A semi-polished pitch for a potentially large, high-impact project: launching an EA-focused, online longform newspaper. The initial write-up of the idea in my shortform received more interest than I expected so I am now presenting this project idea in more detail to better gauge potential interest.
"News, stories, and interviews on doing the most good"
In short, The Altruist is a working title for a new news organisation that would roughly have two aims. First, to write engaging articles on the most important issues and causes, increasing public awareness of and interest in the world’s most pressing problems. Second, The Altruist would aim to boost the coverage and knowledge of high-impact work done within EA, helping valuable people and organisations increase their profile.
Plausible routes to high-impact for this project include bringing more people into the community, and increasing external donations to EA organisations, as well as harder to quantify effects like mitigating risks of reputation damage to EA and influencing the quality and direction of public debate.
What follows is an explanation for what I think this project could look like, why it might be valuable, some rough estimates for how impactful it could be, and a pitch for how this could be made into a reality. I don’t think I’m the first, or will be the last, to have the rough idea of this sort of project. Hopefully, this proposal brings us a step closer to making it happen.
What is The Altruist?
Put simply, the concept of The Altruist is a news agency that provides journalistic coverage of EA topics and organisations. This would differ from the content on the Forum in style and presentation, focusing on engaging, descriptive content rather than maximising the rigour and detail of the arguments presented.
I imagine The Altruist operating through its own website with a small, dedicated team of reporters, editors, and web/ content designers. The best articles could be included in a monthly/ quarterly digital news magazine distributed via email. For the easiest comparison, The Altruist’s content would look to mirror and build on the type of reporting done by Vox’s Future Perfect team, greatly increasing the overall amount of high-quality that EA topics and organisations receive. Other rough comparisons include The Atlantic, The Economist, the New Yorker, Current Affairs, Works in Progress, and Unherd.
Buying a large, existing newspaper to direct it in a more evidence-based way has been proposed elsewhere as a potential EA megaproject. I think there’s a strong case that starting a new reporting project could be a more cost-effective way in the long-term of achieving similar aims.
Types of coverage
I imagine that The Altruist could focus on several avenues of seemingly high-value content, of which a primary set are listed below.
Interviews (with Tier B figures)
I think the public face of EA is overly concentrated around a small number of individuals who I am labelling as Tier A. There are many other figures who are well-known within EA but appear to have little profile outside of it. Interviews and profiles of these people and their work could help to raise awareness of their organisations, increasing their potential impact and donations.
Based on my rough impression, I will label Tier A as Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Holden Karnofsky, Peter Singer, and possibly Ben Todd. While all these figures do an admirable job of presenting EA, I think the community would benefit from having a wider range of public figureheads. At the very least, a wider range of high-profile community leaders would better reflect the diversity of the community in terms of background and location. This would help guard against characterisations of EA as an elitist movement. Beyond that, a wider range of figures with a public profile is likely to be more engaging as different presentations and directions of EA appeal to different people.
Examples of the type of individuals within EA that The Altruist could look to profile include:
- Charity Entrepreneurship’s co-founders, Joey Savoie and Karolina Sarek, and the founders of the many charities it has incubated.
- Marcus Davis and Peter Wildeford, the co-CEOs of Rethink Priorities
The Altruist could also interview people from non-EA organisations doing particularly impactful work, such as:
- Armond Cohen and Carrie Jenks, Executive Directors of the Clean Air Task Force.
- Sean Mayberry and Peter Okiwi, CEO and COO of StrongMinds.
- Rob Mather of the Against Malaria Foundation.
Community member profiles
The EA community is full of fascinating people from a host of different careers, places, and backgrounds. Highlighting the many paths people have taken into the EA community could help create new connections and a greater sense of belonging within the community, shine a spotlight on different arguments for the value of effective altruism, and improve understanding of what motivates people to get involved in EA.
