JFF #017 – Who’s funding public interest journalism in the Netherlands?

[Cross-posted from the Journalism Funders Forum website, where you can sign up for this newsletter. Twitter version soon.]

Seen in a certain light, journalism in the Netherlands seems like it is in rude health – and in many ways it is. The latest Reuters Digital News Report says trust in media is among the highest in Europe, and concerns over fake news relatively low. The country also has – as we’ll see below – an increasingly networked cluster of funders with a strong commitment to journalism and its institutions, to innovation and investigation, and to promoting journalism funding more widely among peers elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

While there’s a lot going on at the intersection of journalism, tech and funding (and we could spend this entire issue just listing names and organisations), in this edition we’re going to zero in particularly on the issues identified by our interviewees, from the world of philanthropy and media innovation, who are all concerned with the relationship between media and power, and what this means for the public interest journalism and information ecosystem. (Depending on where you sit in the environment, or whom you know, you may see things very differently.) We’d love to hear from you on Twitter (@sdp, @BibaDK or @ejcnet) or via email (info@journalismfundersforum.com) if so.

Finally, we want to thank all foundations who have already participated in our JFF survey looking at media funding in Europe. We’d also like to encourage others who want to contribute to a better understanding of grantmaking to the media across the continent as a whole to participate in it here.

Until next time, stay safe. 

Sameer and Biba 

Looking beyond the surface

Teeming with local startups, innovators, accelerators and investors, a healthy and independent public service media, a strong newspaper and print culture, dozens of journalism prizes celebrating the best in local and international journalism, international media development organisations, hybrid and experimental media organisations, longstanding engagement with digital culture and rights, and world-leading researchers and research institutions, it seems like journalism in the Netherlands is in a pretty good place. And with a captive local-language market as a testbed, Dutch journalism brands with global ambitions – like The Correspondent and Blendle – can even aspire to make waves internationally.

However, things – say our interviewees – aren’t as rosy as they might seem on the surface. Long-held assumptions about a safety net – that captive local audience, government subsidies, predictable revenues, stable workplaces and work relations, for example – are eroding more rapidly than expected. And the balance between an outwardly liberal, progressive image and a domestically conservative, even right-leaning politics is a tension many find challenging.

The Dutch section of the 2020 Ariadne Forecast  – an annual survey of European human rights funders – presents a much more worrying picture, including fears about far-right attacks offline and online, and the insidious creep of fake news.

And while the 2020 Digital News Report paints a positive overall picture for the news industry in general, the underlying trends still show the similar worrying declines in store for public interest journalism that we have seen in other countries, even if they lie a little further in the future. In an environment where the majority of the country’s print media belongs to two large media conglomerates – DPG Media and Mediahuis, both Belgian-owned, this is not only a challenge for media diversity, but also for media innovation.

And when we spoke to people involved, an even more nuanced, and less certain picture emerges. Everyone we spoke to had an overwhelming message about the public interest journalism ecosystem, and how it is funded, in the Netherlands.

What is the public interest journalism scene like in the Netherlands?

Unlike in some other parts of Europe, in the Netherlands, there is genuine depth and breadth in the journalism and information space – but interviewees warn that the appearance of action and progress masks serious, worsening problems at the local and regional news level. Well before the pandemic, SVDJ’s (the Dutch Journalism Fund, on which more below) research into news deserts in the Netherlands showed that many communities were not covered by a locally-based reporter – and without local journalists covering local government, local courts and so on, the implications for democracy and accountability are stark.

The COVID-19 crisis did bring additional funds to the SVDJ from the government, and aimed both at survival and recovery of individual outlets and of the broader infrastructure of the media environment, but the consensus is that this is most difficult to achieve at the local level.

The independent journalism scene – outside the main media groups and the public service media is in some ways too large and diverse to do justice to. But there are some leading lights we wanted to bring into focus.

