"Content will remain king": Marjorie Rouse about the media in the changing world

Interview with Marjorie Rouse, Senior Vice President of Programs in Internews (USA).


February 18, 2016

00:15 Hello, you are watching ‘Line of Contact’ show and today we are hosting Marjorie Rouse, who is a Senior Vice President for Programs in Internews. Thanks for joining us, welcome.

00:27 Thank you for having me.

00:28 I just would like to say that Marjorie, she is also running programs of Internews and development of the programs, so we will probably speak about a bit global issues, global journalism and global trends, how things are changing. But to start with, I would like to ask a little bit about Internews, because I think everyone heard about it. But how it started, what it does? Just in a couple of words, so everybody knows and we are all on the same page.

00:28 Well, Internews is over thirty years old now and actually got its roots in peacebuilding. Some of the earliest programs were in the 80s, looking at the then-Soviet Union and the United States and the ability for dialogue and media to play a really important role in diffusing conflict. So there were ‘Telemosti’ between the US and the Soviet Union, between Washington and Moscow, a capital-capital series. And I think as I look back on that period, I was at that time a journalist myself living in Moscow, not working for Internews but knew of the program. And many of the same values are brought to the work today, and that was looking at information and dialogue as a way to empower people; to look at peacebuilding, to use new technology, twenty-five, thirty years ago new technology was satellite. There was one series with Pete Jennings an American TV anchor called “Capital to capital” that was between the supreme Soviet and US capital. There were some done with, you know, a village in Siberia or some place in a more remote area and a village in the Midwest in the US. So different ways to bring different people together from leaders down to ordinary people to have a conversation about issues with the goal of diffusing conflict and increasing understanding. And I look at both how media has changed in those 30 plus years and also how Internews has changed. Our earliest programs were in the former Soviet Union.

02:37 So you have started from the Soviet Union.

02:38 We started from there because that’s where peacebuilding work had been and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall our deepest networks were actually with media all across Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, South Caucasus, who found themselves in a period of tremendous transformation and opportunity and change in 1991. So our earliest programs were looking at the quality of the content, the legal and regulatory and policy environment in which media operates and also the viability. What did the commercial models look like? How do you survive? You had stations across the region who had never thought about advertising and marketing and audience.

03:22 But that was thirty years ago.

03:23 This was thirty years ago.

03:24 And now, as far as I could learn you are working and operating in seventy countries across the world?

03:31 Anywhere from sixty to seventy countries. We have offices in anywhere from twenty to twenty-five of them. But we have a real emphasis on partnerships. So our approach is to work with and through local partners. So in many of those countries, we do not necessarily have a physical presence.

03:45 But in thirty years your work essence or the priorities did they change or journalism is the same? I mean, has it changed?

03:54 Journalism is not the same; journalism is definitely not the same and the information space. I think, if you look at the global change in the last thirty years, which has been tremendous, one of the major drivers of much of that change and also the place where we have seen some of the greatest change is in information. In access to information, in the technology that enables people to have information and have the ability to have voice. So those three main areas that we focused on, the operating environment, on policy perspective, the financial models and quality of content, all hold true to today. I do not think any of those has decreased in importance but what has changed is quality of content; everybody can be a producer. It is not just media being the oracles and you go to media, they tell you, and there is trust. So the quality of content is still very important but the producers are everyone: organizations, individuals, and traditional media, none traditional media, social media. The landscape has been blown out of the water in many ways in a positive way but it also brings challenges. The viability is still very much a question. Many outlets, media outlets certainly in the West have closed down, in other places we have seen tremendous growth. I think there is a lot concern that print is dead but the latest statistics actually show in the past five years globally circulation is up16.5 percent for print media. Europe has dropped by twenty-one percent, North America has dropped by eight percent but Asia has grown by thirty-two percent. So, it’s not, the trends are not consistent globally. Community radio is also booming in many parts of the world. So how do these different forms of media look at their viability? How do you integrate online media? Where is the role of advertising? I think that is still a very important component of what we do is how do we sustain this and what is the market? How does the market change? And then the legal and regulatory environment remains incredibly important. Maybe twenty years ago we were looking at traditional, you know, a state law on TV and broadcasting or law specifically around election, where now you look at convergent media environments, so you are looking at digital transition. And what does that mean for the market? What does that mean for voice, for access of local media as you go through digital transition? So all of these legal and policy environment questions remain very important, they just change.

06:37 You said that, like Asia you have print-run kind of increase but Europe and North America decrease, so I suppose that seventy countries, that means all continents. So what are the differences from region to region that you can see in journalism, in media in general?

