This is the second of four suggestions I made to the Cairncross Review in September 2018. [Here are the first, third and fourth.]
Transformation and Innovation Funds, and other field catalysts
As others have advocated here, and in similar processes in Australia, Canada, and Wales, there is a manifest need to establish a large-scale and long-term fund to catalyse transformation and innovation in the news and information ecosystem. Alongside this organisations that can or might provide targeted services to the field ought to receive startup or scale-up support. This would be especially necessary in advance of a change to charity law.
I believe that the demand for funds (non-charitable) from the Google Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund (DNI Fund) shows that there is a real appetite from most parts of the industry to transform and innovate, but that until the DNI Fund appeared, the funds and mindset for this in the UK were too fragmented, small and difficult to get at. (One high- profile journalist I interviewed for an Open Society-funded research project about journalism and innovation in London and Amsterdam said that the biggest source of risk capital for new journalism enterprises in the UK was every time The Guardian had a round of redundancies.) If the rules were changed to facilitate philanthropic funding of journalism, as noted above, this would be one of the ways of meeting that demand.
Most media — even major media — do not have or cannot prioritise the funds or in-house expertise to support innovation and transformation. Prior to the launch of the DNI Fund — for which I served as an external assessor for six months — it was very difficult to persuade any funder of the value of such funds.
Leaving aside other Google-related questions [the recent EJO piece by Alex Fanta covers some of this ground], the key factors that I still believe are underappreciated about the DNI Fund are as follows:
> Unlike its precursor the French Fonds Numérique, which gave the impression of a settlement with the industry, the DNI Fund took a clear-eyed look at what news, journalism and information environments across the continent actually needed
> it takes a product focus — no core funds, no pure content, no training — and it splits this into three tracks, for prototypes, medium and large projects — offering entry points to anyone from individuals to Conde Nast, and IP rests fully with applicants
> it is, compared to most other philanthropic or quasi-philanthropic sources of funding for journalism, radically transparent, accessible, and simple to apply to — and until it narrowed slightly in its Medium and Large tracks to focus more on the revenue question, was extraordinarily wide-ranging and open
> it takes an ecosystem perspective — instead of focusing narrowly on newsrooms [see Mark Deuze and Tamara Witschge, Beyond journalism: Theorizing the transformation of journalism (Journalism 19(2), 2017)], or particular genres of journalism, or content on specific topics, in its early rounds the DNI Fund would look at anything, as long as the fund staff and external assessors thought it would contribute to the overall news and information environment. This led to funds being awarded to a very wide range of recipients, working on a huge range of products and projects, many of which were not just good for the news ecosystem, but were also manifestly of public benefit, including in the UK.
> it sits as an independent entity, firewalled from the rest of Google, within a larger News Initiative run by journalists, and through partnerships with respected field organisations, provides other sources of research, technology, convenings and training aimed at enriching and strengthening the overall environment in the UK and Europe more broadly.
It may be that instruments like these can be used — as they are in the USA, for example — to encourage more diverse entrants and entrepreneurs to market, and to increase the flow of potential investees or grantees for the wider funding community. Other recent innovation challenges including media that may be of interest as examples are:
> Prague Civil Society Centre — runs numerous programmes focused on innovation in revenue, technology, engagement, both for civil society and investigative journalism.
> SAMIP — South Africa Media Innovation Program — “a $4 million, three-year media initiative to accelerate digital media innovation among independent media outlets and encourage new entrants. The program will provide funding and capacity building [from MDIF] to organisations selected to participate.”
> innovateAFRICA — a $1m pan-African mini-DNI, making 22 awards in 2017.
> The UK’s Nesta has a project focused on learning from and advising on Challenge Prizes that would be a useful advisor to any new fund in this domain.
The Review should recommend that a competitive innovation fund is set up to foster innovation and transformation across the journalism sector in the UK, and in the news and information ecosystem more broadly.
> This fund should be an independent, autonomous, expert entity with independent governance;
> The fund should be of sufficient size to play a genuinely catalytic role across the country, proportionate with, for example, Google’s DNI Fund (€150m over 3 years across Europe);
> The funds should be committed for a minimum period, e.g. five years, and should come from mixed sources — public funds, philanthropic funds, corporations, investors, crowdfunding; [Nesta has practical and valuable lessons on crowdfunding for the sector too.]
> The fund’s mandate, performance and wider impact should be reviewed after 5 years, and renewed if necessary.