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Interview: Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou, Stavros Niarchos Foundation

Journalist Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou (Aννα-Κύνθια Μπουσδούκου) co-founded iMEdD, or the incubator for Media Education and Development, in Athens, Greece, where she serves as Managing Director. Since 2016, Anna-Kynthia has also served as an advisor to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation on grants related to journalism, and curates and presents the Foundation’s monthly forum SNFDIALOGUES

She has a deep journalistic background, having worked, over 13 years in journalism, as a radio reporter, a news editor, journalist and broadcast producer, and a regular columnist in various outlets. Notably, she was a news presenter on SKAI TV, and was also responsible for SKAI TV’s morning news program.

We talked in January 2022 about the media environment in Greece, how the Stavros Niarchos Foundation supports journalism, why she co-founded a new organisation in iMEdD, and how funders in Europe and across the world need to come together.

[Thanks to SNF's Sofia Kornarou and Panagiotis Pantelatos, and iMEdD's Vasso Batsomitrou.]

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Sameer Padania (SP): This may be the first time many of our readers are hearing about the work that the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) does to support journalism both in Greece and elsewhere. Can you give us a brief introduction to the Foundation and how it works?

Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou (A-KB): The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) is an international philanthropic organization with offices in Athens in Greece, in New York and in Monaco. We started as a foundation 25 years ago, and now we are active in more than 140 countries all over the world – including Greece, the rest of Europe, the United States, and also Africa.

As a global foundation our aim is to empower people. We do have certain process and plan, but at the same time, as the co-president of the foundation Andreas Dracopoulos says, we are very alert so that we can be flexible. We provide support through our major pillars, which are: social welfare, health and sports, [education] and arts and culture. Under this umbrella, you can find a real diversity of grant making - the grants are many - some are huge, like the Health Initiative that we’ve been running the last few years in Athens, and others, although they are smaller, have also changed the lives of many people.

SP: What led SNF to start working in the field of journalism and information?

A-KB: We focus a lot on civic discourse and the public space because we believe that this is one of the major human rights and for all the citizens regardless to the country they come from. [It is part of the need] to support and protect democracy. A few years ago, we realized that there was a lack of transparency and quality [in journalism], not just then, but at least for over the last decade, but also the fact that there was almost no space for public speech or for public discourse.

This was in combination with the crisis that Greece was suffering from, and, over the last decade, many other different kinds of crises all over Europe, and the world. [In some cases, these crises] had to do with politics, depicting the fact that many countries in Europe had lost their orientation. We all saw what happened in the USA. We saw what happened all over the world with the pandemic. Finally, we saw and we realised - not only the foundations, not only the funders, not only the journalists, but all of us as citizens - that we need news, and we need it in order to be well-informed. Because only if we are well-informed, we can make good decisions for our common future as a society.

So, the Foundation came up with ideas of how it could start supporting journalists - the ways were many and the options were many. Many foundations support by providing organisational or individual funding, and others follow other ways. I started working with SNF in 2016 as an advisor in the field of journalism related to global grants.

SP: Can you talk us through the approach that SNF takes to supporting and funding journalism?

A-KB: Of course, we support all our grantees - not only in the field of journalism – with money, which is of course very important, but from the beginning, we work with our grantees to offer also [holistic] support. So, we have groups who work [with our grantees] to support them in the best way we can, to become more sustainable and as strong as they need in order to be independent and find other sources of funding. We support them to get and exchange knowledge and to find a space where they can implement this knowledge.

In 2016, for example, we supported [Greek] journalists to attend workshops and programs at Columbia University School of Journalism. We [also] have a series of grants in New York and a collaboration on the ground with the New York Times. The Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa has been running a lot of years now, with a conference, but also training for local journalists, especially in the field of data, [which] is something very, very important.

The bottom line is that how could we, as a foundation, combine funding with the exchange of knowledge in specific fields and in the global journalistic community.

