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Journalism driven by stakeholders: 9 good questions with Stakeholder Media Project’s Mark Lee Hunter

More media organizations are being created and controlled by the people who are invested in the issues their organizations are covering, according to Mark Lee Hunter. This form of journalism, called “stakeholder-driven media,” is changing our media landscape and offers lessons for traditional news organizations in building community.

Hunter defines stakeholder-driven media as “media [that] serve communities that want to affect, or are affected by, big organizations, like firms, industries and government,” engaging people who “cannot obtain comparable information in either focus, quantity or quality” from mainstream media outlets. These outlets also defend the interests of their audience, acting as advocates for their communities. This includes niche publications like investment news site Responsible Investor, Politico Pro or natural resources news outlet High Country News, reporting with a partisan tilt such as Mother Jones or right-leaning Heat Street, and organizations that seek to advance an agenda such as Greenpeace.org.

Hunter is a former investigative journalist with stories published in publications including New York Times Magazine and Le Figaro, covering topics such as the French right. In 2007, he co-founded the Stakeholder Media Project — an initiative out of France’s INSEAD University. He is one of the authors of a new book from the Stakeholder Media Project, “Power is Everywhere: How Stakeholder-Driven Media Build the Future of Watchdog News” (available for free as a PDF), which explores the dynamic between stakeholder media and traditional news organizations and presents stakeholder-driven media as a sustainable business model.

We talked to Hunter about the differences between stakeholder-driven media and traditional news organizations, what traditional news organizations can learn from stakeholder-driven media, and how stakeholder-driven media could affect society as a whole.

What’s the key difference between stakeholder-driven media and a traditional news organization?

The theory of mainstream agenda-setting is that you inform the public of the facts and they make up their minds. Another part of the theory is that mainstream media tell people what matters and what they should be paying attention to. That’s not how Greenpeace.org works. Greenpeace.org does not exist to tell you that the environment matters. It exists because you know the environment matters and you want to know what to do about it. They tell people what to do; they say, “This is the action you can take.” They are agenda-driven, but they are not just about making issues more salient. They’re about prevailing on the issues.

Greenpeace.org does not exist to tell you that the environment matters. It exists because you know the environment matters and you want to know what to do about it.

How do you see stakeholder-driven media changing how a traditional news organization is doing its job?

The first thing is that objectivity is being supplanted by transparency. You see the definition of objectivity narrowing. It used to describe an ethical stance of neutrality. Now it’s down to the level of making sure your facts are right. That’s very important. This is instinctively a very wise move on the part of the news industry. Facts still count.

The second impact on news media will hit the omnibus format. Our perception is that specialized publications are knocking marginal audiences off the mainstream media. The audience units are multiplying; they’re becoming smaller. You see how stakeholder-driven media are eating up entire sections of the mainstream media. The celebrity beat is being captured by bloggers; the sports beat is being captured by bloggers but also by specialized publications. There’s a huge number of people who are aiming at specific communities within the overall audience.

We think that for mainstream media to get back in that game, they’re going to have start targeting smaller audiences with specialized publications.

There’s an attitude in more traditional news organizations toward organizations like Breitbart in particular that this kind of media isn’t as legitimate. Do you think there needs to be a change in mindset in the industry to accept these organizations?

There are real things you can say about media like Breitbart and the Gateway Pundit. They don’t pay enough attention to contrary sources, and they often are using secondary sources where they’re not looking at them closely enough. This is a real criticism that can be made. This is not always high-quality reporting, and it’s not high-quality information in many cases. I do not see how you can criticize them for having a worldview and seeking people who support that worldview.

I do not see how you can criticize [Breitbart and Gateway Pundit] for having a worldview and seeking people who support that worldview.

I don’t think Steve Bannon should be on the National Security Council, but he has a consistent point of view, and he is selling that point of view to people in the American public. You may not like it, but how is that different fundamentally from what Mother Jones does? The answer is, Mother Jones has much better information. Mother Jones is a wonderfully researched and edited publication. I would not say the same for Breitbart, before and after Bannon joined the White House.

The book argues, “The [gatekeeper model] has given way to a media environment in which a stunning range of actors control their own media, and use those media to directly affect individuals, communities, organizations and society.” How do you see that happening in our current media landscape?

