JFF #024 – A fresh start in sight for public interest media in Ireland?

[Cross-posted from JFF.]

Today we’re back to our country series with a closer look at the public interest journalism and funding environment in Ireland.

This edition is enriched by interviews with two leading journalism experts – Dr Eileen Culloty of the FuJo Institute, and entrepreneur Mark Little, founder of Storyful and of Kinzen – and also features a two-part interview with Deirdre Mortell, CEO of social innovation funder Rethink Ireland, on the changing philanthropic landscape in Ireland, and on her organisation’s unusual funding model.

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But before that, a newsflash that makes our last edition, on partnerships between philanthropy and investment, look even more prescient…

Pluralis, a new investment fund – a collaboration between impact investors like MDIF, philanthropies like the King Baudouin Foundation, and media companies like Mediahuis – launched on Monday with an announcement at the European News Media Forum. We’ll bring you an interview with our own angle on this exciting new initiative soon, but till then, here’s MDIF’s take.

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Part of the rationale for our country deep-dives – on Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Spain – was that, in many of these countries, there’s little written in English (and in some cases, even in their own languages) about the domestic media/philanthropy environment.

Doing the same for Ireland is perhaps riskier, as you would expect an English-speaking country, home to the European HQs of all the major global platform companies, with a rich journalistic tradition, a powerful public service broadcaster, a strong tradition of charitable giving, and a increasingly diverse, progressive and highly-educated population to know perfectly well what’s going on in philanthropy and journalism.

But it’s been fascinating to see – through research, and our deeply expert interviewees – a more nuanced picture emerge. So instead of giving you a tour d’horizon of the Irish media landscape, we’re going to focus in on the key challenges we think are most relevant to the JFF community…

Do send us your feedback at info@journalismfundersforum.com or on social media – and of course, if you enjoyed it or found it useful, please share the subscribe/join link, as it’s one of the main ways that new readers find us.

–Sameer Padania

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Funding journalism: a political hot potato?

For the most pressing issue in the Irish media environment, it’s difficult to look beyond the Future of Media Commission, launched by the Irish government in 2020 to look into how to fund and sustain public service broadcasting, and which has expanded into a broader discussion about how public interest journalism gets funded in general across the whole media market.

After receiving over 800 submissions of evidence (111 of which are published) from political parties, trades unions, religious institutions, industry bodies, numerous other bodies in the creative and adjacent industries, members of the public, and of course mainstream and independent media organisations (but only a couple of philanthropic organisations, it seems), the Commission completed its work in the summer.

The Commission’s final report has still not been published by the government, however, and the Irish Times is reporting that the Department of Finance is effectively blocking the report’s release as it disagrees with one of the fundamental recommendations: to change RTE’s funding model to an entirely state-funded one, instead of its current mix of license fee (with a 25% non-payment rate) and advertising (which is subject to market fluctuations).

At the same time, the government is not always averse to more future-focused ideas, like setting aside €25m to provide 2,000 artists with a Universal Basic Income. DCU’s Niamh Kirk – responding to political party Fianna Fail’s 2017/2018 proposals to support legacy print and radio outlets with public funding, an ‘analogue solution to a digital problem’ – put it well in 2018:

“Some of the funding could be directed towards existing small-scale public interest projects or new additions to the news industry. These could include non-profits, independent fact-check organisations, specialised investigation units, new multimedia start-ups, cross-disciplinary publications, media literacy projects and more. These projects are forming part of digital immune systems in democracies by providing audiences with checks, balances, and supports to problems faced by mainstream media. They do not compete with the mainstream but work with it, improving the information environment.”

Whatever the outcome, the whole sector is awaiting the final report with bated breath…

Putting the public back into public interest media

There is, says Mark Little, a philosophical absence in Ireland of understanding of the role of journalism and information in society. The Future of Media Commission is beginning to build wider discussion about the value of public interest journalism and how it should be paid for, he says, but it’s just the start of a longer process.

The public needs to be more involved in discussions and debates about how media is funded, says Dr Eileen Culloty. She notes that, while there has been little if any media philanthropy, there has been large philanthropic and other funding for deliberative democracy approaches and processes. Indeed she says, “a citizens’ assembly on public funding of media would be good because one of the main benefits of these structures seems to be, you’re not asking people to change their position. If they’re completely opposed public funding; that’s fine, but they will understand the argument for why other people are in favor of it. And it’s about going beyond your own position to make a conclusion about what’s good collectively, even if you personally disagree with it, because that could actually be quite valuable for media.” (Coincidentally Dr Damian Tambini includes citizens’ assemblies in his recommendations in the latest CEU/CMDS report on the UK media and media policy.)

