News + Media

Desire to help but hurdles to funding public interest journalism

September 13th, 2021

​New research has revealed an apparent appetite to grow philanthropic funding for public interest journalism, although there are taxation and regulatory impediments preventing an urgent response to the crisis confronting journalism in Australia.

A new report released from the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) surveys about 40 people from media, philanthropy and civil society and presents a layered picture of the issues around philanthropic support for journalism. Philanthropy Australia, the Australian Communities Foundation and Pro Bono Australia were the report’s project partners.

According to PIJI CEO Anna Draffin, the news media and philanthropy are currently experiencing “learning pains’’ as they work out how they can best find mutually beneficial and appropriate partnerships. “This is a just new collaboration that is emerging between philanthropic funders and news media,’’ Anna said, “…and they are just going through the very typical pains of learning the benefits that each provide, but also understanding how each party operates and an understanding of “why so?’’

And although Anna is optimistic about the future of philanthropic support for news media, she doesn’t believe that philanthropic contributions will become the major replacement for the news media’s declining revenue stream. “Philanthropy, government and the digital [media] platforms all need to come together: philanthropy is always going to be the smallest slice of that pie, but it is a really important pie,’’ Anna said.

The report emphasised the point, observing: “Participants did not see philanthropy as substituting for industry or government action, but as complementing and augmenting it.’’

And while there is a small and growing number of supporters – including the Judith Neilson Institute, the Balnaves Foundation, the Barlow Impact Group, and a range of philanthropists who helped to save the AAP newswire service – the report found there were still many funders who lacked awareness of the need for the profession’s support.

However, once philanthropic funding of the news media becomes more common, Anna believes there will be three pools of funds that could characterise the collaboration: progressive funders, who might have traditionally supported cutting-edge medical research, innovative arts programs, or high-quality investigative journalism, and have a commitment to funding experimental work in order to have a flourishing civil society. Or those who support news media as vehicle to keep their area of interest – climate change or education, for example – as a continuing element of the news coverage and the third area of place-based giving.  “Those funders who we know have placed based giving as their core purpose, [and that] news is absolutely part of civic infrastructure,’’ Anna said.

She cited one of the key commentaries in last year’s Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements about the important role of news in local emergency infrastructure and how critical information is during local emergencies.

“What we’ve seen over the past year is also government recognition of that role that news plays. That becomes a different reflection and consideration about investment in news – and that no community should be left behind,’’ Anna said.

The PIJI’s own Australian Newsroom Mapping project reveals the dramatic decline, closure, and contraction of the nation’s newsrooms during the past few years, showing a loss of journalistic jobs, especially in local, regional and rural areas.

A major obstacle to a potential increase in philanthropic support is a regulatory environment that makes it extremely difficult for not-for-profit news providers to claim DGR 1 status.

“There was a clear view among media and philanthropic stakeholders that the most effective way of encouraging philanthropic funding would be to make it easier for not-for-profit public interest journalism producers to secure charitable and DGR status,’’ the report says. “Though having DGR status was not a guarantee that a news organisation would receive philanthropic dollars, those that have received donations have had DGR status; those without it have not.’’

The report continues that there was agreement that tax deductibility should be limited to not-for-profit entities that are “…applying recognised professional ethics frameworks and that the nature of reporting covered be subject to provisions preventing the promotion of political parties or individuals for public office.’’

There is also a view that because many media organisations are commercial operations, it is up to them – or government – to find a solution to their crisis. Perhaps reinforcing this view is the report’s observation that many news media organisations are inexperienced in dealing with philanthropy and can struggle to make the case for the vital importance of public interest journalism.

There was agreement across the report participants that philanthropy could play several roles to support the news media industry – by taking an awareness building and advocacy role, and to support civic dialogue to inform and mobilise community and government action to protect public interest journalism; “Support media diversity and provide funding for public interest journalism in under-served areas or on under-represented issues, help amplify under-represented voices and promote media literacy; Support sector capacity building and innovation, both of which were seen as being critical in the context of the current industry disruption; and Act as an intermediary to convene diverse stakeholders to explore and test different ways of addressing the challenges facing the news media industry,’’ the report said.

The report suggested that family foundations – appearing to be more agile – could take the initiative in funding public interest journalism, along with the next generation of philanthropists because of their “digital native’’ experience. Impact investing was also identified as a potential source of funding to be leveraged to help emerging for purpose business models.

A potentially effective model to overcome impediments to growing philanthropy’s support could be to establish an intermediary organisation that could help distribute funds and to facilitate connections between funders and news producers. “Some, mainly philanthropic, stakeholders noted that it may be worthwhile exploring the potential of establishing a specifically listed entity through which support could be provided to not-for-profit public interest journalism providers meeting defined requirements,’’ the report stated.

Special listings to create independent bodies that support philanthropy for particular cases has already been deployed with the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) and Australian Schools Plus (ASP).

The constant stream of information from a blizzard of different sources has become a by-product of the pandemic and has only underlined the value of traditional media for many communities.

“The importance of the news media has been evidenced again over the past year as we’ve seen through the rise of misinformation and disinformation on social media and other platforms, people turning to traditional legacy news media for credible information,’’ Anna said. “There is a growing level of awareness among funders and as more case studies are coming to market, there is an understanding to actually fund this area within legitimate purposes of the community for public benefit. But it cannot be philanthropy alone,’’ she said.

The report was prepared on behalf of PIJI by Effective Philanthropy Director, Regina Hill, with guidance and support from PIJI’s Project Steering Group and its Expert Research Panel.

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