The other kind of drought – who pays for journalism beyond our cities and suburbs?

By: Nick Richardson   |   Philanthropy Australia   |

Two months ago, a group of key players in the debate about the future of regional media convened at our Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit to discuss the crippling news drought across regional Australia.

One of the panellists – the deputy secretary of the Federal Department of Communications, Richard Eccles – told the Canberra gathering that the government would consider pretty much every sensible proposal to help boost rural and regional journalism. The source document for the next steps in the discussion is the ACCC’s digital platforms review, which was released in July.

The problems and some of the solutions are in the ACCC’s voluminous text, and no one should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the issue: 106 local and regional newspapers closed across Australia between 2008-2018. The consequence is that 16 regional government areas – and 21 all up – have been left without a print or online local publication. This might be serious for journalism, but it is also profoundly problematic for local communities and the broader exercise of democracy.

The government has rolled out a $60 million special regional grants programs over three years to boost journalism in the provinces, but there is some debate about the programs’ effectiveness and longer-term impact. Yet there appears to be no doubt that any sustainable solution to the news drought will involve some form of philanthropy. The question is, what does that look like and who would be interested in being part of it?

There are several models out there. Not surprisingly given the international media malaise, the UK and the USA share our rural and regional journalism problems. Two years ago, the UK government diverted 8 million pounds from the BBC’s 3.7 billion pounds annual licence fee revenue to fund 150 “local democracy reporters’’ who worked for local “qualifying news organisations.’’ While the move was largely welcomed, one UK media publication likened the initiative to “using a sticking plaster to fix a severed limb.’’ New Zealand instituted a similar scheme, but Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher observed that it was not flawless. “There have been some tricky issues in rolling out the program.  For example, if journalists are funded in towns where there remains a viable local newspaper, Government is effectively subsidising competitors to the business which already serves the town,’’ he said.

The US has been able to provide more philanthropic support because it has access to a range of tax breaks that have enabled 150 non-profit journalistic enterprises to come to life in recent years.

Australia’s best-known journalism philanthropist is Judith Neilson, who established her institute for journalism and ideas with a $100 million donation in 2018. The Institute, in inner-city Sydney, offers grants, programs and events to “support and celebrate quality journalism in Australia and around the world during a period of historic transformation for the media industry.”

Mark Ryan, the institute’s director, believes the future of journalism is a mix of commercial enterprise, philanthropy and “some community-based, potentially even government-supported initiatives”. “I think there are some people still who look at philanthropy as a kind of a short-term flash in the pan. I don’t subscribe to that,’’ Ryan said recently. “[T]here are multiple examples where you can run substantial news organisations through philanthropic or community-based activities of different kinds and at different scales.’’

But providing easier ways to make that support happen needs to be an integral part of the plan. And that means the Federal Government relaxing the current tax and regulatory environment to enable that to happen. Philanthropy Australia’s submission in response to the ACCC report advocates for the creation of a new DGR category for public interest journalism. The category would provide a simpler and more consistent method for organisations focused on public interest journalism to obtain DGR status. If the government wasn’t interested in pursuing that option, then PA supports creating a new independent charitable organisation whose principal purpose is to support public interest journalism and providing it with a specific listing in the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997. This is not unprecedented – the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR), for example, has been funded through government and philanthropic support to support collective investment in improving a lot of Australians living in rural, regional and remote locations.

There is, however, one outstanding issue that is the cornerstone of the debate about finding a sustainable model for news, whether it’s in the bush or the city: it is the idea of public interest journalism itself. The Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) is a recently formed Australian not-for-profit organisation established to provide research, insights, policy and discussion about the on-going need for public interest journalism. That is the kind of journalism now most at risk from denuded newsrooms and shrinking bottom lines – the reporting and analysis of public affairs through coverage of courts, local government and public issues. PIJI has just announced former ACCC chair Professor Allan Fels will become its new chair and will host next week’s Sydney roundtable that will feature PIJI’s new research on tax modelling, editorial coverage and public sentiment about public interest journalism.  

While there is an understanding of the broad role of public interest journalism – keeping our key institutions accountable and our citizens informed is critical to a functioning democracy – there is some confusion about how that primarily welcomed in the current contested political climate. This is a federal government, remember, that is still firmly stuck on the horns of a dilemma generated by the AFP raids on journalists. Were the stories that provoked those raids in the public interest? For those of us who have spent a career in newsgathering, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’: these are legitimate stories that have important consequences for our citizens. And the media organisations have weighed into that debate with their Right To Know campaign.

The federal government has said it will respond to the ACCC digital platforms report by the end of the year. It promises to be a fascinating finale to 2019.

To Philanthropy Australia’s response to the ACCC report


Nick Richardson is Philanthropy Australia’s storyteller and adjunct professor of journalism at LaTrobe University.

Nov. 14, 2019

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