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Where is the momentum in public interest journalism in Ireland?

Both Dr Eileen Culloty and Mark Little note the impact of demographic change – Ireland is a radically different and more progressive country in its overall makeup than it was even 20 years ago, and media consumption has changed accordingly.

She also explains how, while older generations might have had the UK media – with the BBC accessible in Ireland, and Irish editions of some of the UK press, for example – as a cultural reference point, younger generations are growing up, and working as journalists, “covering public interest issues like the environment, diversity, [affordable housing,] that are about the future of the country they are living in. They don’t care about the UK; they feel much more European.”

Another aspect Dr Culloty highlights is the energy around Irish-language media – both from the publicly-funded Irish-language broadcaster, which she characterises as perhaps the most outward-looking, and from the independent sector, where, she says, “there’s this new younger generation. Interestingly, a lot of young mixed-race, Irish-language media broadcasters are setting up their own podcasts, their own community radio. So it’s quite vibrant in its own way at the younger level.”

And alongside a broadening of the concept and definition of public interest media, as argued by many, including the FuJo Institute, where Dr Culloty is Deputy Director, there has been a gradual increase in investigative journalism in Ireland, both from PSB and other media, she says. Our interviewees both mentioned The Journal, and its Noteworthy initiative, for example.

Send us examples of good, innovative public interest media you’re seeing or hearing in Ireland!

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FUNDER INTERVIEW

This time, rather than speaking with a philanthropic journalism funder, of which, as our interviewees tell us, there are few in Ireland, I interviewed Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland, the national social innovation fund that in 5 years has already mobilised over €70m from philanthropy and government. Her insights hold lessons both for funders specialised in journalism and information, and those working on thematic issues.

We’ve posted the interview in two parts – the first is about the broader philanthropic landscape in Ireland and how it’s changing, and the second part focuses on Rethink Ireland and how it works – and contains a bonus nugget about journalism funding in Ireland too.

Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

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How can funders support a future-focused media environment?

As in other countries undergoing similar debates and disruptions – Australia, Canada and the UK, for example – there is considerable concern about how small, local and regional publishers of all kinds will be treated if Ireland follows a similar regulatory path. Where there are constraints on supporting journalism directly, philanthropy in Ireland can help by supporting field intermediaries, such as associations of independent digital publishers, for example, so the field described by Niamh Kirk above can develop a stronger collective voice. Such moves will increase the sector’s chances of securing better outcomes for diverse, local, independent media in policy processes, for example, if Ireland undertakes an equivalent to the News Bargaining Code. And they might also be better placed to argue for reform of nonprofit and charitable status.

That independent sector is growing. Mark Little is optimistic about the Irish creator economy and podcasting in particular (I’m keeping an eye on this group, and wish I’d heard this ONA panel by the creators of the United Ireland podcast) – and for small, nimble, digital-first organisations that are deeply connected to their communities (of place or profession), and funded in part by them, like The Dublin InquirerThe Currency (a financial publication) or similar locally-focused civically-minded digital media around Ireland. (Although he worries about ‘subscription fatigue’ for smaller, local and regional media.) These are part of the ‘fresh start’ he says Ireland’s media environment needs, moving beyond ‘obsolescent definitions of journalism’ – it also needs new institutions, and a completely redesigned funding environment.

Though he mentions media/tech startups like NOA and Newswhip as Irish success stories (I’ve also kept an eye on UCD Computer Science spinout recsyslabs), when it comes to the funding environment for these media/tech startups, he has a particular diagnosis. There are four main financing options in Ireland, he says:

  • from the state – aside from public service media, of course, the direct and indirect measures could be further improved, e.g. in the case of VAT; for Irish startups with international growth ambitions, like Courtsdesk, for example, Enterprise Ireland offers very helpful early assistance with its rebates & promotion support to entrepreneurs. (Courtsdesk then won a Nesta Future News Fund grant for UK expansion.) And Digital Hub Ireland, one of those clusters I am so fond of…
  • a small amount of charitable giving and philanthropy, often focused on content – this could be unblocked and scaled up by reforming the Charities Act to establish clearer nonprofit forms and charitable status for journalism, as detailed by DCU’s Roddy Flynn in 2016 and 2017
  • from the platform companies – both through innovation grants (such as a seed grant to The Journal to develop in-depth journalism platform Noteworthy) and through initiatives like Google Showcase, which a number of publishers are signing up to
  • from VCs or private investors – who bring expectations of global growth, and a 10x exit, with the associated demands and discipline – and who have no interest in investing in journalism (though he praises publisher investors in Europe, for example, for smart investments in media-adjacent areas like payment systems, audio and education)

This leaves those who don’t – or don’t want to – fit any of these boxes – purpose-driven startups particularly – without the right kind of funding or finance for their particular model. These types of businesses hit a wall when they reach seed stage, and are looking for an investor commitment of, say, €1.5-3m – and they’re often forced into seeking equity funding, which sets them on an irreversible path to a later sale. Spotify and Skype managed to resist this ‘siren call’, he says. If corporate forms were available that allowed such companies to change their ownership structure to reflect their purpose – e.g. through an Irish equivalent to the B Corp – this might make such investments more attractive to more patient mission-driven investors, including those backed by philanthropy.

Could philanthropy plug this gap – for debt financing, essentially – by setting up a dedicated funding vehicle, a ‘bank for media‘ even – and by supporting work to advance reform of the tax code? He echoes Deirdre Mortell of Rethink Ireland’s model by suggesting co-investment in media between different forms of finance – e.g. tech platform company funding matched by state or philanthropic funds.

Finally, philanthropic actors who care about the development of public interest journalism in Ireland may wish to engage in collective discussion about ways to support:

  • up-to-date analysis and potential reform of the nonprofit and charitable framework for media
  • wider awareness among the philanthropic sector of the purpose and value of supporting public interest journalism and information – whether through collective body Philanthropy Ireland and its members, or in smaller, self-organised groups, especially at the local level in Ireland’s regions
  • better data about philanthropy and grantmaking

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Key research and background

Notable reports on aspects of the Irish media environment include:

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RESOURCES

Here’s what caught our eye this fortnight on philanthropy and journalism:

Dr Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, UK has written a book, In Defence of Philanthropy – here’s her interview with Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

We talked about place-based funding of journalism a couple of editions ago, and since then another example has been launched in Ohio, USA, with a coalition of funders raising nearly $6m towards the effort. Please tell us if you know of similar local efforts in Europe…

And in October, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center released Craig Forman’s consolidated literature review on the local news crisis – yes, again it’s completely US-focused, but there’s inspiration to be taken from it in Europe…

YouTube announced two initiatives of note back in August:

  • Creator Program for Independent Journalists as part of which 49 journalists from around the world, including a number from France, Germany, Turkey and the UK, receive between $20k and $50k, support from an academic/training partner, and support from YouTube specialists
  • Sustainability Lab working with newsrooms, including in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the UK, to “execute projects across digital-first newsrooms, advertising revenue, user revenue, and cost savings.”

And here’s our regular update on events of interest, past and upcoming:

It really is democracy season…

Might we actually be about to see large-scale and concerted financial commitments from governments to media freedom and funding efforts?

Sadly, due to the Omikron variant of Covid-19, ERNOP – the European Research Network on Philanthropy – has chosen to move its conference on 2-3 December from Dublin, Ireland, to a fully online event.

On Monday 6 December, two events of place-based interest:

  • also part of the US Summit for Democracy, there’s an 8am-10am EST/14h-16h CET session livestream of “Mayors Delivering Democracy Daily“, featuring, among others, the Mayors of Warsaw and Dublin – as part of which we hope they’ll talk about the critical role of journalism and information at the city level, as we noted in our place-based edition…
  • also at 14h CET, as part of a Dutch-language webinar, imec researcher Marlen Komorowski is presenting new research (in English) on Mapping the Innovation Ecosystem Landscape in the Netherlands – register here and, as is now customary, you’ll get the video to watch at your leisure.

On November 22-23, the Anti-SLAPP conference in London tackled one of the most pernicious tools of those looking to restrict media freedom, SLAPPs or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The full event video is now online.

And lastly, don’t panic – there’s still time to submit proposals to RightsCon, and the International Journalism Festival.

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That’s all for this edition – see you next time, for an edition on charitable and non-profit media… (Send us tips!)

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And you can the newsletter edition here.

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