Giving What We Can have written several member profiles that offer a great example of this. These articles by the Guardian and the BBC also demonstrate the concept. The Altruist’s member profiles would expand interviews with people in the community beyond those giving 10% of their income to charity, who seem to be the main focus of current profiles.
Story-driven cause profiles
Articles that highlight key causes, issues and concepts relevant to EA in a particularly engaging and relatable way. This could likely be achieved by rooting coverage of a topic in the stories of a few individuals or the work of a single project. One example of this is Kelsey Piper’s article on meta-science work, centred on a discussion of two projects in this space: The Arc Institute and FastGrants.
I think this sort of narrative-driven coverage is likely to be a more compelling and easier to understand introduction to key topics than, for example, the top article on the Forum under the meta-science tag.
With permission from authors, the best recent articles posted in the Forum could be re-published and presented in a more engaging format. This would likely include professional copyediting alongside adding pictures and diagrams where appropriate.
Why should we create The Altruist?
Improving resources for outreach to people outside of the EA community
Currently, the EA Forum exists as the primary location for written EA content. While the quality of most articles written on the Forum is very high, I would argue that is offputting to people unfamiliar with effective altruism. Journalistic articles (e.g. interviews, story-based write-ups of key issues) could provide a more accessible and appealing way of initially engaging with the ideas of effective altruism than currently exists.
If true, this makes directing new people to articles written on the Forum a sub-optimal strategy for encouraging further engagement. This is not intended as a critique of the Forum but as a case for an additional home of quality writing on EA with a different aim and style.
In particular, I feel the Forum can appear overly dense and academic. While its format is highly functional, I don’t think it is particularly visually engaging. The Altruist would model itself on digital news magazines that highlight a comparatively small set of curated articles in a manner oriented around web design and maximising engagement.
In this way, The Altruist could prove a more effective tool for community members to share the concept of EA with others. Articles could be used by community and student groups, potentially increasing retention through fellowships by providing easier to read introductions to key EA ideas.
Mitigating reputational risks to the community
With the current lack of EA-directed journalistic coverage of the movement, weak and/ or unfair characterisations of the community gain more attention. As EA grows, it is likely to face more critical coverage and the community should formulate a plan in advance for best managing this.
One recent example is Phil Torres’ articles critiquing longtermism and the response to them. Sidestepping discussion of the flaws of Torres’ argument, this seems a good example of where the EA community may have benefitted from having a more journalistic news outlet.
This response posted on the Forum is admirable but I don’t expect that an article on the Forum will reach nearly the same group of people who may have read Torres’ articles, nor will they be likely to find it as engaging (a comment on presentation differences, not writing quality). The Forum post is nearly twice as long, lacks pictures and quote blocks, and may appear less professional (appearing on a forum rather than in a journalistic outlet).
The Altruist could minimise future reputation risks like this by having a stock of succinct, engaging explanations of key ideas like longtermism. These would provide an easy and immediate counter to bad faith arguments. More specific rebuttals to particularly unfair or influential articles could also be published through The Altruist, perhaps giving them a more professional look and a wider readership.
Increasing community growth
If The Altruist’s coverage proved sufficiently popular, it would likely begin to draw a significant audience independent of the EA community. Increased journalistic coverage of high-impact causes could increase the number of people who discover EA, building on the success of Vox’s Future Perfect. Articles may also have secondary and spillover benefits of influencing some people’s careers in a more impactful direction without them becoming fully signed up to EA.
Effective Altruism is still a relatively small community, and may currently be suffering from a relative lack of talent for key roles. In this case, projects to increase the scale and diversity of outreach to potential new community members could be highly valuable.
Boosting recognition and donations for EA organisations
As discussed above, a dedicated reporting team could produce a range of articles profiling the work of important people and organisations in EA. Many organisations that seem quite high-profile in the community appear to have a relatively low profile outside of it (e.g. Charity Entrepreneurship; Rethink Priorities).
