*This article originally appeared on the Guardian Online on 24 September.
Thomson Reuters lays the Foundation for future generations of journalists
Charity's powerful mix of humanitarian endeavour and journalistic excellence is one media brands can learn from.
Monique Villa never planned to join a charity. But then the Thomson Reuters Foundation is no ordinary charity. With 26 full-time journalists around the world and a globally recognised media brand attached to it, the foundation looks and feels very much like a professional news provider.
The clue to its social-orientated identity lies in its content. Click through to its online portal and you'll find precious little of Thomson Reuters' bread-and-butter stories. So it's out with stock market updates and breaking political news. Instead, the foundation favours hard-hitting stories from some of the most overlooked corners of the world.
"We really pick the issues that are usually under-reported. If Reuters is going to cover a story, we won't cover it. There's no point duplicating," said Villa, who took over as the foundation's chief executive five years ago.
Reporting the under-reported
The foundation's news focus is spelled out in the subject tabs at the top of its website: humanitarian, women's rights, corruption, the human impacts of climate change and, more recently, social enterprises.
During her time at the helm, French-born Villa has brought in new journalists and expanded the scope of the foundation's activities. In a way, she's the ideal mix: a former senior executive at AFP and then Reuters, she started out her career as a globe-trotting newswire journalist. So she knows not only how to build a brand, but how to scoop a story too.
Both those hats make her a big believer in data-led stories, for instance. Back in 2011, she instructed her team to investigate the worst countries in the world to be a woman. They went away, dug through their sources and came up with a ranking. Surprisingly, India found itself among the worst performers, alongside the likes of Afghanistan and Somalia.
The impact was immediate, she notes: "I was asked by many media outlets around the world, 'How is this? This (India) is the biggest democracy in the world. This is impossible'. But it was very true." The revelations about systemic abuse stemming from the Delhi rape case have proved her to be absolutely on the mark.
She's pleased that "newspapers all over the world" covered the poll, as they did a follow-up ranking on women in the G20 countries (in which India also came bottom). Raising public awareness of social injustices around the world is a large part of what the foundation is all about. Other topics Villa and her colleagues have homed in on recently include human trafficking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
What also excites Villa is the difference they are making on the ground. Activist groups are using the information that the foundation reports to demand answers of their leaders, she said: "By gathering information and crunching data, we gave them a tool to ask for change." A similar poll on life as a woman is due out in early November, with a focus on the Arab world.
The same focus on using the tools of the media trade to effect change is evident in the foundation's training programme. Over the last three decades, over 11,000 professional journalists from 170 or so countries have attended one of its one-week courses. Some of the subject matter is general, such as core skills in television reporting or photojournalism. But, where possible, the training is tailored to local needs. For example, the foundation runs courses on elections reporting in the regal state of Bhutan, and investigative reporting in Jordan.
Nor does the foundation stick just to the classroom. Two years ago, a group of Egyptian journalists trained by the foundation came asking for help. National elections were pending and there was no unbiased news provider to inform voters, they said. Villa flew to Cairo, helped raise some funding (mostly from the UK Foreign Office) and, in October 2011, the Arab-language news service Aswat Masriya was born (now also in English). "It has made a real difference because during all this troubled period that there is now in Egypt, we've had 50,000 unique readers a day," she says.
The foundation is now supporting a similar venture, The Source, in Zimbabwe. Both The Source and Aswat Masriya have a precedent in Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq), which was established immediately after the US invasion of Iraq. Nearly ten years on, it's still functioning as an independent entity. "It shows that if you train people well, then they can find sustainability," said Villa.
While the foundation models much of its approach to reporting and its service delivery on that of Reuters, Villa is keen to stress the charity's statutory independence. That allows her to raise funding from multiple sources and freely follow her nose as to "where we can make a difference".
That said, the lines do sometimes blur. Many of Villa's team are ex-Thomson Reuters journalists or on secondment from the news agency, for example. They are hosted in the company's bureaus as well. For its part, Thomson Reuters draws on the foundation's news reports or information when they judge them of interest to its client. So a "win-win", she said.
Villa herself confesses to enjoying the compote of humanitarian endeavour and journalistic excellence. "It's the first time in my life that I've completely reconciled my business balance with my journalistic side", she said. It's a powerful mix, and one that all media brands could learn from.