JFF #025 – Nonprofit and charitable journalism in Europe

[Cross-posted from JFF.]

Today we’re taking a look at the world of nonprofit and charitable journalism – a growing phenomenon across Europe and far beyond.

But first, we can’t ignore that this, our last edition of 2021, comes after a remarkable couple of weeks for independent journalism worldwide.

For those who – for a decade or more – have been working to unlock more funding for independent media & public interest journalism locally, nationally, & internationally, maybe the wheels are at last starting to turn.

IFPIM, Plūrālis and, what’s that? Oh nothing, just THE NOBEL PRIZE…

Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov

Last week’s announcement by President Biden at the Summit for Democracy of US$30m in ‘critical seed funding’ to the International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM), followed by President Macron, the government of Taiwan, & Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand, was a landmark moment. IFPIM Co-chair Mark Thompson spoke to Politico’s Ryan Heath about what’s next.

And for Philea, here’s Patrice Schneider of MDIF on the ‘plurality of capital‘ behind Plūrālis, the new investment fund for independent media backed by blended finance from European investors, philanthropies & media companies.

Independent media being funded because they’re independent media… Just let that sink in. There’s a long road ahead, none of it easy, but both teams & the funders backing them deserve kudos and congratulations.

And then, for one glorious hour, on International Human Rights Day, December 10th 2021, independent journalism was the focus of the world’s attention, as Maria Ressa of Rappler in the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Novaya Gazeta in Russia received the Nobel Prize for Peace in a ceremony in Oslo. You can – and should – read Ressa’s speech in EnglishFilipinoRussian or Norwegian, & Muratov’s in RussianEnglish or Norwegian (and reaction to Muratov’s win). There’s even a lesson plan for use in schools.

‘Fine words’ can’t help so-called ‘foreign agents’

In their speeches, both Ressa and Muratov both talked about predecessors, colleagues, friends who have been harassed, attacked and killed for their work – Jess Malabanan just 36 hours before the ceremony.

The same morning as the Nobel ceremony, one of the longest-running and most controversial legal battles over freedom of expression reached its next stage when a UK court ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the USA for trial – although further appeals and counter-appeals are expected (here’s a roundup of European media coverage). Assange’s father has called on Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to intervene on his behalf with the UK government.

Reflecting on the dissonance between the words spoken about the Nobel award and the actually worsening press freedom situation worldwide, Mary Fitzgerald, Director of Expression at the Open Society Foundations, writing in the publication she used to edit, openDemocracy, is sceptical of the “fine words and big pledges from global leaders”:

“If so-called liberal democracies are serious about protecting press freedom, they need to curb the power their own governments and private industries have built to surveil, target and abuse journalists online. They need to levy their diplomatic muscle against those who persecute and jail journalists.”

Taking aim at lawyers defending journalists

In places like Russia, where there is a rule-of-law crisis, those who support and defend journalists are also at risk, for example by being designated as ‘foreign agents’, a ruling with difficult and costly consequences. In September a number of independent media organisations targeted in this way launched a campaign asserting that “There are no foreign agents, there are journalists.”

In October, after the Nobel announcement, more organisations and individuals were targeted, notably internationally-respected Russian human rights lawyer Galina Arapova, of the Mass Media Defence Centre (itself designated a ‘foreign agent’ in 2018), who became the first individual lawyer designated as a ‘foreign agent media outlet’, joining actual media organisations domestic, foreign and exiled, including Bellingcat and Meduza.

Arapova, whom the Media Legal Defence Initiative profiled alongside Maria Ressa on International Women’s Day 2021, is an Advisory Council member of the International Bar Association’s High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom. Read interviews with her at Sever Real (RU), Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (EN), the Wilson Center (EN/RU), and Rights In Russia (EN).

Here’s RSF on what those designated as ‘foreign agents’ must do:

To avoid fines and criminal proceedings, the now 99 “media foreign agents” must add a 24-word declaration in large letters, identifying themselves as foreign agents, to every article and online post and every statement they issue. And they must send a detailed report of their income and expenses to the justice ministry every quarter and pay for an independent audit of these reports every year. Individuals on the “foreign agents” list must also create a specific legal entity for this purpose.

