JFF #018 – Here’s where the UK journalism funding landscape is headed (unless we do something about it)

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

It’s September, and coming out of summer, it seems there’s more media news than even we can keep up with. Today we’re going to see what the outlook for public interest journalism in the UK promises.

For such an internationally influential and entrepreneurial media environment, public interest journalism in the UK is in an extremely precarious state – and though the coronavirus pandemic brought official recognition that journalism is an essential service and journalists are key workers, it has also pushed journalism organisations closer to the precipice

Before we go any further, a quick reminder that this newsletter is written for an international audience of over 2,000 journalists, analysts and funders interested in public interest journalism and how it is funded around Europe – but we hope it also contains enough to hold the attention of even the most seasoned UK media-watcher.

Enjoy, and, as ever, please do send any feedback by commenting below, email info@journalismfundersforum.com, or tweet @sdp.

Sombre mood music

Even without COVID-19, and allowing for its strong public service media, famously robust and competitive printed press, and significant-tech sector, the UK displays many symptoms of a systemic hollowing-out of the public interest journalism sector. Exacerbating the financial woes of most media (declining ad revenues, falling circulations, recession, and now COVID-19) are the evidence of a widening polarisation in society, driven partly by an increasingly adversarial government approach to media, a partisan and concentrated press, widespread misinformation and disinformation, threats to press freedom, declining trust, news avoidance, and a collapse in independent local news and information leading to news deserts. 

In 2019, the Cairncross Review, a government-commissioned independent review of the journalism landscape in the UK, led by former journalist Dame Frances Cairncross and assisted by a panel of experts, issued a warning: Without some form of intervention from the government, both financial and regulatory, public interest journalism would continue to contract and wither. Cairncross made nine recommendations, including the establishment of a new Institute for Public Interest News to act as an umbrella organisation for the sector, changes by the charities regulator to make it easier for public interest journalism groups to register as charities and government funding of £40m over four years for a UK-wide innovation fund for journalism. The government was not keen on all of these measures, but it did support the innovation fund as a nine-month England-only pilot with a £2m operational and grantmaking budget, independently run by innovation foundation Nesta, in partnership with tech for good investor Bethnal Green Ventures.

As part of that innovation fund, Nesta conducted research into the state of the public interest journalism sector in the UK and how it gets funded. This added depth to the headline figures of job losses, shuttered publications, and an ever thinner fabric of local news and information. 

Journalism is geographically concentrated in London and other major urban centres like Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. Poorer communities are more remote from journalism than other, better-off communities. London is actually quite poorly-served as a media environment, despite being the place where the majority of the industry and power is concentrated. And data about the sector is fragmented and uneven and acts as a brake on both more strategic investment and on the identification of opportunities to meet the needs of a wide range of communities. 

Worse still, funding – whether from traditional sources like advertising and subscriptions, newer sources like audiences or membership programmes, or from philanthropy, investors, or even government – is surprisingly scarce, and, barring a deus ex machina, this seems unlikely to change as other frontline priorities take precedence under COVID-19 intensifying the widely-anticipated post-Brexit recession. The Nesta Future News Pilot Fund came to an end in June 2020 after one round of funding, issuing an end-of-programme report that made a plea to government, philanthropy and big tech for more – and more structured and sustained – funding to support innovation in the news ecosystem (see p.38 of the report). It’s likely that another recent inquiry – by the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee – into ‘the future of journalism’ will reinforce the message.

I’m afraid we’ve made it sound terribly bleak thus far – so here’s a bit more of the upside…

What’s happening in the public interest journalism landscape?

There’s too much going on to do justice to in a short newsletter. At the same time, deep structural problems and barriers are preventing the UK’s media ecosystem from evolving and diversifying. We’re going to try to give you a flavour of both, leaving aside the national media – newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, The Economist, major news organisations like Sky, ITN and Channel 4 News, or even the larger digital news organisations like HuffPo UK, or the recently shuttered Buzzfeed News UK. 

