[Cross-posted from JFF.]
We’re back with another deep-dive into an emerging issue in journalism funding. Each edition focuses either on how a theme, method and country connects to the funding of public interest journalism – today we focus on investment.
There are no silver bullets in media funding, but there is growing excitement about the relationship between philanthropy and investment. At their best, working together, they can bring significant new resources, skills and momentum to the journalism sector.
We’re not going to provide a ‘how to’ guide – there are many great guides to venture philanthropy, impact investing, social impact investment, social impact bonds and other forms of ‘sustainable finance‘, and many networks and funders to learn from already.
In today’s edition, we’ll look at examples in these three areas:
- At the macro level: how democracy and press freedom are becoming a factor for investors
- At the meso level: ways philanthropy and investors are interacting and collaborating
- At the micro level: specific initiatives and methods we can learn from
The Macro Level: Does a country’s democracy rating affect how investors see it?
With the bleak diagnoses about the sustainability of journalism, it’s not an easy climate in which to try to persuade investors that independent media are a worthwhile investment. In today’s attention and algorithmic economy, competition for attention is fierce and constant, and few public interest media organisations have the resources or know-how to prosper.
It’s not just a market problem: public interest media are under attack as part of a broader ‘quiet erosion’ of democracy, authoritarian regimes are spending heavily to capture media even in democracies, and finance from the World Bank and the regional development banks like the EBRD is still flowing to countries that cracked down on freedom of expression and media freedom under Covid. The Civil Liberties Union of Europe felt moved in recent weeks to champion the value of a free press and of independent journalism to democracy and civil society.
It’s not clear how strong a factor democracy or press freedom would be in actual risk assessments by investors or investment managers, but there are signs that investors – not only social impact investors, but also “private equity and venture capital management companies” – are beginning to appreciate the importance of a stronger information and media environment to the health of their own portfolios. There is already evidence, for example, that fiscal transparency has a direct impact on how investors view a country. It may be that a future edition of the Freshfield’s international report A Legal Framework for Impact will note press freedom as one of the “sustainability factors [that] poses a material risk to [an investment manager’s] ability to achieve its financial investment objectives.”
JFF readers will be aware of the growth in ESG (environmental, social, governance) investing – but some argue that ESG should expand to include the D of ‘democracy’. The UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) “offer a menu of possible actions for incorporating ESG issues into investment practice.” In 2019, the only European foundation recognised as part of PRI’s Global Leadership Cohort was the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, in the UK. Other sources point investors to frameworks like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that can help them act responsibly, and to civil society networks like the European Responsible Investment Network.
In the USA, Democracy Investments is trying to ensure that investors understand a country’s democracy rating as one of those sustainability factors. By combining the Economist’s Democracy Index with its own market analyses, its investment index shows investors the relative merits of investing in more democratic countries versus less democratic ones – creating incentives for countries to reform, suggests its new white paper.
Other emerging public interest funding instruments are also talking about incorporating investment approaches alongside more traditional grantmaking. The US Democracy Taskforce called for the Biden administration to establish an international Enterprise Fund for Independent Media, providing a mix of “debt, equity and grant investments.” And it seems that IFPIM, or the International Fund for Public Interest Media, is also discussing a variety of forms of finance. EU-watchers will know that the Invest.eu programme offers guarantees to investors in particular priority sectors, now including media. And as we saw a couple of editions ago, the New Deal for Journalism report put forward several recommendations for how investors and funders can work together.
At the 2017 International Journalism Festival, I asked Ross Settles, then of MDIF, Turi Munthe of North Base Media, and Mariano Blejman of Media Factory, to explain ‘how investors think about journalism’.
Look out for a new interview with Turi soon to find out what he thinks has changed in the landscape since then, and what roles he thinks philanthropy and investment can play today.
The Meso Level: how are philanthropy and investment already interacting and collaborating?
Philanthropy can play a catalytic role for the journalism ecosystem by unlocking other kinds of finance, especially investment.
Investing in, and securing the independence of, public interest media is not a new phenomenon – media investment firm MDIF, or Media Development Investment Fund, was launched in 1995 as the Media Development Loan Fund, swapping ‘Loan’ for ‘Investment’ in 2013. Its funding comes from a mix of traditional investors, media companies, philanthropic foundations, and bilateral donors. MDIF’s co-founder Saša Vučinić then co-founded another firm, North Base Media, which invests in digital media businesses in emerging markets.
But firms specialised in public interest media investment are still few and far between – and some high-profile public interest accelerators have had to close down, notably Matter.vc in the USA and France’s Tank Media, in part for lack of investment.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that investment is also a key tool of media capture – as we have seen in Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and in many other countries, as well documented by CMDS at CEU. This can be from the government itself, its cronies and allies, or through foreign corporations or state-controlled investment bodies. In countries where governments are trying to exert more control over private media, and where philanthropic funds may not be available, they may choose to change the threshold or rules for foreign investment in domestic media businesses, restricting the ability of international mission-driven investors to support public interest media starved of other resources.
At JFF we are beginning to observe changes in the environment, and greater interest, both from more traditional grantmaking foundations in expanding out the range of financial and operational support and tools they can offer to the sector, and from the impact and social investment sector in journalism and media as crucial to the health of democracy and civil society. Send us new examples!
