Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wanted: A Social Network for Global Health News

Towards building a social network for real global health news on the cheap.

The promise: the Web allows anyone to have a voice.

The reality: the Web is actually narrowing the bounds of conversation. We’re recreating in the digital world the same categories and divisions that exist in the real world—only stronger. (See James Evans' recent analysis in Science for supporting evidence in scientific publishing online. On a related note, check out this study about "the winner's curse.")

Case in point: global health news coverage. This topic always falls between the cracks in the mainstream press—somewhere between “world news” and “health news.” Those offline categories are simply getting stronger in the online world. News categories are not yet miscellaneous enough, as David Weinberger describes.

In my experience, most global health news is actually promotional, not journalistic in nature.

A possible solution and the reason for this message: organizing the folks who are already writing about global health news online for free. Note: this is not going to pay anybody’s bills but since we are doing it anyway (as a way of keeping online notes for a book, learning, self-promotion, etc.), why not make it as powerful as it can be?

Some background: the fact that we were able to cover global health news at all was a happy result of the inefficiencies in the advertising model that financed most of the news business until very recently. Yes, most of the health advertising in TIME Magazine, for example, came from pharmaceutical companies but the firewall between edit and the publishing side, my own interests and those of several colleagues plus the fact that drug companies were okay with the fact that their ads reached both people who wanted their medications as well as those who did not, allowed us to write about global health and other less obviously remunerative articles. Keyword-based advertising has changed all that but that’s a topic for another post. (See Ethan Zuckerman for a really clear introduction to the value of advertising inefficiency, especially the part about how Bloomingdales underwrites the New York Time's Africa coverage)

After spending a lot of time thinking about this and talking to lots of people, I’m starting to accept that foundations are NOT going to pay for global health news coverage. And there probably is not a very good business model for it either. Oh yes, certain sections will get peeled off—anything having to do with mobile phones, pharmaceuticals or risk management. Plenty of opportunities for targeted advertising, subscriptions or commercial contracts there.

But the same market failures that have hobbled the development of new TB drugs over the past 50 years also affect the production and coverage of in-depth global health news.

Note, I am not talking about creating an educational service—like Kaiser’s Nor am I envisioning a PR newswire for global health—like (which was developed by a PR company for the Global Health Council).

Both are necessary but not sufficient to what I would like to see, which is an independent editorial voice in global health news.

The news industry as we know it is undergoing radical transformation. It is too busy focusing on survival to care what happens to global health news. The Knight Foundation and others are focusing on local community news and investigative journalism. The foundations that fund global health are taking some baby steps—like the Gates Foundation funding NPR, PRI and the Jim Lehrer show—but they won’t do something bigger, I think, because they don’t want to give up control of the message.

So that leaves the people who are doing it for little or no money, out of passion or as an adjunct to other paying projects. (Heaven help us.)

Meanwhile, how do we get the values, the best of what we aspire to as journalists, as global citizens, baked into whatever the new systems are? I'm going to try buttonholing as many of my fellow participants at the meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Seattle April 16-19 about this as I can. This is not something anyone can do on their own. But is there a critical mass willing to try? That's what I would like to know.

I welcome your thoughts.

Related posts:
Sharing and Global Health Blogging
Update on the Global Health Blogging Experiment
Community Organizing Meets Global Health Blogging
Looking for Context in Global Health Reporting


Ben said...

I am the editor at a content producing, donor-funded UN project.

Our PlusNews HIV/AIDS channel this year is strongly supported by the Government of Sweden.

State donors are a key source of funding and as the mainstream media whittles down international coverage (or collapses entirely) the "public goods" of free-to-the-reader content is an argument that can be made.

Ben Parker

Maryn McKenna said...

I'm in, of course — as one of those doing this for the equivalent of love or food stamps, as part of my other projects (independent journalist, blogger, and also staffer at a grant-supported infectious-disease news site).

Look forward to AHCJ, but since not everyone travels to meetings, also hope we can gather a community here.

