Ian Burrell: The News Business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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Can these Nobel Prize winners build a media platform to inform the masses?

With trust in news under threat like never before, an unprecedented alliance of 48 Nobel laureates, revered authors and eminent professors is seeking to shore up the information ecosystem.

This week as delegates and speakers, from Greta Thunberg to Donald Trump, arrive at the World Economic Forum in Davos, they will be invited to sample the work of the global media organisation that is Project Syndicate.

Though relatively little-known, this is a digital platform of such growing influence that it can now claim to be the “World’s Opinion Page”. Its website brims with brilliant writing on politics, economics, climate change and the other big issues of the age.

But its real impact is in supplying that content to 507 media outlets in 57 countries and 61 languages. Partner publishers include Le Monde, El País, The Guardian and Dow Jones’s Market Watch. As a result, it is unquestionably helping to shape the international news agenda and public policy worldwide.

It has vast reach. It sells its commentary articles to around 250 media outlets in developed countries – and then provides the material for free to a similar number of publishers in the developing world. “It’s more important than ever that people have access to credible, fact-based, authoritative, expert information,” says its chief executive Nicolas Chatara-Morse.

He talks of the project’s “rock star” writers, who include many of the world’s foremost economic brains. The consistent readers’ favourite for many years is the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (former chief economist of the World Bank), who this month wrote a piece exposing the US president’s failings: “The Truth About the Trump Economy”. At Davos, Stiglitz has attacked Trump’s inaction on climate change, saying “we’re going to roast”.

Other rock stars are the sustainable development maven Jeffrey Sachs, Christine Lagarde (president of the European Central Bank) and Stern School of Business professor Nouriel Roubini, whose latest piece for the site was provocatively headlined: “Trump Will Make China Great Again.” Vladimir Putin’s Russia is covered by Nina Khrushcheva, the Moscow-born American professor of international affairs and granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Yet Project Syndicate’s greatest asset – its unrivalled pool of expertise – is also one of its biggest challenges. Some of today’s political leaders have made a quarry of great thinkers in order to diminish their authority and silence criticism. Michael Gove, the UK government minister and former environment secretary, claimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

World leaders are similarly distrusted, and Project Syndicate has taken opinion pieces from 120 heads of state, a clear indication of its prestige and traction in the corridors of power.

The project also has links to George Soros, the Hungarian-American investor, philanthropist and favourite bête noire of reactionary conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who see everywhere the hidden hand of a controlling elite. Soros is the founder of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), dedicated to opposing authoritarianism and the negative consequences of globalisation, and it was out of the OSF network that Project Syndicate was created 25 years ago.

Soros occasionally writes for Project Syndicate. “When Mr Soros publishes a piece with us he is a lightning rod so there will always be a lot of trolls and comments, nasty comments that pop up that we have to watch out for and weed out,” says Chatara-Morse. A more significant threat, he says, is from political pressure on the media outlets with which Project Syndicate partners.

This has been most evident in central Europe, where the project has its roots. Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán and Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party have “squeezed” local independent media, says Chatara-Morse, who is based in Prague along with most of the 25-strong Project Syndicate team (the editor-in-chief Kenneth Murphy is in London and there are other editors in Vienna and North Carolina). "In Poland and Hungary and even in Czech Republic…our partnership reach is much less; we work with fewer publications in those countries than ever before despite the fact that we are here,” he says. “It’s one of our priorities for this year to reestablish ourselves in the region and to support independent media in the region because it’s needed; papers and media outlets are struggling because the populist leaders have figured out how to put pressure on them through legislation.”

Project Syndicate is having much more success outside its home region. Its business model allowed it to generate 1,259 columns in 2019, leading to 24,651 published pieces around the world. Its “absolute game-changer” was to translate its content into Chinese and Arabic, making it an instant media force in those regions. “We have 14 media partners in mainland China now, apart from Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore and Malaysia where we also have Chinese publishers,” says the CEO. All content is now provided in 13 languages.

The non-profit organisation’s stated objective is: “We believe the entire world deserves access to its greatest minds. Our mission is to reach those without this opportunity.”

So it was with some trepidation around “inherent tensions” that, two years ago, it decided to put part of its website behind a paywall and create a premium service, On Point, charging subscribers $2 a week. “We are a mission-driven organisation to provide our content to as many readers as possible. So we didn’t really want to just throw up a paywall,” says Chatara-Morse. “What we ended up on was a premium corner of our website where we are producing long reads, essays and interviews. We have come up with what I think is a unique way to straddle that line and it seems to be working.” So far 6,500 subscribers have signed up.

Persuading Nobel laureates and heads of state to write for this niche audience – rather than readers of hundreds of separate media outlets – could have been a problem. But Chatara-Morse was able to make the argument that On Point pieces – which typically run to 3,000 words – were prized by Project Syndicate and promoted to its 150,000 newsletter followers, and sent directly to prestigious institutional subscribers such as the Federal Reserve Bank and Harvard University. “By telling our authors that this was important content to us to be featured and promoted online to our core readership very heavily, they began to see that it was worth their time.”

The delegates at Davos will be invited to take a read of Project Syndicate’s annual compendium, the print magazine The Year Ahead. It sells for $25 and has contributions from leading economic thinkers such as Klaus Schwab (executive chairman of the World Economic Forum), Jim O’Neill and Sir Angus Deaton (another Nobel laureate). It also wrestles with doubts expressed by society at large in the future of capitalism and the very value of the social science of economics.

The Year Ahead was launched at Davos four years ago (the first time that Project Syndicate had published its own content in print). At this time of year, much of the project’s output is aligned with the themes of debates at the WEF gathering. A specialist magazine on Sustainability and Climate Finance is produced in September to coincide with climate week in New York. Later this year Project Syndicate plans to come to London to launch a new magazine and series it is planning on “the intersection of technology, society and public policy”.

Every commissioned piece has been sent for approval by Project Syndicate’s editorial board, which includes its co-founders Roman Frydman (professor of economics at New York University) and Andrzej Rapaczynski (professor at Columbia Law School). When they set the scheme up in 1995, soon after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it was known as the “Privatisation Project”.  It pivoted to produce economic supplements for media and then focused on opinion pieces.

Its global outlook has been crucial to its model, says Chatara-Morse. “By writing for Project Syndicate you are just as likely to be published in Sweden as you are in Zambia,” he says. “This global multi-language reach is very attractive for authors. It’s this virtuous circle – as we bring in an interesting high-name contributor that’s attractive to another set of publishers which helps bring in revenue which enables us to continue reaching out and placing content in developing parts of the world.”

The US has been hard to crack, partly because titles such as The New York Times and

Wall Street Journal prefer to commission their own writers and offer them for syndication. Chatara-Morse says other parts of the US media tend to be inward-looking and not amenable to the global perspective. “Our model doesn’t fit so well for the US and that has been pretty clear over the years.”

Project Syndicate still takes money from big foundations, including the Mastercard Foundation, the European Climate Foundation and the McKinsey Global Institute. Another supporter, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is backing Project Syndicate’s plans to make its roster more diverse by establishing a fellowship for upcoming writers from the developing world.

“We have been working in the opinion journalism space for 25 years and we want to start using that expertise to start training up the next generation of champions,” says Chatara-Morse. “[We want] people who do not have a Nobel laureate tag or a Harvard professorship but are an expert in their field. Wherever they may be located.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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