These organisations are relatively large and so require significant amounts of funding. For example, Rethink Priorities is aiming to raise $5.4 million for 2022 but could use as much as $12.9 million in extra funding. If The Altruist built a large following, articles covering the work of organisations like Rethink Priorities could conceivably contribute to them receiving more donations, increasing the amount of high-impact work they can do.
How could we build The Altruist?
#1: Start small
A few people enthusiastic about the project could create a pilot version of this type of newspaper to test its popularity and better demonstrate the concept. The pilot version could roughly centre around a skeleton website hosting an initial 5-10 high-quality articles, plus a digital magazine containing these articles advertised on the Forum and distributed via an email sign-up.
This could be done independently or through a small grant from the EA Infrastructure Fund. If a trial version appeared moderately popular, a larger and more experienced team could then be built.
This approach would likely be far cheaper for testing the project’s value by employing a comparatively inexperienced team who were enthusiastic about working for lower pay/ volunteering on the project. On the other hand, the project may be more likely to fail from a lack of quality reporting.
#2: Larger, faster
The alternative approach would be to invest significantly in the project at its beginning. CEA or a similar organisation could adopt this as a framework for a larger communications project. A team of experienced journalists, preferably with good knowledge of EA, could be put together.
As an example, could the best forum writers who are not working in counterfactually more valuable positions be paid to form a team of EA reporters? Could CEA or a similar organisation reach out to people like Kelsey Piper and Ezra Klein, either with funding to direct the project themselves, or instead for recommendations of promising journalists to lead this project?
This would require plenty of upfront investment but would produce a higher quality initial product that would be more likely to succeed and be of value. If there was strong confidence in the potential of the project, this would appear the best approach.
One potential issue could be a lack of independence from whoever funds the project. The Altruist could function effectively as a press office for CEA, but would likely be best as a semi-independent reporting organisation. I think this would also be important for its ability to critique key individuals or organisations to help guard against major issues developing within the community.
If CEA funded the project, it may appear to be simply a mouthpiece for the organisation. This appearance of bias could limit people’s interest in the reporting. One alternative could be for a large(r) donor to the EA community to directly fund the project. This would also give CEA or similar distance from the project, allowing them to avoid negative publicity by association if there were articles that became controversial.
Long-term, with sufficient popularity The Altruist could feasibly later become partly or fully independent and financially self-sustaining, either through advertising or subscriptions.
In short, The Altruist is a pitch for a news organisation that concentrates on EA topics, causes, and organisations. Coverage could be wide-ranging, including interviews with organisation leaders and community members, story-driven cause profiles, and guest posts from across EA.
A project like The Altruist could prove highly valuable by improving resources for outreach to potential new members (thereby increasing community growth), mitigating reputation risks to EA, and boosting recognition of and donations to EA organisations.
This project would likely have the highest chance of success by hiring a qualified team of writers and reporters at its beginning. However, given the upfront costs involved and uncertainty of impact, it may make more sense for a small, enthusiastic team to first produce a pilot version of the project.
In its early stages at least, this project’s success would be dependent on the level of interest it produced in the community. I think the karma of this article, and any discussion it generates, will function as a useful rough proxy for how popular this might be.
On the flip side, I can also see that many people may be more enthusiastic when presented with the actual product, rather than just the idea of it.
Given the discussion above and my belief that this could be a highly valuable project, I’d be delighted to hear from anyone interested in getting involved. I am currently running Effective Self-Help, a separate research project into improving wellbeing at scale, but I am interested in trying to get something like The Altruist off the ground.
If you think you could make a useful contribution to a team working on this - likely either from previous writing, reporting or project management experience - let me know!
I like the idea of an EA newspaper or magazine, and agree with using it to grow the EA community. But I think this pitch is somewhat inward-looking and unambitious. Moreover, journalism is the wrong business to be in for mitigating negative coverage. Posting a rebuttal in a magazine is going to increase the exposure of criticism, and pushback, as will the existence of a magazine in general. Posting B-tier profiles is a very indirect way to push back against elitism, and would not attract readers. An outlet should choose a content niche that people want to read, not just what you want them to read, and B-tier profiles seem like an example of the latter.