06:56 We are working right now in all regions, including North America. We have a small project in New Orleans and we are starting one in New Jersey and it gets back to the question of voice and underserved communities. I would say, right now we are looking across these issues from the perspective of access and market gaps. The market is doing a lot especially the commercial and telecommunications markets to fill gaps, but there are still gaps of access, inclusion, censorship, systemic inclusion of populations, marginalized populations, minority populations, content and engagement and engagement is that conversation with the audience. So if I look at the past twenty years, access has increased tremendously, cellphone penetration.

07:42 Everywhere in the world including Africa and places like that.

07:48 It has been transformational in places like Africa. In Africa, you are seeing traditional phone lines and internet connections. It is just leap-frogging to mobile. But not everybody has it. You still very much have a last mile. You have a lot of people with a featured phones as opposed to a smart phone, which will limit what you can get and you have literacy questions. So SMS outreach or stories are not going to reach people who cannot read, even if they have a smartphone. So how do you do, how do you reach that community? And I think in places like Africa, radio is still hugely important. People listen to radio. I n times of crisis people listen to radio. It stays on the air. If you look at Europe-Eurasia region, television is still king, internet is growing quickly but people still look to television as a primary source of information.

08:43 And in Europe? In Europe as well?

08:45 In Europe, the print is definitely hurting a lot in Europe and television remains important but people are getting their information from multiple platforms that includes social media, accessing it their cellphone and accessing it on a desktop. We like to consider ourselves as being platform-neutral. We will look at where people get their information. So in Africa, for example, much of our work still remains in radio. At the same time even in places like South Sudan, where internet penetration is extremely low, smartphone usage is still really low, most of the media we work with, have an online presence. It may be accessed more by diaspora and diaspora communities are increasingly playing an important role in conversations in social media and in the online platforms but there is very few media we work with anywhere that are single media. So just a radio station.

09:47 But my question would be, OK, in twenty years or thirty years we had this tremendous transformation of means, let’s say, of technical means. OK, now we have all these means, we have radio, we have smartphones, we have online, we have print, we have huge diversity. Whether the content, the message got changed because of it?

10:08 Well, I think there is still quality content out there and what has changed is everybody can be a producer now and twenty years ago everybody could not be a producer. You might be able to find a limited audience.

10:27 But is the quality better, that everyone can produce but what you produce?

10:31 I would not say the quality is better. I would say quality is all over the place and you are at a point now, where you can find the voice you want to listen to, you can find a pluralism of information as well. So, we look now at our programs at how do you layer media literacy on top of that. It is increasingly important for people to have an understanding of the perspective of the content producer, of the agenda of the content producer and the ability to navigate through what we see as a tsunami of information. There is so much information out there.

11:05 Absolutely, because now you have so much information. It’s like a flood. When you have so many sources. On one hand it’s easier, because you have more access, on the other hand it becomes more difficult because there are too many sources and information is all around. So, what is your approach? How to find out quality information checked and double-checked information? How to make it? 

11:33 I would say it varies from place to place. It is a huge issue. I think it’s a great opportunity, it also presents challenge. We are in a period where one of the mega trends we are seeing is endemic crisis and with endemic crisis, you can see in both mainstream media and social media increasing use of hate-speech, information wars. The information space is becoming a place where conflict is playing out. At the same time, you see information deserts; you see some places where there is just an absolute dearth of information. So, we look at the media literacy question. Ideally, we should be starting as young as possible, with children. Their ability to learn how to produce content gives them an understanding of how content is made and how biases can be injected in the content. If you are actually producing something, a video content or a radio story, you can understand how interviewing takes place and what the rules of journalism are and then how people may or may not be breaking those sort of classic…

12:42 But as just a consumer, how do you find out the sources, especially when you have this propaganda wars? Especially in this part of the world. With Ukraine, with Middle East you have so many diverse sources that tell you something. As an ordinary consumer, how you should find you path through?

13:06 Well, I think what we are seeing, we are seeing the rise of aggregators, of investigative projects of verification projects, ‘Stop Fake’ is a good example of one in Ukraine that’s actually taking article by article and going deep and examining the facts. You certainly see this in the political debate in the United States, you’ll see increased fact-checking where, as candidates are making statements, you can say OK, actually they said they did this but this is what their voting record says. I think we are seeing a real trend towards the use of data. Big data is increasingly available. The open government partnership is helping this and in some countries that have signed on. And even in places that are not signatories, more and more data is becoming available. So, journalists and specifically investigative reporters have more places to go to tell stories beyond doing, you know, talking with both sides. And I think data is going to become increasingly important because data is something that you have out there and it’s not necessarily debatable. There are different ways to portray data and that is a whole separate conversation. But the use of data and data journalism, I think, is going to be a big piece in this. The rise of verification, organizations or verification websites that are digging into data, like ‘Stop Fake’ is another trend. Also we have been looking at approaches that we can take either through trusted networks, where you are working with journalists that you know have been verified and you have done a verification or even with what we call rumor-tracking. And we have done rumor tracking now in Nepal after the earthquake and we find in times of crises, rumors circulate like crazy. So, the assistance might be here, tents, food, water, medical, but the people are here and how do you….