SPSo how does the incubator for Media Education and Development - or iMEdD - fit in? It’s a separate entity supporting by the SNF, but you are still part of SNF and leading iMEdD.

A-KB: My team and I, as journalists, believe in and support cross-border journalism, because journalists cannot be limited by borders. Nothing happens just here or just there. Everything is connected and this is actually the philosophy of the Foundation as a global organization.

In 2017, we started thinking how we can create a core of journalists all over the world, and the Foundation and I came up with the idea of establishing this non-profit, international, journalistic organization. I am running this organization, iMEdD, which is funded by the Foundation, as the founder and managing director, but at the same time I am still a member of the management team of the Foundation, through which we're running grant making in the field of journalism worldwide.

iMEdD has an international orientation, and since our beginning, we started working with colleagues, universities, media organizations both from Greece and abroad as equals.

SP: What did the media environment in Greece feel like at that time? And how has it changed since then?

A-KB: Although we are focusing on journalism all over the world, [not just in Greece,] all the team of journalists at iMEdD are from the media industry in Greece and we are located in Athens, so I can say that the environment is tough.

Obviously, a non-profit organization like iMEdD cannot change everything in three years - or in three decades - but what we have been trying to do is something totally different, especially in Greece, compared with what the existing media companies and the existing media industry do. This has to do with the way we approach journalism and the quality of information to the public - from the beginning we didn't follow the traditional way or model of journalism, we have a totally different plan and orientation.

Our second goal (and question) was, “are they – the journalists - going to trust us?” The motto for this year’s iMEdD International Journalism Week [postponed from February to October 2022] is “A Matter of Trust.” Due to COVID, we saw the lack of trust we have [in society] towards politicians, journalists, scientists, to each other to our friends or families, etc. So, it all comes down to trust. And journalists don't trust easily, including trusting each other, so we were very curious from the beginning [of iMEdD], if they would understand what we're planning to do.

SP: What has the response been like? Do the journalists trust and understand iMEdD?

A-KB: The need is so huge, much, much bigger than we thought it was. From the start, many journalists applied to us with their ideas, requesting [support for] projects, and so we started working with a group of very active journalists in Greece, most of whom don't have the resources to do their work. We saw how many journalists trust us, came to us, [because] we offer them as journalists the conditions they need in order first of all to have time to investigate their stories. Secondly, to have the tools to raise the issues they wanted into the stories. And third, to give them the opportunity to release all the stories without having an agenda, only [editorial] guidance and support from our side. And then we offer them the independence to release their stories whenever, wherever they decide.

So we see that while the media might be limited, the journalists are out there and they are trying to find ways to do their work and to regain this trust, and they are many. Most of them are not satisfied with what happened [to the media environment]. But they don't have another option. And of course, I'm not saying that all of them are willing to do the work through this process. Of course, journalists are responsible and media companies are responsible, and the whole environment of the media industry is responsible [for the current status]. Greece is a very small country, and we have so many media companies, so that's why we see the problem being so huge, and the lack of trust, getting bigger and bigger. But we have the same problem all over Europe and also in the States.

SP: What are the reasons for that lack of trust? Is it a lack of trust in media owners, the government, the journalists, the journalism that’s available to them, but not meeting their needs?

A-KB: The reasons for the lack of trust in Greece are both different and similar to why there is lack of trust in the media globally. We have many common reasons with the USA, for example, or with the other countries in Europe, but also [have] some major differences. For example, in Greece, we have a totally different framework of media ownership, as you mentioned.

No company could be sustainable if it's not the major activity of the owner. So, if, for example, I'm the owner of the company, I would promote innovation, and provide new tools, and I would [spend my time thinking] how this company could be more sustainable because this is what happens all over the world. But if you have companies that are [consistently] not sustainable, then why do you have a media company and why do you have a company at all? And I don't want to give the answer. I think that all of us know the answer.

