggest newsroom changes and get senior management on board. 

Another example is “Perspectives”, a programme we’re launching this spring with partners at the Bosch Foundation and Fritt Ord. Our mission is to increase the professionalism and quality of Russian-language media, contribute to international and regional understanding and advance journalistic expertise through training, mentoring, networking, events and seminars. 

A tall order? Maybe. But when needs are acute, it’s time to be ambitious. 

Heck, sometimes we’ve gone so far as to set up independent news services in countries where conditions are challenging to say the least: Aswat Al Iraq in Iraq, Aswat Masriya in Egypt, The Source in Zimbabwe, and soon a multilingual news service in Myanmar. 

Such platforms are the perfect model of media development. You create an entire ecosystem, training hundreds of journalists nationwide as you winnow down a team that will go on to produce news consistent with Thomson Reuters Trust Principles of independence and freedom from bias. 

From the outset, you think about how the outfit will stand on its own two feet long after we’ve handed it over to local ownership, as we have in Iraq and aim to do in Egypt and Zimbabwe. Such projects benefit other local media too, since they operate on the Reuters model of “wholesaling” news to other outlets, for free initially. That eliminates competition with home-sprung initiatives. 

So you can see where we’re going in 2015: a more holistic approach with a greater focus on journalistic outcomes; projects that go beyond five-day workshops held in a vacuum; and programmes that break new ground, both geographically and thematically. 

Oh, and we aim to increase our commercial activities too.

In 2014, we trained no fewer than 1,330 Thomson Reuters employees in effective writing and corporate communications, in 200 workshops in 24 cities including Moscow, Dubai, Bangalore, Madrid, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangalore, London, New York, Paris and Sydney. This year we hope to take such courses to external corporate clients and foundations, while ramping up our traditional media training for NGOs and intergovernmental organisations. 

All profits help fund the Foundation’s philanthropic work and are built around core Thomson Reuters strengths and values, which essential boil down to a single word: trust. 

For more on these and other projects, see my recent blog: Our top adventures in media development in 2014. And keep an eye on, the Foundation’s website; we’ll be launching a swanky new media development section in a few weeks.

Timothy Large is director of media development and commercial training at Thomson Reuters Foundation. He is former editor-in-chief of the Foundation's global news services dedicated to covering the world's under-reported stories including humanitarian crises, women’s rights and corruption. Before that, he was a Reuters correspondent. ■