Cause-Related News: Going Outside the Mainstream Media

In a previous life, I was an editor and reporter for a Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper in the Bronx. In retrospect, a decade in community journalism at a newspaper where the best stories literally walked in off the street and demanded the editor’s ear was appropriate experience for the following years spent reporting stories online and then urging people to take up causes. Community journalism was activist journalism; we adhered to strict standards of reporting but we also demonstrated a definitive point of view – a purpose beyond selling newspapers. And that experience showed just how clearly compelling stories with real human beings could bring about change – whether fighting city hall over zoning or exposing corruption. As reporters, we didn’t call ourselves social activists but we were clearly part of a a culture of social activism, a key factor in the formula for protest and change. In short, the stories we wrote helped to drive the causes we wrote about.

Those were the days before a commercial Internet shortened the distance between information and action. These days, social media networks can break stories and secure support for causes that the mainstream media ignores.

In late September, 2008 Cyclone Ivan hit slashed across the African island of Madagascar with winds of more than 125 miles per hour, bringing heavy rains and massive across the island. Government officials reported that the cyclone left about 190,000 people homeless and caused heavy damage to crops, roads and public buildings. More than 80 people died. The storm hit Madagascar during an unusually heavy rainy season, to the ground was already saturated and flood damage has been sustained from previous storms. The Republic of Madagascar, formerly the Malagasy Republic, comprises the world’s fourth largest island, a poor nation in the Indian Ocean that nonetheless enjoys vital importance as a center of somewhat fragile biodiversity.

Media coverage of the cyclone, a storm roughly the size and strength of Hurricane Katrina, was minimal – a few wire service stories, and postings on sites like In the United States, there was little coverage and no video on the cable news stations. Indeed, I learned about Cyclone Ivan by reading Beth Kanter’s blog. Beth is a self-described “Web Technology Evangelist” and one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of social media on nonprofit organizations. She’s a prolific blogger with a vast network of online correspondents, and I’m always surprised by what turns up in her feed; her curious mind and extraordinary linking powers always bring in some fascinating stories. And it was Beth who told me about the work of blogger Joan Razafimharo and by extension, the social venture known as Foko Madagascar.

Foko Madagascar was formed quickly after the gathering of the exclusive TED conference’s regional expansion into Africa in 2007. The conference’s theme was “Africa the next Chapter” and several social entrepreneurs and bloggers pooled their activism to start the Foko project, to help support Madagascar’s development. That work took several forms: a biodiversity initiative (Madagascar has some of the highest biodiversity in the world and is home to as many 12,000 plant species but struggles with the use of fire as an gricultural tool by poor farmers on the island), a women’s craft skills program aimed at helping poor women to make additional income from embroidery, sewing, and weaving, and a blogging project. In partnership with the Rising Voices initiative, the Foko Blog Club is teaching young people in Madagascar blogging skills. Rising Voices is a project of Global Voices, the “non-profit global citizens’ media project” founded at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a research think-tank focused on the Internet’s impact on society and it aims to “spread the tools and techniques of citizen media to communities that are under-represented on the conversational web.”

Lova Rakotomalala, Foko’s project manager for health, described the goals of the blogging project on Foko’s blog:

We all know too well how actively participating in the global conversation through digital media can have a major impact in our way of thinking and approach towards development and global awareness. Joining the global conversation is critical on many levels. Firstly, it fosters the exchange of ideas with projects with similar goals such as the former and current rising voices grantees. Many creative ideas have been tested in different settings all over the world; learning from the rest of the world’s experiences can only help our project be more efficient in achieving our goals. Secondly, it allows Malagasy people to illustrate and directly share with the rest of the world their perspectives on issues that they’d know best. Thirdly, joining the global conversation will expand the network of people with similar interests nationally and internationally, connecting them and promoting positive collaborations.

In February, 2008 the effort to connect developing regions like Madagasgar to the wired world came into sharp focus. Joan Razafimharo covered the cyclone on her own blog and sent out calls for help to her network of digital friends. The Foko blog group kept track of YouTube video coverage and posted many links to blogs worldwide. One particular post from author and blogger Chris Mooney on his blog The Intersection stood out:

“When Britney shaves her head, everybody hears about it.When Ana Nicole Smith dies, everybody hears about it.But when Madagascar gets struck by a record six tropical cyclones in one season, killing hundreds and displacing perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, not to mention jeopardizing food supplies for many more, does it garner major and sustained U.S. press coverage?”

Yes, the hundreds of people who read Beth Kanter’s blog daily or subcribe to her RSS feed or follow her on Twitter heard about the Madagasgar disaster. The bloggers at Foko (whose motto is “It takes a village to raise an idea”) had fullfilled – at least in a small way – one of the main goals of the new organization, to join the worldwide dialogue by blogging their way into the flow of news. And links directed aid through the United Nations World Food Programme. It wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it did show the power of one blogger telling a compelling story to a larger audience – a blogger with a real point of view not content to sit on the sidelines.