So, all of us can understand why there is lack of transparency, a lack of trust, because I cannot understand something very simple: why does somebody own an unsustainable company?

SP: Because it's useful for power, because it's useful for shaping opinion.

A-KB: So why should I trust, how can I trust the news, right?

We moved into this new era - which will one day become a past era – many years ago, but the media companies are still doing what they have been doing all these years, and we don't know where from to be informed. Of course, we [in journalism] have to be critical, to rethink, to understand what happened, and how we lost trust, but at the same time we should decide what we can do about this. I think that the whole process and model should have been changed a long time ago – so we have to do something. This is what we are trying to do at iMEdD.

That's why we aren’t working with media companies - because if media companies were doing their work well, there would be no reason for us to exist. But we’re working with journalists who work in the existing media, because we would like to focus on the content and the quality of the information that the public receives. All of us are citizens and whether we agree or not with the content of that information, we should all agree that we need transparent content, that we need facts, not only opinions, that we need data, we need analysis, and then [we will be able] to decide [for ourselves].

At the same time, we're trying to focus on the way the whole model, in the field and the business of journalism, could be changed. For example, we’ve seen many independent initiatives from journalists in the USA, supported by a diversity of funders or subscribers, but unfortunately, in Europe, and especially in Greece, we are not so familiar with all these models, this process because until now we have followed only one model. We are not very well-educated, for example, to do subscriptions because - and here is the worst thing - as an audience we don't feel that we should pay for the news.

SP: I will come back to that question about other funders in a moment, but first, can you explain how the incubator works and what is working?

A-KB: The incubator works with an open call. [To date] we have an annual call where individuals or groups of journalists can apply with their ideas [media projects]. Then an independent, international jury – i.e. not only from Greece, and not iMEdD staff - evaluates all these ideas, [makes] a shortlist, has a series of interviews with the candidates, and then decides the final list of who will be supported.

But… we don't have a specific number [of grants or awards] – which is very difficult for the members of the jury because we don't tell them either the amount or the number. And the idea could be from a story to the establishment of an organization [and any other media format].

We don't care about supporting ten projects per year, or 10,000. One year we might not receive good ideas, so what should we do? Support ten ideas because we said we have to support ten ideas? This is not the right way. One year we could have one good idea! The jury won't have to evaluate a project in terms of the budget or of how many projects they should accept. We worked a lot on the [application form] so we could understand how [the applicants] have worked on their idea, which kind of research they have done, and what sense do they have of the budget.

[iMEdD works in six main pillars: the “incubator” that provides holistic support to journalists to create their projects, “ideas zone” that carries training programs - including a new key and long-term project focusing on Local News Media in Greece, the “Lab” that creates original and data-driven content, “Bridge” that supports initiatives dealing with social issues through journalism, the “Out of the Box” for standalone content productions and the “Inside the Box” for projects in collaboration with SNF. Recently iMEdD has also launched its own Podcast section.]

SP: What kinds of journalists are applying?

A-KB: For example, so many [journalists] – some upcoming, some who have already had a long career – came to us with their ideas [for projects or investigations], many of them because they cannot implement these ideas through the media company where they work, either because of the cost or the time or the content. Nobody wants to support the investigation for different reasons, some acceptable, some unacceptable. And some told us that “we don't know where to go or work – because nobody cares.” And this doesn’t matter to iMEdD, because we are here in order to support the content. That's why we call it an incubator, because we support them in a holistic way and at the same time, pre-Covid and hopefully again soon, they can work at our offices - so that means they can interact with each other, and a journalist working on one project can share knowledge with somebody else who is working on a different story.

With some journalists from our group, we are working with them on a day-to-day basis for nine months, in terms of the planning of their work, of the network of consultants they need, of how we can bring them in contact with other journalists all over the world, of the production support they need, of the travels they need to do, of any knowledge or tool they need to have in order to start implementing their idea. We don't give them directly money because as iMEdD, we're not grant makers, we're journalists and we support journalists in order to produce a better quality of content. But all the [mentors] are professionals and are involved in order for something to be implemented.