15:15 so you call it rumor tracking. How it works?

15:20 so there will be a rumor that the government is taking the money and doing X Y Z. And we actually work with the networks of humanitarian assistance providers. They are often in rural areas…

15:34 Just to check, whether the rumors are true ?

15:37 And they will hear a rumor and they will send it back to central clearing houses, so will actually make calls to the government to assistant agencies and say this is not true. And here is the correct information.

15:49 It’s kind of a tool for advocacy, kind of that?

15:51 But it is pushed back out through local radio, through local media, through NGOs. We than took that to Ebola and set it up in Liberia around Ebola. Again, rumors were flying and rumors that could lead to physical harm or putting people in harm’s way, especially when you saw in some areas, in Liberia, you saw riots and crowds based on rumors. Like they are not letting people into hospital X and whatever, whatever the rumor is. So when you get back to the incredible amount of information, the ability to catch rumors early before they cycle and spin through social media and get picked up by main stream media, it goes back to the twenty four hours news cycle we have right now, there is not as much fact-checking in newsrooms as there used to be. So it’s something we have done now in the context of an earthquake response, in the context of a medical emergency. We are also looking at it around Mediterranean refugees and the information they get from Greece coming up through the Balkans. And what information is credible, what information do they need? A part of it, I think is quite different, if we look at twenty years ago, media did not listen to its audience and the audience might have had something to say but there was not really an easy way for them to say it. Now the audience has a lot to say and media, I would say, still have trouble listening, so when we look at rumor tracker and that approach, its one way for media to start to listen to their audience. So there is also some interesting experimentation going on in the US, in some media outlets organization called “Harken” that is looking how you build actually apps, that allow media to listen to their audience and engage in a conversation in a different way. And the US program that I referred to earlier, it’s called “Listening Post” and it’s in underserved areas of New Orleans. There are places in the US, where Internet penetration is quite low, where you have literacy issues. So, it’s a series of microphones in public places, in libraries, on a barbershop front porch where people can come up and ask a question and it goes back to local radio and they can then investigate it and report on it. So, it’s another way to get that audience engagement. Certainly, if I look at the domestic market in the US a lot of media are a little nervous and hesitant about really engaging with their audience. But when you engage the audience, I think you can find incredible story ideas, a new perspective and sometimes the ability to crowdsource investigative reporting and get a wealth of data coming in from your audience that you otherwise wouldn’t get.

18:50 So what you suggest, there are various ways, like data, use of data, you said rumor tracking, you also said that verification websites, I think they are a little bit different from just investigation journalism.

19:02 Right, right. They go much deeper and I think the verification websites like a ‘Stop Fake’, there are other examples out there. A good investigative journalist could then take that and turn it into a narrative because what a journalist does, that is different than some of these verification, or data journalism efforts, where they are putting information is the journalist then takes it, turns it into a narrative, and looks at story telling.

19:31 You said in the beginning that you started with a peacebuilding or peace projects. Do you continue that? I mean, with other parts of the world, like Cuba, maybe, or maybe Middle East and other places that this peacebuilding effort or prevention effort is needed.

19:50 Well, I think a lot of the places, where we work are places in conflict. Some of our biggest programs are in Ukraine, which was not a place of conflict until fairly recently, in Afghanistan, where we have been for over a decade, which is a place where the conflict has again increased under our feet over our time there. South Sudan is another place, where we have been for about a decade

20:16 Do you have a special methodology?

20:20 You know, we have several approaches around peacebuilding and journalism but they have to be very contextual. So we don’t have like the book of peacebuilding journalism that we can take from Burma and say this will work in Central African Republic. But there are general approaches around how journalists approach conflict and storytelling in conflict. It is also layered with our own security and the security of the people they work with and we are seeing an increasing connection between digital and physical security. If you are digitally vulnerable, through your cellphone or online, it can lead to a direct correlation to your physical risk. So when working with journalists in these places, we also have to keep their security in mind and prepare them as best we can. We do have one approach called “reporting for peace” which looks specifically at how journalists deal with conflict. It’s, you know and I know journalists in this part of the world are also very familiar with dealing with conflict and covering conflict, but it’s one thing to be a foreign reporter and come and leave, it’s another thing to be covering what’s happening in your community, with your community and our teams are almost all local or in some cases regional. So if you are a journalist in South Sudan and violence has just erupted in Juba, as it did about two years ago between the Dinka and Nuer, and you are ethnic Nuer, and most of the Nuer are sitting down in IDP camp in the city of Juba, unable to leave and you are still working at a radio station it becomes deeply personal. And I think newsrooms also present a really unique opportunity to have peacebuilding even within that environment because the newsrooms, where we work are generally ethnically mixed in places of conflict. In South Sudan, for example, we have all ethnicities involved in joint news production and that in and of itself is a big step towards peacebuilding. Then that is reflected back in the reporting, also making sure not only do you have voices from different ethnicities or different religious perspectives but also that you have men and women in the newsroom.

