Matthew Powers explores the new journalism jobs at NGOs

Story by Carleigh Oeth
Video by OR Media

Each term, the UO School of Journalism and Communication hosts the Demystifying Media Seminar Series, which brings expert speakers to campus to discuss the many ways media is constantly evolving.

This term, the SOJC has scheduled three Demystifying Media talks on some of the most controversial issues in media today:

  • Feb. 23: “Hackers, Data, and Code in the age of Trump” with Nikki Usher, assistant professor of media and public affairs, The George Washington University
  • March 3: “Sex, Surveillance and Shopping. Demystifying: How the Arabian Gulf Uses Social Media” with Sarah Vieweg, user experience researcher, Facebook
  • March 10: “Demystifying: The future of local newspapers” with Christopher Ali, assistant professor, media studies, University of Virginia

Last term, University of Washington Assistant Professor Matthew Powers spoke about the ways nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are blurring the lines between public relations, journalism and advocacy, and what this might mean for the future of communication.

We had the chance to sit down with Powers when he visited the SOJC in November. Here’s what he had to say about his work and the changes he sees in the communications and NGO worlds.

How did you become interested in the communication of NGOs?

I went to graduate school in New York, and I was fishing around for a dissertation project and talking with friends who worked for NGOs. They were telling me about their work and their days. I thought it was really interesting that you didn’t hear a lot of people talking about it, and I wanted to find out a little bit more.

So what did you find out? What are some of the things that blur the lines between journalism, PR and advocacy?

NGOs regularly send their researchers out to do things that seem quite a bit like journalistic work. And so they’re out there, they’re double sourcing, they’re asking questions — they don’t have any predisposition in terms of who’s wrong or right. They want to write it up in a clear format so audiences can consume it fairly easily, and they want to do it across a range of media. All of that is really similar to a lot of the problems journalists have.

In addition, they sometimes draw on public relations techniques: They have celebrities that they partner up with, they have press conferences — things like that that really draw on the playbook of PR technique. So [NGOs] operate in all of these spaces.

What sets the three areas — journalism, PR and advocacy — apart?

By their own account, NGO [workers] are not journalists, nor do they want to be. They’re advocates, and they’re proud of that. They have changes they want to see in the world, and they advocate for those changes. So what they’re doing is not reducible to journalism, even though in some ways it importantly contributes to it.

One of the things that make NGO [communicators] different from journalists is that they’re not subject to the same time demands or time schedules. It’s not as if they have a deadline and constantly need to produce something.

What [NGOs] are doing is not reducible to PR, because it's not as if it is purely strategic or only about relating to the public. So they operate at the intersection of these three different spaces, but those spaces are still analytically separable. We find people who blend [advocacy and journalism], but we know they are the exception and not the rule.

Can you talk about the transition of NGOs from the days when volunteers physically cut out stories from newspapers to where we are today, with NGO-related journalism becoming its own kind of business?

That’s a great question and an interesting history in itself. Part of the transformation is that advocacy groups have become highly professionalized. Another piece of it is that advocacy groups — NGOs in particular — have learned that the best way to boost their fundraising is to be in the media. Publicly communicating is a way to boost brand awareness and raise funds. A lot of different things have happened over the past 50 years to open up that space.

In your talk, you said that advocacy was once accomplished purely by passionate volunteers. How have changes in the ways NGOs communicate affected the role of volunteers’ passion?

I don’t think they’re necessarily less passionate. I think the major differences are what it takes to actually get to that position. In the past, you mostly volunteered. Now you have to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in journalism, law or international relations to even get into these organizations. And when you get in, you expect to make a salary that’s enough to put food on the table. That’s what has changed.

You also mentioned that NGOs tend to hire freelance journalists, and that can be potentially dangerous. How?

In terms of risk or danger, I meant for the freelancers. One of the issues for freelancers is that they’re operating in often conflict-ridden places, and they don’t have the full resources and support of a news organization or an NGO behind them. So they work on contracts without full organizational support to make sure they’re safe or protected.

The reality of 21st-century international news is that it really does tend to rely on freelancers. People build up their careers, their clips, by freelancing. I think that there’s a substantial amount of risk that comes with it: It’s irregular, you don’t know when your next contract will be. But one of the things that you also hear is that there’s a certain amount of flexibility and autonomy. You make your own schedule, you get to decide which stories you do and which you don’t want to do. It’s a mixed bag.

You said that NGOs typically cover things that news organizations are already on top of. What is something an NGO might get the scoop on before larger news outlets?

NGOs regularly are involved in producing research and writing reports on news topics and human rights stories many of which the news media don’t care about at all. Journalists working at major western news organizations are not regularly following those stories. So it’s absolutely true that [NGOs] produce the research. But the thing that becomes interesting is, once they produce the research, where does their energy go? They have finite resources, finite attention, finite energy. They have to make organizational decisions: “Of all the research that we produce, what are the things that we are going to place a lot of attention on in terms of trying to get the media to pick it up?”

How do social media play into all of this?

Social media offer both a lot of opportunities and a lot of challenges for NGOs. In terms of opportunities, it gives them real-time access to see the trending topics. That’s really important, and it gives NGO the opportunities to insert advocacy angles on trending news topics.

Social media is also a challenge to NGOs because often groups have built up their credibility by spending a lot of time with government officials and showing what needs to be done. Increasingly, that information is available publicly, and the NGOs will get criticisms. So one of the challenges of social media is how to balance the opportunities with the very real threats to organizational credibility that emerge.

For journalism and PR students trying to forge a path in NGO communications, where is a good place to start?

Well, school is a good place to start [laughs].… One of the things journalism schools [offer] in general is exposing students to the many different types of career tracks. Ten to 15 years ago, the career trajectory was fairly straightforward, but increasingly, you see people who just have radically different career trajectories.

It’s incumbent upon students to find alumni who are maybe five years out, doing things that you find interesting and asking, “How did you get there? What did you have to do?” [NGOs] are a path that students should be aware of. Beyond that, in any job it’s important to find the thing you’re passionate about.

Carleigh Oeth is a senior studying journalism in the SOJC. She is from Portland, Oregon, where she held an editorial internship with the city’s local arts magazine, Artslandia, during the summer of 2016. This is her first year as a part of the SOJC’s Communications team, and she is also working as an associate editor for the Daily Emerald. You can view some of her work on her online portfolio and visit her on Instagram @carleighoeth.


OR Media is a multimedia/video production team housed within the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Staffed by current and former SOJC students, this variable-credit class and student-run agency is a laboratory for experimentation and innovation as well as a place for the school’s top talent to test their production skills.