Advocacy Journalism: How Passion Will Drive the News You Read


Brand journalism is firmly established; the thought that any major company wouldn’t set aside a portion of its marketing budget to create its own publications was outdated even before the internet changed everything. John Deere developed The Furrow in 1895 to share news and stories that would interest the company’s core customers and other companies have had similar initiatives for over a century. A new twist on that old strategy has appeared on the stage, though: advocacy journalism.

Advocacy Journalism Isn’t Just for Activists

Activist organizations have long had their own internal publications. Editors and radio hosts have defined movements, at least for the people already committed to supporting a given cause. But while such publications could reach hundreds of thousands of supporters (look at the AARP’s publications, for instance), they defined “preaching to the choir.”

Such publications tend to have captive audiences who are already committed to taking the actions necessary to continue supporting the organization sending out newsletters, radio broadcasts, or whatever publication they offer. Reaching new audiences, however, was never the primary goal of any publication activists launched.

Advocacy journalism may represent a major shift in that mindset. Especially with the advent of digital journalism tools, non-profits have relatively inexpensive options for telling stories. Some are making use of those tools to become media organizations in their own right, creating publications and individual media pieces that appeal to more mainstream readers and motivate those readers to take action. Many organizations are also partnering with established publishers to expand their own reach and those publishers’ ability to cover diverse topics.

The shift may be one of the best opportunities to actually get people to take action on pressing issues. Sharing a compelling story online, where the publisher can build in a payment form or another call to action, represents a major shift for organizations. Where once a non-profit would put together a press packet and hope really hard that a journalist with some serious reach would pick it up, that non-profit can now publish its own research and stories in an effective manner. And the change is good for journalism.

Advocates Will Cover the Stories No One Else Will Touch

There are a lot of arguments that journalism acts as a public utility. You may have to pay for a subscription, but journalists are providing you with value you can’t do without. Whether you need information to help you vote correctly, switch cable providers, or just stay informed about what’s happening in your community, local publications provide you with a broad look at the information you need to function as a human being.

But the local newspaper (or its online and national counterparts) are never going to cover certain stories. They might be able to do a broad overview or cover how a particular story connects to the local community — but the average daily newspaper won’t cover a topic like human trafficking more than occasionally. For an organization like Human Rights Watch, however, keeping stories about human trafficking in the public discourse is crucial to be able to get people to take the actions necessary to the organization’s other efforts, from raising money to actually watching for human trafficking in their own communities. It’s an extreme example, for sure, but one that’s already proved successful with Human Rights Watch’s partnership with Upworthy.

Advocates may not be as objective in covering stories as more mainstream journalists, but that may not be as much of a problem as you might expect. The reality is that every publication has a slant, whether it’s Fox News’ clear political preferences or it’s the local newspaper’s commitment to ensuring the city continues to grow and need a newspaper. Advocacy journalism just has more obvious objectives — and few readers will expect otherwise. Today’s consumers of news and information are more savvy than those of a few decades ago. “I read it on the internet, so it must be true!” is enough of a punchline these days that I’m personally comfortable with publishing content with specific aims and goals.

The deep involvement an advocate has with her topic can also be a major benefit: accessing the experts on a given topic is an easier process when you work with the same organizations they support or otherwise have a clear connection. Where booking an interview with an unknown expert can be tough for a mainstream journalist (and becomes even harder if any expert believes the journalist in question will not take an agreeable slant), a journalist with the relevant organizational ties may have a much simpler time. It certainly doesn’t hurt that an advocate is likely to have more emotional investment in the stories she covers, to the point of being willing to do more work to create each individual story than a mainstream journalist whose goal is to present an overall look at the world.

Passion Mitigates Some Journalistic Risks

While journalists of every stripe have a commitment to putting important truths in front of readers, doing so can be a risky business. Covering government, whether at the municipal or the national level, is problematic enough in a country like the U.S. Doing so in a country like Myanmar requires a level of passion that goes far beyond what most people can muster for a paycheck.

Not only does working for an organization committed to the same goals that you are remove some of the risk of losing your job for pursing a problematic story, such an organization may have more reason to protect its journalists. Even with the journalistic job market what it is today, there are still plenty of people clamoring for the romanticism of a newspaper job; that gives mainstream media the ability to find new employees as necessary, but organizations relying on advocacy journalism may not have that luxury. They have to protect the people who work for them.

Perhaps even more importantly, a journalist passionate about covering a specific topic may be willing to take on more personal risk in order to tell the stories that need to be told. While it would be nice to live in a world where journalists are never threatened or killed in order to keep secrets from reaching the public, the reality is very different. You can’t ask anyone not passionate about the project to pursue dangerous stories. With that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see advocacy journalism taking the lead in those situations.

In a way, it already has. The Intercept was founded solely to report on the documents Edward Snowden provided to Glenn Greenwald and other journalists from the NSA. While First Look Media (the owner of The Intercept) is officially a for-profit company, there’s little question that the publication is advocating for a given position. On The Intercept’s about page the publishers describe what they’re doing as “fearless, adversarial journalism.” If that doesn’t mean advocating for a particular point of view, I don’t know what does.

The Amicable Divorce Between Content and Its Creators

The success of advocacy journalism highlights a crucial shift in how consumers connect with content online: Where someone might have once read an article because it was published in that week’s New Yorker, it’s becoming more likely that person will read an article because a friend shared the link on social media or land on it through an online search. While we all still recognize plenty of publishers’ names, we’re less tied to exactly where a particular article come from. Provided that we’ve landed on something interesting and valuable within our current context, we’re not going to worry about too much else.

And, yes, there are still publications that most of us will read straight through — whether that’s a daily email from a favorite blogger or a magazine that always manages to be interesting. But that sort of dedication is rarer than it used to be when we didn’t have millions of pages of articles at our fingertips.

But this situation is advantageous for both journalists working internally for corporations and non-profits. While it’s not exactly equally likely that a Google search will deposit a reader at The New York Times versus a mini-site set up by the Human Rights Watch, the odds are much better than you might think. For any organization willing to invest in creating the best content in a narrow niche, dominating that particular niche is feasible.

Social media offers its own opportunities. Readers click through links because of their relationship with the sender, paired with whether the headline interests them. Few tweets have room to include the author of a given article, let alone the publisher. Facebook does point to the domain name of the website that published a given link, but it’s a relatively minor piece of information. An advocacy organization just needs one person passionate about its cause to share a great piece of content to social media; if the headline is catchy, it will ripple out to at least a few of that person’s friends. If those people take action, it doesn’t particularly matter if they wind up back on the organization’s main website or become a part of the organization as a whole. The same holds true of anyone publishing online these days.

It’s the great democratization of publishing: the same tools that let bloggers cover niche topics will let non-profits advocate for their causes. That’s good news for journalism. We’ll see more information from more diverse sources, letting us get a better picture of our own world. And we’ll know just what those journalists want us to do with that information, so that we can better impact our world.

Photo Credit: Ol.v!er [H2vPk]