22:21 And finally, I just wanted to ask you. We discussed a little bit this information revolution but you also said before that there are also dark spots. What do you mean by dark spots? What are those gaps that do exist still in this big world?

23:02 So, in some places I would say, in some places it’s a gap of technology, that is shrinking, that’s shrinking with increasing penetration of cellphones, cellphones going from featured phones to smartphones. So there is a basic access question. Then there is also systemic exclusion. So you will see in many places men might have access to information and media but women are more limited, they may not have a cellphone, where the male of the household does. You will see marginalized groups. In some place it might be ethnic minorities, it may be women are often a marginalized group; it may be a religious minority. So you see systemic exclusion and also censorship.

23:56 Right

23:57 Censorship, filtering.

23:58 And also self-censorship in many cases.  

23:59 And self-censorship but actual censorship of certain types of websites or certain types of information in certain countries. So I think the systemic exclusion varies from place to place. It can be cultural in some cases; it can be very high tech in other places. So, when you look at the sort of dark areas, it can be because it’s remote, it can be because it’s rural, it can also be because it is a closing space and it gets back to the policy environment, what is allowed and what’s not allowed and how free the internet is in any given place. There is definitely places where you have a lack of local content. I think that is where we find our strength. It is not necessarily working with national media on big national productions. Those tend to happen anyway and in many cases can be of pretty good quality but more remote you get or the farther from the capital you often find that you are in a dark zone. You may know what is happening in the capital but you do not know what is happening in your community. And it is not contextual for you or those stories aren’t told. And sometimes this can be as small as a community of displaced persons within their own country but they need a specific type of news and information that they are not going to get on the broadcaster that might be just ten kilometers away. They need something specific. In this case, we have done programs where we have speakers on the back of quad bikes that are in specific places at specific times with information just for that community. So, you can have a dark spot in the middle of a vibrant environment because they are just not getting the type of information they need. I think we see that types of dark spots specifically in times of crisis and conflict. I think you see a similar dark spot with the refugee populations right now that are on the move. This is unprecedented movement of people from the Middle East, Near East and North Africa coming up through Europe that have very specific information needs and how do you meet those needs. And this is another place where in Greece, on one of main arrival points for a lot of the boats we put speakers in the back of trucks from local villagers with very specific information. Because people were arriving on the beach, the receiving points were on the other side of the island, and there was not even a map, so we put up a billboard, actually, with a map in four languages. That was the right information for the right population at the right time, which is also sometimes lacking.

26:53 And the very last question, of course it’s a bit futuristic but how do you, personally see the development of media in next ten or twenty years. So, we all move to cellphones or something else will happen and also what will happen to this region from your perspective?

27:13 If I knew what media would be in twenty years I would probably be a millionaire but I think technology disruption is going to continue. You think there is a solution, something is working, and something new comes along and disrupts it. Apps are going continue to flourish, big data is going to continue to be a factor and I think security is going to be totally mainstreamed. It has already started to happen. Digital security is not a question for somebody who might be extremely vulnerable. It is an issue for everybody and their personal data.

27:52 Is it going to be more controlled?

27:54 I think everybody is going to get a good understanding. It will continue to move sort of cat and mouse but people are going to understand that their security is important. But, in terms of media, I think content will remain king. I think the ability to have reliable sources and to be able to sort through the noise will become highly valued. And what form those take, what the business model is going to be, I think people are going to want trusted content and is print completely dead? No. Will be dead in twenty years? Maybe?

28:36 Or maybe in some parts of the world?

28:37: Maybe in some parts, or maybe it is a different form. The world has literacy barriers that it is working on with global development goals looking at how we overcome global illiteracy, global poverty and information is part of all of this. So, content will be important, viability model is up in the air, what’s going to be sustainable and I think how people get it, is going to change but it needs to be trusted. I do not think citizen voice is going away, I think the citizen voice is going to evolve in even more helpful ways especially around crowd sourcing and truth telling and accountability. So I would expect greater links around accountability and how information and data and story-telling is used to hold decision-makers accountable.

29:31 So Marjorie thanks a lot for visiting us today and we have twenty years of Internews in Armenia. Congratulations to you and to Nouneh.

29:41 Yes, thank you, especially to our local partner.

29:46 I would also like to mention that more information about Internews could be found on www.internews.org. Please visit the website. Thanks again and see you soon. Goodbye.


This interview is made possible by the generous support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this interview are the sole responsibility of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.