First, a quick word about field infrastructure. The UK – although it has many high-quality internationally-focused NGOs and research organisations focused on journalism, media and freedom of expression (Article 19, Internews Europe, BBC Media Action, Media Legal Defence Initiative, Index on Censorship, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, European Journalism Observatory and others) – has few if any organisations focused on media development or innovation within the UK, whether along the lines of Greece’s iMEdD or the USA’s News Revenue Hub or Institute for Nonprofit News, for example. (And a media policy reform seems to be completely off the table.)

Small pieces, barely joined

In the absence of an IPIN, as proposed by Cairncross, there’s no wider independent forum for the sector to convene, share research and data, mobilise and organise funding, and develop consensus or a collective voice. The small independent sector is represented partly by infrastructure organisations ICNN and the newly-formed Public Interest News Foundation, who combined to try to mobilise funding support to stave off the ‘extinction event’ of COVID-19. Other cross-sector networks like Hacks/Hackers (in London and other cities) bring together journalists, technologists and others interested in the future of journalism, and have branched out in the past into trying to foster a more entrepreneurial media ecosystem. The Public Media Stack project tracks and rates technologies being used in the public media ecosystem, in the UK and beyond. Nesta’s Future News Pilot Fund brought together an Advisory Board including everyone from Google and Facebook to the News Media Association and the National Union of Journalists, as well as groups like the ICNN and several expert researchers, and may live on. 

The BBC began the year under sustained political attack, with its license fee funding model openly questioned by members of the government. During the pandemic, however, the BBC was widely praised for demonstrating the value of a publicly-funded universal access media organisation in times of crisis – a safety-net for all citizens. Economist Mariano Mazzucato has talked about the BBC not as a response to market failure, but as a market creator. While that analysis is not yet the mainstream view, initiatives like its Voice and AI work under Mukul Devichand show how public media can create public value with emerging consumer technologies. Months into the pandemic, the bigger picture is less rosy: under a new Director-General, BBC News is both cutting and controversially reorganising its news and journalism output, and is starting to try to fireproof itself against further political attacks

Local media are committed and energetic, but extremely precarious. The three major regional press groups are accused by some of contributing to the decline of local journalism through a corporate approach that involves cuts, consolidation, homogenisation of content and a disinclination to innovate – even though the picture is, as always, more complicated than that. Despite enormous corporate and financial pressures, local newsgroups and organisations continue to serve their communities as best they can.

Initiatives from the BBC to try to bolster local “democracy reporting”*, of news, and information deemed crucial for an informed citizenry have placed reporters in local publications across the country, even though some (including the BBC’s own report) have noted that most of these reporters have gone to the larger regional press groups, rather than to smaller independent operators. Last year, former D-G Tony Hall suggested that the BBC might set up its own independent foundation to run the scheme, though it’s unclear how viable this would be. (*A similar scheme from Facebook and the NCTJ – evaluation here – has not yet published the full list of reporters and where they are placed.)

Investigative journalism nonprofit The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and its UK project Bureau Local are an increasingly influential part of the landscape, and, while not on the scale of the US’s ProPublica, are managing to persuade a growing number of philanthropic funders of the merits of supporting independent journalism (similarly openDemocracy).

A growing number of media co-operatives are becoming both more successful and more confident about the merits of the media co-ops model. The leading lights of this trend – which has the potential to become a movement – include The Ferret in Scotland, The Bristol Cable, The Manchester Meteor, New Internationalist magazine, and TogetherTV. The theory is that these member-owned media organisations are more plugged into and accountable to the information needs and agendas of their members and communities. This is a trend mirrored by a handful of initiatives focused on reporting on and explaining issues relevant to communities around the country, for example, the economy and alternative economic systems. A similar rationale holds for others serving underserved audiences, covering underreported issues, or growing membership schemes, include gal-dem magazine, Black Ballad, and Byline Times. Lastly, we must mention Tortoise – regarded sceptically by some commentators for its wealthy and influential backers – has built a credible and new method of citizen engagement through its ThinkIns (in-person until COVID-19) and its Network

Some of these are part of the Nesta/BGV cohort, worth perusing as it brought together organisations from across England in journalism, open data, transparency, civic tech and empowerment, data science, payment systems, and activism – with an accent on diversity and representation of underserved, historically marginalised communities, including in terms of geography, gender, ethnicity, disability status, and ownership structure. As the Nesta report says, there are green shoots appearing, but they need concerted effort to grow.