You see it happening at the top level, where Breitbart drove through the indifference and contempt of the mainstream media to federate a community behind Donald Trump. If the gatekeepers really ran things, Breitbart wouldn’t exist. Neither, by the way, would the genetically modified organism opposition movement or the climate change movement, as scholars of social movements have shown. These activists made newsletters, handwritten letters, coffee parties to get traction. Then they built from there. If the mainstream media gatekeepers could decide the fate of a movement, these people would not exist.

What do you think the impact of more stakeholder driven media will be on readers? How will this change their consumption habits and the information that they’re receiving?

Right now, we see a double trend. There’s a certain kind of stakeholder driven media, like Gateway Pundit, that’s put out poorly sourced, contrarian information for an audience that isn’t critical about how news is sourced. Then we see increasingly expert media that are very focused on high value, high impact information, like Politico Pro. The Gateway Pundit guys are playing a game of clickbait; the Politico-type people are playing a high value-added information game.

Does this mean that we’re going to become a society in which class will be defined by what information you consume? To a large extent, we’re already there. This is what we see in the media we follow, that there are media aimed at people who really need good information because they’re going to act on it. And there’s media that are giving highly partisan, manipulative information to people who don’t have the means to verify it and who can’t see the direct effects.

The Gateway Pundit guys are playing a game of clickbait; the Politico-type people are playing a high value-added information game.

Another of the divides is that the people we see using stakeholder-driven media are using them for very specific reasons. They’re using them to protect, among other things, their material interests. If you look in the U.K., there are a number of stakeholder-driven media that are focused on the national health system. Some of them are really tough, and they give more regular coverage than the BBC. Who’s using those media? People who work with the system.

What are the downsides of stakeholder-driven media? It seems that it would be easy for the model to be abused by someone like Breitbart, who isn’t just interested in informing the public.

That’s a danger, that demagogues will use these media to manipulate the public. That’s already happening, and not just in the United States. The Russian state has invested immensely in disinformation media. But I think that’s an acceptable risk, compared to the benefit of more people having access to media that speak to their interests and that actually defend them.

I was depressed by the direction of the mainstream media in the 1990s, where it seemed like the purpose of news media had become to distract you from your meaningless life, instead of to make your life more meaningful. Now there’s a wake up call. There are people saying, “I’d like to have a media that’s actually fighting for me, that’s informing me about something that’s giving me an advantage, that’s helping me defend the things that I think are important.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

The book says, “The kind of journalism that matters most to us, independent, watchdog reporting, was increasingly dependent on stakeholder-driven media for its present and its future.” Can you explain that?

There are people saying, ‘I’d like to have a media that’s actually fighting for me, that’s informing me about something that’s giving me an advantage, that’s helping me defend the things that I think are important.’

There simply aren’t enough investigative journalism jobs in mainstream media or even opportunities to do investigations in mainstream media, or in organizations that are feeding the mainstream media. There have to be more organizations that are doing their own watchdog reporting for their communities. For us, the model is Greenpeace, which does a huge amount of investigations.

Another factor is that important segments of different political movements no longer have any representation. The mainstream media are looking at the top of those parties or movements, but they’re not looking at the currents within. Now the currents have their own voices.

What do you think is the potential effect of more stakeholder-driven media on society as a whole?

If enough of those media are high quality, I think it will be wonderful. It would be wonderful if different communities had articulate, well-informed spokespeople to defend their interests and to make bridges between those interests and other communities.

The counterargument is that if everyone is pursuing their own interests, then nobody will agree on anything. That’s not what we see. We see people looking at each other very hard, and saying to themselves, “Could they be telling the truth? If they’re telling the truth, the value of my stock is about to tank. Maybe I need to pay attention.”

It would be wonderful if different communities had articulate, well-informed spokespeople to defend their interests and to make bridges between those interests and other communities.

The mainstream media don’t have the reach anymore. You have to have these circles of stakeholder groups that are supporting them.

The Panama Papers had massive coverage in the mainstream media. But what made them effective was that over a period of several years, they built up a massive stakeholder following in different groups that relayed the message and kept it alive. If you’re not building these stakeholder support groups, you’re dead, because there’s nobody marching after the parade is over. You cannot build civic action on the basis of occasional events. Somebody has got to be answering the phone.

What do you envision as the ideal role for stakeholder-driven media in society?

We say that they should do three things: protect their communities, notably by telling them the truth; promote their communities, notably by enabling them to prosper; and prevailing with their communities on the issues that are critical to their survival. If they can’t do that — if they guide their communities to ruin — really, who needs them in the first place?

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