Christine Gorman said...


As you know, state-funding for news coverage is a bit suspect in the U.S. but we may have to adjust our prejudices!

Yes, yes! We need virtual as well in-person meetings.

Anonymous said...

A now, a little traction on Twitter:

bobfinn: @cgorman "That leaves the people who are doing it for little or no money..." Too bad that passion don't pay the mortgage. #ghnews

cgorman: @bobfinn. Agreed. Not everyone can participate to an equal extent. It's a little "Fahrenheit 451." Saving what we can.

Ben said...

C-SPAN, VOA and PBS? BBC, RFI, AFP? State subsidy for news is neither new nor unknown in the US, surely?

Christine Gorman said...

Hi Ben,

You may be surprised.

A lot has changed since 1967, when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (parent of PBS) was formed. It's unlikely a similar setup could be created today.

C-Span is actually funded by the cable industry, not the US government--although it does, of course, distribute public domain video of Congress, etc. Its revenue comes from other things.

Voice of America, by law, is mandated to explain U.S. foreign policy--a job it does fairly but that limits its purview.

BBC is subsidized by the British govt in the U.K. but is for-profit in the U.S.

AFP and RFI are French, of course.

The point being there is more experience with government subsidy of news coverage in Europe than in U.S.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly news coverage, but Stephen Colbert interviews Jay Keasling. See more at

Anonymous said...


I certainly echo your call for organization of quality global health news online. With the shrinking number of newspapers and newspaper staff, the need for independent global health news that is produced under professional journalism standards is certainly acute. As someone who previously edited the Kaiser Family Foundation reports and currently work as Policy Communications Coordinator at the Global Health Council I have a few thoughts to share about Global Health TV and

GHTV is produced by WebsEdge. The Global Health Council does not pay WebsEdge for interviews they conduct with global health newsmakers. We provide input on content for news items, and WebsEdge makes its own production decisions about other news to cover. WebsEdge does sell larger packages and promotional pieces to organizations. GHTV also contains global health news pulled from wire services and newspapers, as well as a From the Field section that functions as sort of a YouTube for global health – allowing field workers all around the world to post short videos of their work.

As for, its primary mission as you say is as an educational tool for journalists and others to report on global health. However, as with the other reports on, GHR each work day adds syntheses of stories on HIV, TB, malaria and overall global health.

There are many other great syntheses of news stories on various global health issues –
such as CCMC’s PUSH Journal for stories on reproductive health, child health and maternal health – but I agree that it would be a very positive step if foundations and other funders would pay for a global health news service that has an indepedent newsroom.

Vince Blaser
Policy Communications Coordinator
Global Health Council

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks, Richard and Vince, for your comments. I'm going offline for a couple of weeks but am eager to keep the discussion going when I get back.

Jackie and Elizabeth said...

Hi Christine, a social network for global health news sounds like a fantastic idea and one we would be happy to be a part of.

We blog about global health law news and info on our Global Health Law blog

Jackie and Elizabeth

Christine Gorman said...

Jackie and Elizabeth,

Congrats on your six-month anniversary of blogging. Stay tuned re a social network for global health news.

I see you are at George Washington. Do you interact at all with the folks at
The Pump Handle?

Jackie said...

Thanks Christine,

Wow,six months already :)

We are actually at Georgetown University Law Center and not GWU. Thanks though for the link to Pump Handle- It looks a great blog on public health and the environment. Worth regular visits.

Christine Gorman said...

Jackie, Sorry I conflated GWU and Georgetown. Still the Pump Handle folks are good people to know.

peter woodford said...

Hi Folks, I'd be interested to see if our brandstation social network platform would fit your needs. You can make private teams, share events, comments, blogs, forums, videos, files, profiles... the sites can be closed for members or open to the public with moderation and activity insight reports. Peter, CTO

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks for the info re brandstation. We've also heard good things about Ning. Exploring what other off-the-shelf stuff makes sense. We'll see.