The question, then, is what content niche would some people be eager to read about, that we are equipped to do, and want to tell them about. What topics have EAs written about previously, that lots of people have wanted to read? I can think of some possibilities:
For a broader, less inward-looking paper, I don't know exactly the right name, but I don't think "The Altruist" is it.
I think that you should engage more seriously with the case of Future Perfect. Is it succeeding? What is its niche? What has gone well/poorly? What other niches do they think might be out there? And so on.
You also need to engage more seriously with the question of where you would find talent. Who would write for this outlet? Who could be the editor? In order to excite that founding team, you might need to give them a lot of leeway in shaping its direction.
That's a fair point that the pitch is likely overly inward-looking. Perhaps weighting the reasons in favour of creating something like this may have been clearer (or ordering them by importance) but I view increasing community growth and improving outreach resources as most (say 80%) of the value from an EA newspaper.
Looking at particularly popular previous topics for EA coverage and diving deeper into Future Perfect as a case study are both great suggestions for developing this. I'll defend the B-tier interviews though. If something doesn't yet exist, it's hard to know how popular it may be but similar profiles of important figures/ org leaders seem very common in journalism and are therefore likely reasonably popular. I think it's reasonable to have guiding principles too about content that you want to put in front of people and that this is common to a lot of (even most) reporting (e.g. The Guardian's added focus on climate change in the last year as an editorial decision).
The pitch is meant as a semi-polished thing to gauge interest so there's plenty of research and refining of ideas that would be valuable that I haven't yet done so I appreciate the ideas on what might be useful to do.
This may be useful for Future Perfect as a case study: The 12 most-read Future Perfect pieces of 2021
I appreciate your taking the time to write out this idea and the careful thought that went into your post. I liked that it was kind of in the form of a pitch, in keeping with your journalistic theme. I agree that EAs should be thinking more seriously about journalism (in the broadest possible sense) and I think that this is as good a place as any to start. I want to (a) nitpick a few things in your post with an eye to facilitating this broader conversation and (b) point out what I see as an important potential failure mode for an effort like this.
You characterize The Altruist at first as:
This sounds like more or less like a trade publication along the lines of Advertising Age or Publishers Weekly, or perhaps a subject-specific publication oriented more toward the general public, like Popular Science or Nautilus. Generally speaking, I think something like the former is a good idea, though trade publications are generally targeted at those working within an industry. I will describe later on why I am not sure the latter is feasible.
But you go on to say:
These publications are very different from each other. The Economist (where, full disclosure, I worked for a short time) is a general interest newspaper with a print circulation of ~1 million. The New Yorker is a highbrow weekly magazine known for its longform journalistic content. The Atlantic is an eclectic monthly that leans heavily on its regular output of short-form, nonreported digital content. Current Affairs is a bimonthly political magazine with an explicitly left-wing cultural and political agenda. Works in Progress is small, completely online, wholly dedicated to progress studies, and generally nonreported.
Unherd is evidently constructed in opposition to various trends and themes in mainstream political and cultural discourse, and its goal is to disrupt the homogeneity of that discourse. I really enjoy it, but I worry that it sometimes typifies the failure mode I'm worried about. Broadly, that failure mode is this: by defining itself in opposition to the dominant way of thinking, an outlet can sort potential readers out of being interested.
Consider: if a media outlet mainly publishes content that conflicts with the modal narrative, then the modal reader encountering it will find mostly content that challenges their views. I think it is a pernicious but nonetheless reliable feature of the media landscape that most readers who stumble onto such a publication will typically stumble off immediately to another, more comfortable one. I worry that a lot of EA is challenging enough that this could happen with something like The Altruist.
