Donors call for measurements that go beyond audience ratings

By Ben Mook

To supplement its Listening Project surveys, Cleveland’s ideastream stations regularly convene small groups of community leaders to discuss on regional assets and challenges. (Photo: ideastream)

To supplement its Listening Project surveys, Cleveland’s ideastream stations regularly convene small groups of community leaders to discuss on regional assets and challenges. (Photo: ideastream)

Foundations and major donors are increasingly asking public broadcasters to demonstrate the impact of their work on their communities, prompting pubcasters to consider new metrics that go beyond traditional audience measurement.

The new emphasis by funders has prompted a flurry of activity and discussion as some pubcasters work to identify best practices and standardize measurements, and others debate whether the impact of nonprofit journalism should be quantified at all.

“We do have to talk about these things and think about them in our role as public broadcasters in the 21st century,” said Jack Galmiche, c.e.o. of the Nine Network of Public Media in St. Louis. “It’s a conversation we need to have in public media about the service we provide to the community. As we provide service to the community, how do we . . . also provide value, and how do we measure all of that?”

The body of research studying that question continues to grow. Since 2011, pubTV’s Major Market Group has been working with the nonprofit consulting group FSG to create best practices for showing impact.

In April, the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism created the Media Impact Project with $3.25 million in funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The project’s self-described goal is to become “a hub for best practices, innovation and thought leadership in media metrics.”

“The basic idea is for public media to become better about understanding its impact and documenting it, and the more it can demonstrate how it makes a difference, the easier [fundraising] will go,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the Knight Foundation. “In this new environment, where anyone can get into nonprofit media, . . . you have to find ways to differentiate yourself from everyone else.”

Some of the pressure to stand out comes from the proliferation of nonprofit news sites, which have increased competition for funding from foundations and major donors. With more potential grantees, foundations are increasingly looking for ways to highlight the impact of their philanthropic investments.

“In this era of finite resources, you don’t have the luxury of pursuing 100 things on your list,” Newton said. “Now you might have only 10, and you have to ask, ‘Which one do you choose?’ This is something the news community hasn’t been very good about. That’s not a criticism — it’s just the way it has been.”

Given that competition, Newton said pubcasters who can demonstrate impact will have an edge in pursuing funding.

Who do you serve?

Pubcasters have traditionally measured impact in terms of broadcast reach — the average or cumulative numbers of viewers or listeners, as reported by Nielsen or Arbitron. Programs aimed at specific demographics — such as children — are also assessed by their effectiveness in attracting their target audience.

But advocates for new approaches say that impact measurements allow public media to focus on its core strength of reaching audiences not pursued by commercial broadcasters. That strategy might not yield large audiences but could fit with grantmakers’ goals, said Jim Russell, a pubcasting consultant and a former e.p. of Marketplace.

Foundations and major donors are “demanding to know more about the impact of what their funding will do,” Russell said. “They’re saying, ‘Don’t tell us what you’re going to do; tell us what impact it will have.’ It’s not an unreasonable question to ask.”

One client of Russell’s recently acknowledged the importance of measuring impact, but said they weren’t sure how to do it apart from using audience metrics.

“In a sense, some part of the old days where you go out with a worthy project . . . on faith that it will have impact are gone,” Russell said. “This new approach of showing impact is going to be more and more prevalent — no question — because the funders have the ability to make it so.”

Many pubcasters resist that approach because they see it as a “subversion of the editorial freedom public media ought to have,” Russell said. But all signs point to a future in which foundation and major-donor fundraising will go hand-in-hand with metrics showing impact.

John Sutton, founder of Emodus Research, questions the emphasis being placed on impact, especially in public radio. Creating standardized measures and pushing stations in all markets to pursue impact metrics puts too much power in the hands of major foundations at a time when radio listenership is thriving, he said.

“It’s like saying, ‘How’d you like less diversity in your portfolio?’” Sutton said. “The impact approach has its place, but it shouldn’t be the primary business model for the future. That would be absurd.”

Sutton fears that news outlets that opt to play by the rules of the foundation world will weaken themselves. Public broadcasters learned long ago not to allow themselves to become too reliant on a single source of major funding, he said, pointing to the Nixon administration’s efforts to defund public broadcasting

“That was a wakeup call to not let people writing big checks have too much control over the future of public media,” Sutton said. “And the impact approach is basically giving power to the people writing the big checks who are saying, ‘We’re going to give you money if you meet our agenda.’” Focusing on impact also runs the risk of alienating listeners in favor of pleasing large foundations, he said.

But grappling with the issue of donor influence is nothing new to public broadcasting, said Jerrold Wareham, c.e.o. of Cleveland’s ideastream.

“It’s not an issue of funding,” Wareham said. “It’s about integrity and editorial processes that make sure there won’t be any undue influence, or the appearance of undue influence. And it’s nothing new. There has always been, and always will be, a tension in any nonprofit between the funding and the content.”

Some pubcasters see the focus on impact as a natural extension of community outreach that has already been going on for years, especially in public TV. Ideastream has always worked to identify the community’s needs and wants, said COO Kit Jensen.

When ideastream launched in 2001, it started the Listening Project, which aims to determine what the community finds important by using surveys, calls and discussions.

“We started the project in response to the question of ‘What now?’” which came up when ideastream was formed, Jensen said. “And we use that information as a lens for decisions we make on programming and content to make sure that what we are focused on — beyond breaking news — has some relationship to what the community needs. We ask them what matters to them and then try and respond to that through programming.”

While ideastream has done groundwork in researching shared needs and concerns of its audiences, Wareham and Jensen said, it has more work to do to highlight the impact of its journalism. It now considers emails, event attendance, podcast downloads and anecdotal responses.

Beyond broadcast

With the discussion about impact measurement in its early stages, pubcasters at ideastream and elsewhere are working to determine how exactly to do it. The task could be especially difficult for news organizations, said Newton of the Knight Foundation, because it could put the story and the storyteller under the same spotlight.

“It’s just part of our makeup that we’re not part of the story, but really we are part of the story,” Newton added. “If investigative journalists don’t tell people about what they’re doing and what their role is, who will? Who else is going to explain what journalism is and how it works?”

Delivering a story that has impact requires more than amassing a large audience and hoping that it resonates with some portion of the viewership, Newton said. With the proliferation of new media platforms and on-demand offerings, impact measurements can offer a more precise method for evaluating the success of programs and projects.

St. Louis’s Nine Network of Public Media has embraced the impact approach through initiatives such as American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, Youth at Risk, and Our Region’s Health. The organization has recognized that measuring impact goes beyond just audience numbers, said Galmiche of Nine Network.

“In the media business we’re in, the audiences may not be as large, but the impact on the community we serve is much more,” he said.

Comments, questions, tips? mook@current.org
This article was first published in Current, Aug. 12 2013
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