Guest blog: Good news

17 December 2021

Jonathan Heawood asks how journalism can benefit the public

Journalism is in crisis, not just in the UK but around the world. Old business models have been torn apart by the digital revolution. The vast majority of advertising revenue now flows to tech giants like Facebook and Google, and audiences are exposed to lies and propaganda. This is having a devastating impact on citizenship, human rights, climate justice and many other issues that are close to funders’ hearts.

At the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), we believe that the crisis affecting journalism is also an opportunity to do things differently. That’s why we are supporting the emerging sector of high-quality, independent news organisations that put the public benefit before politics or profit.

Until recently, this work wasn’t charitable, but that changed when the Charity Commission last year registered PINF as a charity. In a landmark decision, the Commission said that it can be charitable to support journalism, so long as it’s advancing a charitable purpose and it’s accurate, ethical and unbiased.

At long last, charitable funders in the UK can support journalism, either by supporting news organisations directly or by working with PINF as an expert intermediary. Either way, we can use our deep understanding of the issues to ensure that charitable funds are put to the best use.

For example, we are working with the Neal & Dominique Gandhi Foundation on a new ‘Impact Fund’ exploring the positive impact of local journalism on democratic engagement. With Neal and Dominique’s backing, we have made a series of grants to independent news organisations in London and Birmingham. Our grantees are making interventions designed to boost voter turnout and get people involved with local democracy in the run-up to the local elections next May.

We are carefully evaluating these interventions with support from Dr Joanna Reynolds of Capacity Q and Sheffield Hallam University, and we expect to share our findings next summer. The Fund has attracted interest from stakeholders in government and philanthropy, and we are excited about the scope to expand this programme in other areas. We would love to explore the impact of journalism on issues such as education, health, human rights and the environment, for example. The more we understand, the more we can target our support to the publishers and journalists who are creating the greatest benefit.

We are already testing one way in which journalism can address barriers to social inclusion. Lankelly Chase are funding us to place people with lived experience of marginalisation and discrimination in newsrooms around the UK. These ‘Transformation Editors’ get the chance to send reporters out on stories, commission content, choose which items make the headlines – and decide what those headlines say.

Rather than being on the receiving end of negative or ignorant coverage, our Transformation Editors can set the news agenda. They gain experience of the media, and the newsrooms gain a richer understanding of the communities they serve.

We designed the Transformation Programme in partnership with Marcus Ryder MBE of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity; Shirish Kulkarni of Bureau Local; and Robyn Vinter, founder of The Overtake, a ground-breaking news publication in Leeds. These are just a few of the brilliant people who are building a new era in journalism.

Journalism for public benefit

Too often, when funders think about journalism, they think about the worst examples of tabloid excess and misinformation. The phone hacking scandal has cast a long shadow over the commercial newspaper industry, whilst the industry’s failure to tackle (or even acknowledge) systemic racism has further eroded public trust.

PINF, however, is looking towards a future in which journalism puts the public benefit before politics or profit. We see the seeds of this future in the emerging sector of independent news publishers.

We have commissioned Dr Clare Cook of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and Dr Coral Milburn-Curtis of the University of Oxford to study this sector. Earlier this year, we published the first fruits of their research – the inaugural edition of the PINF Index of Independent News Publishing in the UK.

We also developed a leadership programme to help independent publishers address the ‘3Cs’ of content, commerce and community. Participants registered a significant increase in their feelings of connection and support, and their knowledge of tactics for community engagement and economic sustainability.

The idea came from the American Journalism Project (AJP), which provides a blend of grants and coaching to independent news organisations in the US. This funder-plus model has demonstrable impact, helping to build news organisations’ resilience, and thereby their ability to serve their communities. Our partners at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) have shown how foundation funding has helped these organisations to diversify their revenue streams over time, becoming less dependent on the foundations that helped them on their way.

We want to emulate the success of our US counterparts, but we do not underestimate the scale of the challenge. We may have removed the legal obstacle to journalism philanthropy, but there are still cultural barriers between foundations and independent news organisations in the UK, so, we are building new bridges between journalists and charitable donors.

We are not an endowed foundation, so we can only do this with the support of our donors. So far, we have received the backing of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Luminate, Lankelly Chase, the Tinsley Charitable Trust and the Neal and Dominique Gandhi Foundation. We are immensely grateful to these funders, who have dared to take a risk on a new organisation, and we hope to work with many more donors over the years to come.

The challenges facing our media and society will continue to mount. But, by investing in new forms of media, which combine the best values of traditional journalism with the new opportunities of digital technology, we can contribute to a new era in journalism, which has the public benefit at its heart.

Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation.

Public Interest News Foundation will be sharing more about how funding journalism can advance funders’ different charitable missions at ACF’s upcoming Members Policy Forum event on 27 January. Click here to book your place.