Catherine Cheney


Tell us about Devex. How did you get involved?

Devex is a media platform for the global development community. I lived on the East Coast for ten years: throughout college, at my first job at Politico, and at NationSwell, a company that I helped start. I had a variety of roles for East coast- based media organisations and I also freelanced for Devex. I really liked their model, and I missed international news reporting. NationSwell was my first introduction to 'solutions journalism', but it was US focused. I freelanced for Devex as a way to keep engaged with international issues. When I was moving to the West Coast, I reached out to them and asked if they had any opportunities for me. At the time, they were actually looking for a West Coast correspondent that would be based in Seattle. But we mutually decided that it made a lot of sense to have the West Coast Reporter live in the Bay Area.

When did you move to San Francisco?

I moved here in July 2015.

You are the only Devex reporter on the West Coast. Describe a typical day.

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I relied on people for advice and connections, but soon enough, I got into a position where I had to prioritise my time and re-assess my bandwidth. The Devex motto and mission is 'Do Good. Do it well.' In everything I cover, I try to think, “How will this help development professionals do more good for more people?” Whether it's a story on virtual reality and what it means for development, or how coffee can become an effective tool for development.

In addition to reporting, a lot of my work is relationship building and raising awareness of the Devex brand on the West Coast. We are very well known in Washington, D.C. and amongst development professionals. But increasingly, the Bay Area is playing a huge role in global development. Often times, I will go to an event without my reporter cap on, with the intention of finding opportunities for Devex and making contacts.

Devex is also moving towards creating live events. I love hybrid forms of storytelling, and I consider live events a form of journalism, so that is part of what drew me to Devex. We’re planning a big conference in June called Devex World, and part of my role is to think of which West Coast thought leaders to invite to our conference. We’ve already started a branch of the company called Devex Live, but this will be our first flagship development conference. 

I also have a few other projects that I’m engaged in. It’s always been important to me not just to work as a journalist myself, but to help drive the future of media in a positive direction because it's an industry I care about. For that reason, I’ve been working with the Newseum for over a decade, and I also work with the Solutions Journalism Network. When I first moved to San Francisco, I was a Solutions Network groupie. I loved their message and I was a religious reader of their newsletter. I very much believe that the way journalists can drive social change through their reporting is by looking at responses to problems. I got in touch with the Solutions Journalism network, and they were looking for someone to build a San Francisco Chapter. They are New York based, but now they’ve expanded the San Francisco chapter model to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as well.

What kind of work do you do for the Newseum?

When I was a senior in high school, I applied for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference at the Newseum. It selected one boy and one girl from every state in the US - the top high school journalists from each state. Al Neuharth was the founder of USA TODAY and the Newseum. At the conference, I met journalists who inspired me - high school students and professional journalists that I remain in touch with today - for example, Judy Woodruff.

In 2006, they were building the foundation of what we now know as The Newseum (at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue). It was part of Al Neuharth’s vision to put it right in sight of the Capitol. I got a scholarship from the conference that helped with my college tuition, and I just felt like I wanted to carry on Al Neubarth’s legacy in college. I continued to pursue this career in college and got very interested in international journalism. Every summer I would travel to a different place to report. 

After graduating, I started work at Politico in D.C., and I approached the Newseum and asked how I could continue to support the conference. They said they had all these alumni all over the world, but had lost touch with so many of them since the programme began in 2000. I became the Alumni Network Coordinator and helped find these students, connect them, and continue to find ways to engage them. I hope to continue to help the Newseum how ever I can because I’m so grateful for it as an institution. 

What do you think is the most important thing you learned from the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference?

One of the things Al Neuharth said is that you don’t need to wait to "become" a journalist. You are a journalist and you have so many tools available to you. This was in 2006, with only a fraction of the tools that we have now. Being a part of that programme was a confidence booster for me. I realised that I didn’t need to wait to become a journalist, I just continued pursuing opportunities at college publications and abroad over the summer.

Did you learn any other languages at University?

That is one of my biggest regrets from my experience at Yale. I grew up speaking some Spanish and took classes at Yale. I also travelled quite a bit to Latin America and spent two months in Mexico. Unfortunately, I’ve lost a lot of that Spanish by now, and I really regret not focusing on it in college or even studying other languages. 

Let’s talk about and Facebook. What’s your take on it?

I think Facebook has good intentions behind its initiative, and financial motivations as well. I actually think it's a good thing in global development for organisations to pursue social impact that also generates revenue because that is the only way it's sustainable. It is great that companies like Facebook are seeing it in their interest to connect the world. However, inrelation to this issue, there are two quotes that drive my work: 

“Problems scream, Solutions whisper." - David Bornstein the Founder of the Solutions Journalism Network


“What you do for me, but without me, you do against me”, from Mahatma Gandhi

The second quote highlights where Facebook stumbled in India, and where a lot of people in Silicon Valley stumble in the developing world. The criticism of Silicon Valley is that people there waste their creativity and capital on solutions that ultimately don’t matter. I am fortunate enough to surround myself with people who are the counterpoint to that criticism. They are putting their creativity and their capital into solutions for emerging markets, to address poverty and hunger, and to improve lives across the world. Where I think these organisations stumble is that they do not follow what Gandhi says. It's a lesson we should have learned by now - how to work with people and understand their needs. Facebook’s initiative stumbled in India. They introduced Free Basics and said:“We’re going to give you access to Facebook, and this other range of websites at no cost." Facebook argues that it is an open platform, not a walled garden. But, Google, for example, is not on Free Basics, because they have chosen not to participate. So, Free Basics is free access to a limited range of options. The recurring themes in this debate are as follows: the need to work with people on the ground to develop solutions for themselves, and the fact that technology is part of the solution, not the ultimate solution. 

Do you have a role model?

It’s hard to choose. I have role models within journalism, development, and in my family. Al Neuharth was a huge role model of mine. His entrepreneurship, his slogan (“Dream, dare, do”), and his legacy - thy've all had an impact on my life. 

You’ve lived in San Francisco for eight months - do you have anyfavourite haunts?

My favorite getaway is wine country! I’m just 30 minutes from wine country and visit there often. A favorite spot is called Amizetta.

Catherine Cheney | West Coast Global Development Reporter | Devex

11 years' experience

Studied Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Political Science from Yale University

Previously worked at The Newseum | The Washington Post | Politico | Al-Monitor | World Politics Review | NationSwell

Find Catherine online  @catherinecheney | Devex

Check out these job opportunities at The Washington Post | Politico | Al-Monitor | Devex | NationSwell

Further reading

If not Facebook's Free Basics, then what?, Catherine Cheney, February 15, 2016

Does Development Need Virtual Reality?, Catherine Cheney, February 01, 2016

Exclusive interview with Aisha Babalakin in San Francisco on 25 February 2016