The truth is that we haven't received so many [applications for] the establishment of organizations, although we had received and supported some of them but it's much more difficult, and we all can understand why, and are starting to try to encourage them to come up with similar ideas.

SP: If you want the model to change, what are the other pieces of the picture that you need to change?

A-KB:  We are trying to build many of those pieces. We started with an incubator as our first pillar so we can support the quality of the content – and we focus on the journalists who release this content. And then [we are supporting] the environment where journalists are working, and then [we are focusing on] the trust from the public in terms of the news they receive.

At the same time we have the iMEdD Lab, for example,. During the pandemic we started gathering data, at a point where it was very difficult to find, gather, analyze and release the data. We received a letter from the WHO congratulating us for the application that we launched on the pandemic in Greece and they asked us if they could use our data. [In terms of the authorities,] some trusted us and others didn't. When we release anything, we always release the source, where we found it, how we did it, who we are, and what we have to say. Very basic, but unfortunately, here is the point: [in Greece] we have a major problem with the basics [of how to publish].

So we are here at the same time, to support journalists, and through the Foundation, for example, to hold a series of public discussions – the SNF Dialogues - every month for the past four years. Here we give the public and the audience the opportunity to engage and join the discussion. Due to Covid we have tried a lot of different formats – global livestreams, and webcasts, for example – but we will have again some physical events. And we [are trying to show that] as journalists there's only one way to do our work: through transparency and independence. After that we have to discuss about the whole model of the industry because at the end of the day it’s an industry - we're not doing our hobby.

And that's a big challenge for me, per se, why I joined the foundation and why I established iMEdD with the rest of the team. We are independent - I know that this is very hard for some to believe - but we are independent. We focus a lot on the process and how we can build the community and the way we will be in touch and dialogue again, having agreements and disagreements and start working on real journalism.

At this point, we are trying through iMEdD to start the change from the bottom up - we cannot change the whole picture of the news globally and journalists and the part of democracy which has to do with journalism, so we're going from the bottom up, in order to start changing things that are related to the content and to the way we [journalists] do our jobs. That's the reason why the foundation does not support only through funding, which is valuable, but is not so effective [on its own]. And believe me, it's much harder [to give] support through this productive way, and not just a cheque.

SP:  Of course money alone won't solve the crisis – but it is a key part of building a more sustainable future. For the first time we are seeing major international and collaborative efforts happening to support independent journalism: Civitates, Pluralis, IFPIM, the Global Media Defence Fund, the Media Viability Accelerator, for example, as well as many regional and national efforts around the world, like iMEdD. SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos called a few years ago for other philanthropies, magnates, industrialists, people with wealth to join SNF in funding journalism and supporting civic discourse, public space and free speech. What would you say to other funders in Europe, in other European countries that are facing similar challenges? What advice would you give from the experience of SNF and of IMEdD?

A-KB: The most important thing is to connect the dots and to have a diversity of discussions and also of synergies, like the way we're doing right now, with initiatives [and organisations] who share similar visions and missions.

Let's come together and discuss [as funders across the world], but discuss about ideas, not only about money - I'm not saying that money’s not important, but there's a time when money will finish! Of course, all these independent initiatives need money, but we need the ideas in order to find more money [in the future]. Sustainability starts with money in order to give you an opportunity to build ideas.

It's an open discussion - somebody [should] start brainstorming, so we can see something [new and interesting] and learn more about it. And at the same time, from all these pieces connected, we come up with new and fresh ideas, like iMEdD for example. [Nobody made us try to reinvent things with iMEdD], but if you don't start discussing, exchanging ideas, you cannot do anything. That's the reason why we need money but at the same time, we need ideas - in order to move on and to have a kind of evolution.

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