Impact Editor may be a relatively new title, but there’s overwhelming evidence to support the critical role it plays in advancing journalism in particular, and publishing in general.
“I believe it will ultimately be fundamental to growing audience and revenue in two ways: first, because we are bringing – and showing we are bringing – real value to people’s lives and, second, because it helps to rebuild trust in the media more widely.” – Miriam Wells
Trust in media is at an all-time low; even amongst journalists: a 2016 Worlds of Journalism study study – the only survey of journalists in 50 countries – revealed that only about 35% trust news media. Public perception of the media is well documented, with journalists described as the least trusted people.
Yet even as publications continue folding and newsrooms keep shrinking, there are also the success stories of niche publications expanding and independent platforms prospering.
One of these is The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the largest independent non-profit newsroom in the UK. In June 2019, The Bureau promoted production editor Miriam Wells to the newly created role of Impact Editor.
Her task? To lift the Bureau’s journalism “off the page and into the world” – a strap line she coined to illustrate the far-reaching impact of their work. “We are a mission-driven organisation, aiming for our journalism to be actively useful,” explains Wells. “Journalism doesn’t change anything on its own, but it’s a key piece of the puzzle of actors and events that drive social change. We want our journalism to be as good a piece of that puzzle as possible.”
Wells created a strategic framework to shift The Bureau’s impact from organic and ad hoc, as it was five years ago, to deliberate and consistent – and can boast multifaceted successes.
“We’ve transformed the impact we’re having on every level and frequency,” she confirms. “We are achieving our mission. Mass reach is still very important to us, but we really celebrate the real-world impact that is made beyond the traditional journalistic metrics of success. I think knowing their work has made a real difference, and that’s why we’re all here, gives people at the Bureau a real sense of satisfaction, accomplishment.”
From a business point of view the returns are significant. “Our impact model is a major factor in us receiving some of our biggest funding in recent years, including our biggest grant to date.”
The environment team had similar success with their impact model also contributing to securing high level grant funding, adds Wells.
“I believe it will ultimately be fundamental to growing audience and revenue in two ways – first because we are bringing, and showing we are bringing, real value to people’s lives and second because it helps to rebuild trust in the media more widely.”
Now, more than three years – and two babies – since she first assumed the role, Wells has gained invaluable insights into what impact really means.
Her first challenge was countering the prevailing thinking around this. “There is not enough focus on this question, even in the mission-driven journalism world,” she says.
“Whenever you have questions on impact, 99% of the time, it’s about measurement, and the tools we use to measure impact. This is really backwards – first, we need to ask what impact looks like. What does it mean? And how do we get it? How do we strategise for it? And then, what does success look like? Only then do we question the metrics we’re going to use to measure that success.”
4 Key Learnings
1 Collaboration is key
Journalism can’t change anything on its own so you need to be really plugged into the wider network of civil society – those who can use your work to drive impact. When journalists, lawyers, community groups, campaigners, politicians, academics, etc talk to each other more often and more strategically, everyone’s work is strengthened.
2 Build the culture
You can’t seek to do anything successfully around impact unless you have the entire organisation aligned around what this entails. We talk a lot about impact, but there are many different versions about what that actually means and what that can and should be. You have to have buy-in throughout the whole organisation. It has to come from the top as well as the bottom.
3 Language matters
For a while I even stopped using the term impact all together, because it can be off putting, particularly to Western journalists, who sometimes equate it to activism. I’ve evolved to the point where I don’t talk about impact, but rather, ask: how can our journalism be useful?
READ Wells’ blog on the topic: ‘Drawing the line between impact and activism’
4 Impact measurement needs to come second
I tried to introduce an impact tracker too early and it didn’t work because we weren’t evolved enough in our thinking and in our process – so we couldn’t build a tool with the right metrics that would feel natural to use. You need to all be aligned around what you’re doing and what you’re aiming for before you can know what impact information you want to collect, what are good metrics and what are the right tools.
SEE ALSO: The Quint CEO and World Editors Forum Board member Ritu Kapur’s talk on ‘Gauging the Impact of your Journalism’ at the Asian Editors Summit in Singapore 2022.
About TBIJ’s impact vision
This can be divided into three ‘buckets’:
1) building a culture of impact within the organisation, and creating roles and editorial processes that embed impact thinking into everything we do
2) ensuring we build longterm meaningful relationships with civil society and other groups and individuals working on the same issues as us; and
3) taking proactive and creative steps to ensure our information, data and stories get to the various people who could benefit from them or who should be paying attention, in a format with which they can actively engage.
READ About the Bureau’s Impact Model and see examples of their impact value