This may actually be fine- that's why I harp on the precision of the comparison classes: I think Works in Progress, for instance, is likely to serve the progress studies community very well in the years to come, and an EA version of that would serve well the initial goal you describe of improving resources for outreach. But I don't think that it would do a particularly good job of mitigating reputational risk or increasing community growth, because it would be a niche publication that might find it difficult to earn the trust of readers who find EA ideas challenging (in my experience, this is most people).
So I think as far as new publications go, we may have to pick between the various goals you have helpfully laid out here. But my aspirations for EA in journalism are a bit higher. Here's my question: what is an EA topic? It is not really obvious to me that there is such a thing. To most people, it is not intuitive, even when you explain, that there is something that ties together (for instance) worrying about AI risk, donating to anti-malaria charities, supporting human challenge trials, and eating vegan.
This is because EA is a way of approaching questions about how to do good in the world, not a collection of answers to those questions.
So my aspiration for journalism in general is not only that it more enthusiastically tackle those issues which this small and idiosyncratic community of people has determined is important. I also think it would be good if journalism in general moved in a more EA-aligned or EA-aware direction on all questions. I think that, counterfactually, the past two decades of journalism in the developed world would look very different if the criterion for newsworthiness was more utilitarian, and if editorial judgments more robustly modeled truth-seeking behavior. Consequently my (weak, working) hypothesis is that the world would be a better place. I also think such a world would be an easier place to grow the community, to combat bad-faith criticism, and to absorb and respond to good-faith critique.
One way to try to make this happen today would be to run a general-interest publication with an editorial position that is openly EA, much as The Economist's editorial slant is classically liberal. Such a publication would have to cover everything, not just deworming and the lives of people in the far future. But it would, of course, cover those things too.
To bring things back down to the actual topic of conversation: the considerations you have raised here are the right ones. My core concern is that a publication like this will try to do too many things at once, and the reason I've written so much above is to try to articulate some additional considerations that I hope will be useful in narrowing down its purpose.
I agree that a trade publication could potentially be valuable - my main issue would be that attempts at outreach to the existing philanthropic community haven't been very successful before. Nonetheless, I suspect that if it were able to produce sufficiently high-quality content - including content about topics outside of the traditional EA areas, I suspect I would gain readers and influence.
This is great! I appreciate the detailed response and the friendly but valuable critique. As much as anything, I wanted to start a conversation around how a project like this may work best and these are some really useful points.
I think you're right that there are competing goals in what I've laid out and also that a project reporting from an EA lens on general topics might be more impactful in the long term than one focused on reporting on EA topics.
I think this is a great idea! I worry that calling it The Altruist might be off-putting for some readers as it could be read as self-congratulatory
I can see how it could come across like that. No particular attachment to The Altruist as a name - I'm sure there are likely better options with a bit more thought/ crowdsourced feedback!
Thanks for writing this up! I'm excited about the project and agree with most of what you've written.
One point of uncertainty that you've touched on but would be good to clarify: do you see The Altruist as news for the EA community where well-founded criticism is published, or do you see it as a place for improving the community's public reputation?
As an extreme example, would you publicly report if you found out someone was embezzling money from an EA organisation, even if the organisation wanted to handle it quietly to save its reputation?
Thanks! I can see that there's potential for cross-purposes between improving the community and supporting good critique. Ideally, something like The Altruist would be a place for both on the basis that good critique builds a healthier community and highlights EA as a place of open discussion.
For the example, I'd lean on the side of reporting the embezzling though I think it would obviously depend on the specifics of the case. I think the risks and consequences of a perception that the community works to bury bad news like that are high and likely outweigh the costs of reporting.
I haven't read the post, but I do think ideas in this rough vicinity are worth someone spending a fair bit of time thinking about and maybe piloting, and I wanted to quickly mention a few other things that might be of interest to you or to readers:
I love this and would be happy to help.
This may be a good idea, but a key problem with newspapers as I see it, is that the idea of news in itself leads to not focusing on the most important information. Instead it's like the edge of the leafs on the tree of knowledge. Here and now instead of long-term global focus. Can we call it a newspaper and still avoid that?