Geoff Wilson is sitting in a small quiet room with a view across a rural idyll in regional NSW. It seems miles away from the ceaseless news cycle that he has bought in to as one of 35 investors who became saviours of the national newswire, AAP (Australian Associated Press).
Image credit: APP
In the midst of one of the worst years for Australian journalism that has seen newsrooms close around the country, AAP was facing its own moment of mortality when its major media backers decided to withdraw and shut it down.
Geoff was contacted by sustainable investment manager Nick Harrington about joining a group of philanthropists and investors who would support a new AAP that would transform the venerable news organisation into a not-for-profit operation that was smaller in size but still delivered a vital independent newswire service.
Geoff, who has his own asset management company, set up Future Generation in 2014. He didn’t quite believe that AAP could be allowed to fold.
“I was hesitant – I didn’t believe it would end up where it did,’’ Geoff explains. “I thought there would have been ...someone else would have purchased it, because it’s such a great brand.’’
But once it became clear that AAP would become a not for profit, Geoff committed for three years. The broad range of separate investments go from thousands of dollars to a million. Geoff’s name, however, is one of the few 35 investors who have been identified, along with foundation investor Dr John McKinnon, and Fred Woollard.
“It was really an incredible opportunity because I’m a big believer in media and the role media plays and also independent media,’’ Geoff says. “To me if AAP wasn’t going to survive, that’s a very strong independent media source that’s been operating in Australia for 85 years and to me it would have been a travesty if that was going to be lost.’’
The old AAP was set up to provide independent fact-driven news coverage for media outlets that lacked the staff and resources to be cover news events across the country. It was a particularly vital service for regional and rural news services who didn’t have staff in Canberra or the state capitals. It was predominantly funded by the major media players, NewsCorp and Channel 9, but as the relentless commercial pressures on news providers took their toll, the big players decided to end their support.
The new version of AAP launched in August with 70 staff, well down on the 180 who started the year there. It soon became clear that the impact of COVID-19 and the general economic climate meant it was a challenging initiation, especially for the renovated news organisation’s smaller subscribers. In early September, AAP launched a crowdfunding campaign that aims to raise $500,000. Geoff reckons it was a smart approach.
“I thought that was fantastic. We were aware of that. And to me it’s a way of democratising, the support for independent journalism,’’ he says.
“It’s like any business – they have to pull all the levers they can, [to] raise money from philanthropic organisations or the man in the street: it’s all part of a package.’’
Geoff believes that the advent of NewsCorp’s newswire rival to AAP will provide the news consumer market with an opportunity to make a comparison between the new version of AAP and its competitor.
“The quicker they’re up and running to me the quicker the realisation of the value proposition between the two and then my view is that AAP will make up some of the ground they’ve lost in this initial period,’’ Geoff explains.
In the interim, the Federal government has also pledged $5 million to AAP to help smooth its way.
“To me, I think the Federal government was always part of the picture,’’ Geoff says. “[What we’ve done] I’d call it impact philanthropy whereby giving money to the organisation – and everyone who’s done that – is hoping it will grow and prosper as an independent media voice in Australia. It’s to encourage journalism and independent thought, [and] not being influenced by the owners of the organisation or various biases the organisation might have. That’s what I’m excited about.’’
Geoff is well aware of how news consumers view the content that comes their way. “One of the things that has become clear to everyone in the past few years is the various biases that come with news organisations,’’ he says. “And to the classic example is that you can watch that on a daily basis when you look at the US, you put on Fox News or your put on CNN, one’s pro-Trump and the other is 100 per cent the other way.’’
AAP has historically been, and remains so in this brave new world, unmistakably independent. It has also provided a new income stream - AAP Access - which offers family offices, PAFs or businesses the opportunity to subscribe to the news wire services.
In keeping with the growing focus on supporting journalism with a mixture of government, philanthropy and innovative thinking, the Public Interest Journalism Initiative has also released a guidebook explaining the potential value of introducing a tax rebate for news providers, similar to the current Federal government’s Research and Development tax rebate.
The PIJI modelling of a 50 per cent tax rebate for those news organisations undertaking public interest journalism could raise $711 million public benefit to support the on-going provision of such reporting.
PIJI chair Professor Allan Fels said there was no one cure for the problems confronting public interest journalism.
"A suite of forward-thinking, innovative ideas is needed to support this public good that improves transparency in civil infrastructure such as the justice system and save lives during national emergencies like bushfires and the current pandemic,’’ he said.
PIJI is investigating three areas of taxation reform for public interest journalism:
AAP is also lobbying to become a beneficiary of the ACCC code that will force Facebook and Google to pay news services for using their news material in the tech giants’ news feeds and search engines.