In years past we have avoided running articles about nonprofit media. It always seemed a bit self-indulgent for us, as a media organization, to publish articles on the topic. But in this issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review we’ve reversed course and published not one, but two feature articles, both on measuring the impact of media: “Surveying the Field” by Anya Schiffrin from Columbia University and Ethan Zuckerman from MIT; and “Reading Between the Lines” by Chip Giller and Katharine Wroth, both from the environmental media website Grist.
We decided to publish articles on nonprofit media for two reasons. The first is that the field of nonprofit media has become worthy of study. The Internet has largely gutted the for-profit news industry. In its place has arisen a plethora of nonprofit news organizations, a number of which are hitting their stride. There are specialized news organizations like Kaiser Health News, regional news sites like The Texas Tribune, and investigative news
groups like ProPublica. And funders have responded to the need. Between 2009 and 2012 foundations donated about $2.5 billion to US nonprofit media organizations, according to Media Impact Funders.
With all of that money going into nonprofit media, funders have naturally begun to ask whether their money is having an impact. Which brings us to the second reason we published this pair of articles. It turns out that the questions people ask about the impact of media are the same questions that are asked about think tanks, advocacy, and similar endeavors. How do you know whether your work is having an impact? What type of impact is
your work having? Can you attribute your work to actual changes in public opinion, policy, or laws?
But measuring the impact of media and advocacy work, it turns out, is a much more difficult task than measuring the impact of many other types of nonprofit activity. It’s pretty easy to measure the impact that a food bank has on the lives of the people who use it. But it’s much more difficult to measure the impact that The Texas Tribune and the articles that it publishes has on the lives of Texans. There are indirect ways of measuring the impact of media, and we are getting better at doing that. But there is rarely a causal relationship between any single article or series of articles and public opinion, policy, or laws.
Sometimes the impact of an article or series of articles is clear, as it was in 2011 when SSIR published the article “Collective Impact.” This was the first time that term had been used in an article, and almost immediately “collective impact” began to be used by many people and organizations. Today, it’s become part of the lexicon of social change. Other times the impact of publishing is less clear. Over the years SSIR has published scores of articles on impact investing by some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field. I know that we have played a vital role in the ongoing discussion of impact investing, but I’m not sure that we could quantify the impact in a way that would satisfy measurement wonks. So while it is important that we continue to ask these questions of media and get better at measuring the results, it’s also important to keep them in perspective and not become overly obsessed with them.