Can investors help make the media better? Some investment firms are trying to do so in specific niches. For a look at two of them, the Monitor's Laurent Belsie sat down with Dawn Wolfe, social research and advocacy analyst for Boston Common Asset Management, and Chat Reynders, who is starting his own socially responsible investing firm here in Boston. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Dawn, your company wants Internet firms to stop giving too much data to foreign nations like China.
Ms. Wolfe: The incident you're referring to is the Shi Tao case, which has received a lot of press. Shi Tao was a journalist living in Hunan Province and in April 2004, he attended a staff meeting where they discussed documents that had been put out by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda bureau, warning them about specific security implementations that were going to be happening in advance of the 15-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shi Tao sent an e-mail that evening from his personal Yahoo! e-mail account to a website in the US. About a year later Shi Tao was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for 10 years for distributing state secrets abroad.
What was Yahoo's role?
Wolfe: In September of this year, a founder of Yahoo!, Jerry Yang, admitted that the company had in fact worked with Chinese authorities to help in their actions against this journalist. Certainly that case in particular raised the issue for a lot of people.
Is this problem limited to Yahoo?
Wolfe: Microsoft just this summer agreed to censor words like "freedom," "human rights," and "democracy" on its MSN China portal. So, for example, if you were to type the word "freedom" in that portal in China today, you would receive a message similar to "Your request cannot contain forbidden words such as profanity." And it would ask you to type in something else. Boston Common has been working with Cisco on the networking capabilities that they are providing [to China].
Chat, you're asking investors to fund educational films. That sounds risky.
Mr. Reynders: The first lesson I learned when I became an investment adviser was 'Never invest in films.' [But] for 15 years now, we've been investing in IMAX film properties.
Reynders: We've got four films out right now. The first film we did, years ago, was "Whales." That's grossed about $50 million. We've got a second film out, "Dolphins," which was nominated for an Academy Award. It raised $80 million and is still out. "Bears" was another educational film that's raised about $30 million. "Coral Reef Adventure" was released two years ago and that is now over $60 million in revenue. When I add all of those revenues up, it's nearly $200 million, 80 percent of which is going to cultural institutions.
What are the social benefits?
Reynders: When we started there were 57 theaters and now there are over 400 worldwide. We partner with the National Science Foundation to create curricula that reaches, with each film, 2 million children. We have a website presence that goes all over the world in 16 languages. So, the impact of these media properties has expanded to an incredible degree.
And the financial benefits?
Reynders: Our clients receive something on the order of 50 to 70 percent return on their dollar over six to eight years.
Dawn, how have investors reacted to your initiative?
Wolfe: Over the course of the last couple months, Boston Common worked with other organizations including an NGO by the name of Reporters Without Borders and other social investment firms to put together a joint investor statement on human rights and the Internet. We launched that statement in November with 26 signatories representing over $20 billion worth of investments calling on US corporations within the technology sector to be mindful of what their potential impact could be in certain countries where the government was actively suppressing human rights via the Internet.
So, can ethical investors change the media?
Wolfe: I don't think the socially responsible investing community alone will change how the Internet is censored and monitored. But we are part of a much bigger group. I think it's important that investors are part of the debate. Shareholders bring a unique voice in that we are talking with management as owners.
• Watch the entire webcast conversation at www.csmonitor.com/ethicalinvesting