WHO IS LIBBY POWELL?
“We are journalistic in nature, but we blur the line and try to work across different sectors.”
What is it like to not have a voice? More specifically, what is it like to have a voice – a powerful, intelligent, passionate voice – but one that no one can hear? This is the case for, literally, millions of people in the world today who have stories to tell, and stories that need or should be heard, but who are not able to access mainstream media channels that we all still turn to for our news. These are stories about fleeing violence, about what its like to be disabled or about trying to see where the road from poverty to prosperity begins.
Now, I know that social media has evolved this equation, to be sure. However, I also know first hand that even when you have access to all the right tools, and resources and great stories, it is still a massive effort to break out of the overwhelming ocean of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and thousands of other “individual voice outlets” to be heard at scale.
Libby Powell, my guest for the 116th episode of the Terms of Reference Podcast, is implementing a vision for giving voice to the unheard in mainstream media. She is the founding director of an organization called On Our Radar, a non-profit communications agency that seeks out, supports and helps to amplify unheard voices.
Libby started out like many of us: for several years she worked in humanitarian aid supporting health and advocacy programmes in Palestine and the refugee camps of Lebanon. But then she retrained herself as a multimedia journalist to cover development and rights issues for the UK press. And, as you’d expect, she’s no slacker – in 2010, she won the Guardian International Development Journalism award and in 2014, she was listed as one of Journalism.co.uk‘s top female innovators in digital media.
You can connect with Libby here:
IN TOR 116 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- The power of communication skills for disenfranchised communities.
- Libby’s work on validating the literal voices of early dementia patients.
- The account of her discoveries in Africa: resourcefulness the dreads of freelancing for big media houses, and reluctant innovation entrepreneurship.
- The value of engineering and big data for a person admittedly “not good at math.”
- How to find your voice by making everyone heard.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- On Our Radar
- The Guardian
International Development Journalism 2010 Competition
- Dementia Diaries UK
- Abdul Hakim bin Sahidi (Robotics)
- 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak
- Dementia, disabilities
- Elderly Care
- 3D Printing
- Voice mail and SMS
- News and Media Agencies
- Journalism, communication, content skills capacity building
- Citizen Journalism
- Mobile media outlets
- 2010s Arab Spring
- Freetown, Sierra Leone
- Northern Sri Lanka
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
On Our Radar’s Journalistic Pursuit
A small team that wants to run communication agencies to the influential from the isolated and excluded.
Communications is a way to attain support, own value.
Planning and technology are big investments, as are “brand new voices.”
Is the elderly’s opinions worth reporting on
Dementia Diaries UK. Early stage dementia is a growing issue.
Voicemail on a 3D printed phone becomes a reporting system. The phone has one button.
“A supportive place” that gives patient validation in their views, a “place on the table.”
A (superficially) low tech approach. SMS is also employed.
Patients keep a voice diary. Recordings are serviced to media and learning organizations. Libby thinks this incentivizes them to keep recording.
Libby tried collaborative journalism in a small test in Sierra Leone.
4 years later Sierra Leone is still an active hub, helping other agencies.
Ebola Outbreak. Nobody could get in or out. The Sierra Leone team stood up to the challenge to report in real time. Not new technology but resourcefulness and repurposing existing tech for new purposes.
They provided ground reporting to The Guardian.
They received a lot of recognition.
After Sierra Leone, OOR pursued stories on Nigerian corruption and homelessness.
Starting up about Malaria.
“I wish it had been so simple and planned.”
“Organic” start. Libby worked in Middle East development.
Active warfare in her work. She recognized the value or stories to inform development design, as well as her “pleasure in listening to people and collecting stories.”
She also got to report as a freelancer, “but I absolutely hated it. It was soul destroying to be a white middle-class girl talking about conflict. I found it false.”
Her work was necessary. “But it was not my story to tell at all.”
There was “glossy” editorializing, and she could not keep contact with the communities after they sourced her.
An assignment in northern Sri Lanka was the final straw. A 2-week full-time involvement was cut down to 300 words. “I did a massive disservice to the community,” feeling she had not given them an actual voice.
“Maybe I can set up a new kind of media house.”
Building community-centered communication and content development skills
Libby’s first project came from a contact from a previous work assignment on a disability charity. She knew work on disability in Sierra Leone.
She returned to the places. “Remember me, I’m the white person who turned up and asked you about this story and then left. I’m back.”
“Would you like to learn the basics of journalism?”
The project model started to evolve and obtain further funding. Libby went to Kenya.
“We literally shoe-stringed it the first couple of years.” Slow growth.
“People started to see it was a valuable service.”
Media houses were key, or so they thought. “They have very little money for innovation.”
Not even the CNNs or the Fox News’ of the world?
1-minute recap of the state of modern media.
“Journalism is a strange beast.” On top of “citizen journalism” less technical preparation seemed to be well embraced by the industry.
A collaboration between amateurs and professionals that was also a clash.
Next comes media distribution: mobile, urgency.
Good news: everyone wants what Libby makes. But with not a lot of community investment funds.
The ways they set up their budgets does not respond to rapid changes easily.
Some organization do have budgets for innovation and capacity building.
Working with people sharing the same ideals “is a real joy.”
Playing in the major leagues, or against them?
Working on the mechanism to generate content is the challenge, not as much placing.
UK and European press will use stories OOR makes, but mostly won’t help with the investments on the ground. They are used to the freelancing.
OOR focuses on personal stories, which seems to have worked in their favor.
First mover into scale?
“There’s been so many pioneers.”
OOR launched during the Arab Spring. She got an offer, half involvement, half journalism. It allowed for depth in the reporting
Growing OOR came with concerns about losing their approaches of “working with small groups and small, powerful stories.” It was overcome.
Scaling could come through access and infrastructure, or through a larger number of local involvements.
OOR is evolving into a framework, to show others how they can create “journalistic empowerment.” With a leaner team.
OOR still delivers full-cycle projects “That’s where we learn and do a lot of our innovation.” Each new project is an experiment, with careful recollection.
A Freetown leader that went through an OOR workshop, now is a city leader in disabilities communication “in the worst network” becoming a mentor.
OOR is not about technology. “We’ll never be the best.”
Technology is all about relationships
Communities are beneficiaries, also collaborators, experts.
Delivery is also all about relationships.
“I’m a massive risk taker.”
Strong writing, weak maths skills. She outsourced finance as soon as she could.
Storytelling helps to manage expectations, as long as it reflects reality and fulfill its promises.
“We are skill and experience sharers.”
Some contracts, but a lot of grant applications. “Lots of rejections, little feedback.”
OOR has tried crowdsourcing ideas and toyed with for-profit, but it was a no-go.
Finally a pipeline of contract where OOR plays an intermediary role, is the model that has worked best so far. With ONG and private organizations.
“We work with anyone who wants to use information for change.”
Surplus for OOR means freedom for community stories.
When does a community go from unheard to heard?
“Many forces at play.” Level of resources met, team work effort.
The team must ask from time to time “where can we add most value? Where is it possible for us to do so?”
Some environments do not let OOR operate. Risks were too vast for the value they would have added in South Sudan.
Smaller teams facilitate keeping in contact with the journalistic development “seeds.”
- She has not read a newspaper in 4 months
- VR Media, The Guardian
- Accessing Top World Journalism on Mobile
- People who have done before what she is about to do
- Medecines Sans Frontiers MSF. Mapping crowdsourcing app game
- Big Data “I’m not a numbers person, but this is very exciting”
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