Diversity is widely discussed, but action is slow – one interviewee was candid that, despite all the well-intentioned schemes over the years, the media sector still does not accurately reflect society. While the reach of Black Lives Matter has pushed examination of issues of diversity beyond the ongoing debate over Zwarte Piet into the spotlight, another interviewee told us that, if change happened at the current pace, it would take 75 years to have a media environment representative of the population mix in the Netherlands. Magazines like Vileine and Lilith are pushing actively to change both content and the talent pool. Radical magazines like ROAR Mag, a project of the Foundation for Autonomous Media, are complemented by more recent publications like Are We Europe. And it would be remiss not to mention satirical news magazine De Speld, which, as with many of its peers across the world, has unmistakably public interest drives.

One of the most noteworthy initiatives is the work of De Balie, a venue in the heart of Amsterdam that its director, Yoeri Albrecht, sometimes describes as a live magazine. Hit, like all venues reliant on the visiting public, by COVID-19, it has adapted its live journalism, debate and theatre events online during the crisis.

One interviewee mentioned the impact of media concentration – with large parts of the Dutch landscape owned by just two groups – and the difficulties this brings for freelancers trying to negotiate rates.

The investigative journalism field has some shining lights:

  • The independent unit Follow The Money has shifted over the last 5 years towards a member-supported model, but has publication relationships with major news media.
  • Local independent weekly paper De Groene Amsterdammer incubated an investigative platform called Investico, which has received foundation funding, and which has mainstream journalism and publishing partners.
  • Lighthouse Reports builds collaborative and thematic newsrooms to cover major public interest topics like migration, arms and farming.
  • The Investigative Desk, a co-operative, carries out investigative journalism on major sectors like defence and security, energy and food.
  • The broader field is represented and supported by the VVOJ, the Association of Investigative Journalists.

While collaborative, cross-border investigative journalism appears to be thriving at the national and international levels, at the local and regional levels, it’s in need, said one interviewee, of a Bureau Local-style catalysing influence, to counteract the sometimes cosy relationship and easy access between local media and power. Another gave a more stark warning: while investigative journalism looks healthy, it needs to work hard to find ways to cut through and demonstrate its relevance to ordinary people, or risk becoming part of another information elite, on which they’ll turn their backs (interviewees also warned that this is also true for philanthropy).

Alongside this, there’s a strong strand of organisations and events focused on the public interest dimensions of technology and data – including Bits of Freedom, Waag, Open State Foundation (creators of a number of widely-used transparency products like Politwoops and Open Spending, as well as this Google DNI Fund-backed news tracker for local politicians and parties), Network Democratie, and Kennisland.

There’s a broader understanding of the importance of the digital (it’s the home of the long-standing conference The Next Web, for example), of innovation, and of exploration and experimentation, but it is unclear the extent to which this interacts with and influences the more traditional media environment. Digital experimentation has deep roots in the Netherlands – with the V2 Centre for Unstable Media, Richard Rogers’ Digital Methods Initiative, and organisations like the P2P Foundation involved in thinking about more commons-based approaches to societal change.

When it comes to the wider tech scene, Amsterdam in particular, and the Netherlands increasingly, has a strong startup culture, with incubators, accelerators and other support and growth structures available like StartupBootCamp and the, well, playfully-named co-working space The Startup Orgy – yes, really – and including some more directly media-focused ones, like A-Lab. (The wider concerns, however, about the lag in Dutch VC investment in startups may well be more acute for media/tech startups, and for those outside Amsterdam, so there is hope that strategic countrywide efforts like TechLeap can help drive innovation in the media ecosystem too.)

A couple of interviewees mentioned more populist, right-leaning platforms like PowNed and GeenStijl (credited by some for forcing a referendum on the Ukraine-EU treaty a few years ago), as well as long-standing progressive publishers like oneworld.nl. It’s worth remembering that divides in society were at times so stark that leading journalist and godfather of De Correspondent Joris Luyendijk ran an initiative – Kunnen We Praten? – aimed at sparking better listening and dialogue between politically, socially and economically divergent members of society.