Who’s funding and investing in UK public interest media?

This is a worryingly short section by comparison. While there appears – judging by those Bureau, openDemocracy and Tortoise Network links above – to be a modest increase in both funding (philanthropic and corporate) and investment in journalism in some ways, there’s little strategic about it, unlike in some other European countries. 

In terms of the largest amounts, it’s Big Tech that has stepped up to the plate in funding innovation – and latterly emergency relief under COVID-19 – for UK journalism in a strategic way. The Google News Initiative in particular has spent a good deal of money, through its DNI Fund in particular. The Facebook Journalism Project appears to be increasingly active, with its UK funds more targeted at supporting training and journalism posts (and COVID-19 relief). For many, however, it’s difficult to disentangle Big Tech’s corporate motives from genuine concern for and solidarity with the journalism sector – some, including Nesta, argue for some form of a levy on Big Tech that could fund an independent body like IPIN. 

Philanthropic money, by contrast, is narrower in scope, much smaller in size, and much less agile, as Nesta’s research suggested – the median grant in the UK is 41% smaller than in the USA, and donors to journalism are more diverse and less concentrated. That said, there are significant gaps in the available data on UK funding for journalism between Candid and 360Giving (as evidenced by this JFF 2017 report). Under COVID-19, neither government nor philanthropy came up with a meaningful rescue package – with only the recently-established Public Interest News Foundation able to offer any new funds at all, just £60,000 for 20 grantees.

Barriers like the lack of charitable status for journalism – which the Public Benefit Journalism Research Centre is working to analyse, like its German counterpart – and a lack of specialised foundation programmes and staff focused on UK media, as well as the lack of a funders’ discussion and skills-sharing forum like Germany’s Expertenkreis mean that the field of media grantmaking in the UK has few opportunities to grow or advance. 

So who will ride to UK journalism’s rescue?

There are a handful of funders who, as a core part of what they do, understand and commit to supporting public interest media internationally and increasingly domestically – the Open Society Foundations, Luminate, and the Sigrid Rausing Trust, for example. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has long supported reporting on topics of concern to them, for example, through the Guardian’s global development section. Others, like Lankelly Chase, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, support the media through their democracy, power, inequality or citizen engagement work, and some through place-based funding. A wider array of funders do give based on thematic concerns, although they don’t have specialised journalism programmes – Wellcome and Power To Change, for example. Even in aggregate, none of them is of the scale of, say, the USA’s Knight Foundation or Australia’s Judith Neilson Institute, and the sums spent are too small, fragmented and often project-based to truly change the game for a beleaguered media. 

Investors in media too are few and far between – Founders Factory is the standout here – though some hope that the involvement of Bethnal Green Ventures in the Nesta fund will spark a widening of ‘tech for good’ investment to some form of support for public interest media.

Jane Martinson, writing for Tortoise earlier this year, was blunt in her view that “there’s no bailout coming”, whether from government, big tech or philanthropy. It seems no one is holding out for a hero here. Major foundations and corporations in other countries have begun to make bigger bets, and wealthy individuals (like Judith Neilson, Laurene Powell Jobs and others) to establish anchor funders focused on public interest journalism. 

Will the UK philanthropic or corporate scene rise to the challenge, or will the UK government have a Damascene conversion and suddenly both fund IPIN and resurrect the innovation fund? At the moment, this seems unlikely, but in this year of unprecedented twists, who’s to say it won’t happen.

What we’re reading this month

  • We’ve talked about how to support equity in journalism before – and this landmark Ford Foundation report “explore(s) new ways for catalyzing greater and better-aligned capital in support of equitable media” – essential reading for all.
  • DW Akademie’s new report ‘From start to success’ offers practical advice to media entrepreneurs – and, unusually, is written by leading media entrepreneurs from around the world, including Laura Zommer of Chequeado and Lina Attalah of Mada Masr.
  • Many – this newsletter included – have called for philanthropy to embrace data science, but what would this actually look like? Here’s a post by Filippo Candela, a data scientist at Italian foundation Compagnia di San Paolo, explaining CSP’s shift towards ‘data-driven philanthropy’.

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