One of the clearest ways funders are supporting investment is by providing finance to aligned investment firms and funds. As we noted in a previous edition:
- Philanthropy, by participating in e.g. blended finance investment vehicles and accepting a lower or zero return, can help to unlock higher rates of return for commercial or traditional investors.
Many of the examples we have noted above are based on this method.
A slightly different approach is taken by the EU-funded Stadiem accelerator, which provides ‘cascade funding’ to European startups from the Horizon2020 budget as part of Next Generation Media. It serves to bring together “a variety of partners, including clusters, business angels, venture capital investors, investment networks and public-private stakeholders” to support the media startups it selects.
Many media houses also have investment arms, and can be valuable partners alongside other kinds of investors and funders. pd ventures, for example, as the investment arm of Pressedruck in Augsburg, Germany, invests in digital businesses, and participates alongside Robert Bosch Stiftung in innovation studio Media Lab Bayern.
Hamburg-based Next Media Accelerator is perhaps the most durable and successful media accelerator in Europe, and its network of investors and partners (including other media, and a bank, but not philanthropy) is a great jumping-off point into the wider investor and accelerator ecosystem across the continent. Some publishers have their own accelerators, like Axel Springer Plug and Play. Further afield, there’s Velocidad, an accelerator for digital journalism businesses in Latin America is supported by Luminate and Knight, and SAMIP, a similar programme in Southern Africa.
Back in philanthropy, the Soros Economic Development Fund (SEDF) operates as an investment firm from within the Open Society Foundations, though it is yet to start investing in media.
Finally, philanthropic organisations can also provide helpful impetus to the sector and a stronger investment rationale to its investors by funding:
- high-quality research, data, analysis and advocacy on the journalism sector, where money comes from, how it flows through the sector and where there are cold spots in funding and access to capital (e.g. at the local level, for women and minorities) – in the US there has been exceptional work, for example, on what equitable investment in media looks like
- in-depth, open-access research into media organisations – initiatives like SembraMedia/Luminate’s Inflection Point give detailed insight into the state of digital media (in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa & South East Asia – not Europe)
- research to understand the role of social investment and finance, including, for example, this exploratory work from Big Society Capital to develop more standardised ways of describing the purpose of the funds provided, and how they are used.
Alliance Magazine’s September 2020 edition on philanthropic investments asked how – amid critiques of philanthropy – philanthropies can invest their own endowments more responsibly. Danielle Walker Palmour notes that just 5% ($58bn) of the total assets of global philanthropy are actively being used to fund mission-driven causes. She argues that the other 95% (>$1.5tn) could give philanthropy huge leverage in demanding more ethically-driven approaches from the people and firms that manage their wealth and investments, and from the businesses and sectors that this wealth is invested in, including information, media & entertainment.
Micro Level: Specific initiatives and examples we can learn from
There’s much to learn from the examples above – but here are a few more we think are particularly interesting.
Mission Studio is a collaboration between innovation foundation Nesta and accelerator Founders Factory, which aims to ‘create, spin out and scale new tech startups that tackle some of the UK’s most pressing social challenges.” While it’s unlikely to involve journalism-related businesses, its structure might provide inspiration to others.
In the domain of investment to secure media independence, the US-based National Trust for Local News is a new investment vehicle part-funded by philanthropy to bring local media currently owned by financial investors into more public interest-oriented ownership. Given the deep challenges with media capture and concentration in many European markets, this approach seems worth exploring.
And what about money going the other way, from investment and business into philanthropy? Some high net worth individuals (HNWIs), like John Caspers of payment titan Adyen, set up their own philanthropies. Caspers has used a portion of his wealth to support a new Dutch philanthropic entity, the Limelight Foundation, which, according to its policy plan, may start using investment as a method in the future. And Quadrature Capital, an investment fund, established the Quadrature Climate Foundation, which, as part of its overall climate focus, recognises the value of and funds investigative journalism organisations like The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Others, like Open Society Foundations chairman George Soros and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, are investing in firms aimed at addressing major issues in the information environment, including in the area of misinformation and trustworthy information.
And we’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – we will return to this issue in the future.
And finally, upcoming and recent events where the issues we all care about are being discussed, including with governments:
Take part in upcoming conferences…
The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a year-long multi-stakeholder initiative called Tech for Democracy – the opening conference takes place from 14h-17h CET today. “As part of the Tech for Democracy initiative, support to empower civil society, independent media and democracy defenders is crucial. Ideally, a new multi-stakeholder financing mechanism will be established to deliver on the commitments made in the Pledge.” Register here.
And you still have time (till the end of December, but don’t procrastinate!) to put in your ideas for the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, which is set to return for its first post-Covid edition in April 2022.
… catch up on recent conferences:
The Paris Peace Forum, which ended 13th November, had a number of sessions related to journalism, information and communication, including on supporting healthier information ecosystems, defending civic space, and the International Fund for Public Interest Media (featuring its Nobel Prize-winning co-chair, Maria Ressa)
The News Philanthropy Summit, led by the LenFest Institute in Philadelphia, USA, took place a couple of weeks ago – while it’s mainly concerned with journalism and philanthropy in the USA, there’s still much of relevance for European funders among its open-access videos and session notes.
The Global Investigative Journalism Conference included many sessions of interest to funders, as well as a new Digital Security assessment tool for journalism organisations.
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