Who’s funding the public interest journalism environment in the Netherlands?

We’re not going to cover the public service media, as there are many excellent analyses elsewhere (see this Marius Dragomir article which deftly pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of how people-powered Dutch public media truly are.)

Reliable and clear figures for media funding, as in many places, are not that easy to find, but what is clear is that there is a distinct group of funders committed to supporting journalism – and they’re becoming, according to some of them, increasingly networked, through monthly calls. Many of these are part of the EFC, the Ariadne Network, and, of course, the Journalism Funders Forum. Interviewees say that there are a number of other, smaller funders that support isolated journalism projects, and there is a growing appreciation among these and other funders of a more strategic and holistic approach – which may offer encouraging news for the independent journalism field, especially those committed to innovation and diversity. 

Replenished annually by the Ministry of Culture since 1974 (!), the Dutch Journalism Fund, or SVDJ (Stimuleringsfonds Voor De Journalistiek) acts as an accelerator for innovative journalism projects, for local investigative journalism and local broadcast TV, talent development programmes and, more recently, as the conduit for COVID-19-related journalism emergency relief funding. Its accelerator has three prongs: its main programme, a lite version, and a corporate version that can be implemented within bigger established media organisations. The annual waves of applicants show – like the Google DNI Fund, which gave a number of innovation grants in the Netherlands between 2016 and 2019 – successive waves of concerns and opportunities: data, blockchain, and more recently, fake news and misinformation (with many applicants startups coming from outside the journalism industry). Closely related is the more content-focused Dutch Fund for In-depth Journalism, or FBJP (Fonds voor Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten), which also support talent development through posts like this one at De Groene.

Two funders well-known to media philanthropy watchers are Stichting Democratie & Media (SDM) – established by the founders of the wartime newspaper Het Parool – and the Adessium Foundation – another private, more Europe-wide funder. SDM makes both grants and investments, and was an early investor in and supporter of De Correspondent. Both foundations are very active and increasingly influential in conversations about media philanthropy, both domestically and internationally. (Verenigeng Veronica (part of the Veronica Media Group) is another fund that blends methods and outlooks from the worlds of investment and media, supporting, among other projects, the Amsterdam-based European Press Prize.) Other well-known national funders like Nationale Postcode Loterij and Stichting Doen do back journalism projects, but do not yet have specific lines designed for contemporary digital or upstart media. 

One of the most interesting, but little-mentioned funders that overlap with the media philanthropy field is the European Cultural Foundation, which is a leader in participatory funding practices in the fields of youth and activist media, and its Connected Action for the Commons programme also built bridges between alternative and more conventional media. The influential feminist funder Mama Cash funds some media-related projects under its Voice Program that also reflect participatory and power-shifting dynamics.

Food for thought from our interviewees for the Dutch scene:

  • What’s the next De Correspondent or Blendle? And is that a more pressing need for donors and investors to support than regeneration and experimentation in local or regional media?
  • How can funders coordinate better, and more clearly differentiate and dovetail their different roles in the funding landscape?
  • How can media and philanthropy better model and accelerate leadership and power-shifting – especially on diversity – through their own actions?

Back in the Ariadne Forecast, one Dutch donor, asked for their hopes for the future, gave a blunt warning that could equally apply to journalism:

 “If we don’t make change happen in the next two years we’re screwed: the urgency will enable conversations that were not possible before.”

Ariadne Forecast 2020

What we’re reading this month

  • An unprecedented development in Belarus, amid growing protests for President Lukashenko to relinquish power, with hundreds of employees at the state-controlled news station going on strike, issuing demands to management including an end to censorship, and to be able to call the election results invalid.
  •  The Nesta-run UK Future News Pilot Fund, which closed its pilot phase in June 2020, has released both the underlying research and the end-of-programme report – both well worth reading to better understand next month’s newsletter focus, the UK.
  • And finally, graphic journalism master Joe Sacco recently released a new work, Paying The Land – heartily recommended for your summer holiday reading, wherever you might be.

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