And in July, after the designation of investigative journal Proekt as a ‘foreign agent’, Meduza explained the risks its readers and supporters face. This tactic is forcing independent Russian media into exile, as noted in this recent report from the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.

What advice do the women facing these challenges have for others? Galina Arapova advises her clients to take a long-term view:

“Everything passes, and this too shall pass. […] They need to understand that this is not the end of the world. I think this is like a house of cards that will rot and fall to pieces…. If you do your work well, if you are a professional and a decent person – that is what will remain in the end.”

And Maria Ressa, Co-chair of IFPIM, gave this advice to an aspiring woman journalist, as reported by Dr Julie Posetti of ICFJ:

“Identify what you most fear; confront it; touch it; imagine what it will feel like to endure & figure out how you will respond to it. Then, let it go & do your job.”

Sorry that we had a longer introduction than planned, but now let’s get to today’s real topic… the rise and rise of nonprofit and charitable journalism.

We’ve talked about this a number of times, most recently as part of our coverage of the New Deal for Journalism report, which called on governments to make it easier to create and run nonprofit and charitable media organisations, and to make it easier for philanthropy to fund them both within and across borders. We know that, in many societies, nonprofit journalism is increasingly understood as a new and distinct media sector, with a different mandate, incentives, relationship with audiences, economic logic and business model.

So why cover it now? Well, as we’ll explain shortly, changes underway in Germany, the UK and elsewhere, are significant, and might ripple across Europe and beyond.

Do send us your feedback at info@journalismfundersforum.com or on social media. And please keep sharing the subscribe link, to help new readers find us.

–Sameer Padania

At heart, this newsletter – and the JFF in general – is about how journalism gets funded. But what kinds of journalism do we mean, and whose funds?

Long-standing JFF members may remember X Journalism, an academic project trying to map the evolving types and clusters in journalism.

At JFF, we try to keep it fairly simple, and though we encounter a range of both overlapping and distinct journalisms – independent, public interest, public interest, community, civic, accountability, watchdog, investigative, public service, engaged, solutions and so on – we tend to go with a combination of ‘independent’ and ‘public interest’.

There may be slight differences of emphasis in these journalisms – a bit less citizen participation here, a bit more accountability reporting there, for example – but broadly speaking, this is the kind of journalism that focuses squarely on what the public needs to know, and what power wants us not to know. We all know that, even if it’s being done in many parts of the media, from commercial and national to local and nonprofit, from broadcast and print to online and distributed, this kind of journalism is under-resourced in most societies, its decline affects the quality of a democracy, its economy and security, and as a result, more and more donors and funders are looking for ways to help.

Putting it simply, nonprofit journalism (NPJ) addresses this gap – but it is fundamentally different in nature and mindset to the broader media and journalism industry, even if some of what they do overlaps. (If you can read German, this recent essay by David Schraven of German nonprofit Correctiv explains brilliantly why NPJ is different, and why this matters.)

They may have different structures or operating models, they may cover a wide range of issues, or just one, they may work in a community of place or of identity, they may be funded by readers, donations, philanthropies, merchandise or who knows, maybe even a DAO… but fundamentally what they all have in common is that they exist to serve the public and advance the public interest, and that though they are professionally run as businesses, any profits are cycled back into the work, not into the pockets of shareholders or owners.

The grass is greener over there

There are a lot of nonprofit journalism organisations around the world, and numbers are growing: the Global Investigative Journalism Network’s list of (investigative) nonprofit newsrooms and centres includes a healthy number across Europe; in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a number of the organisations profiled in Publishing for Peanuts (2015), Fighting for Survival (2019) and Inflection Point (2017 and 2021), are nonprofits; as are many in the forthcoming global research from the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

But we can’t avoid the elephant in the room: it’s our old friend America again.

Search for “nonprofit journalism” and you get a torrent of results predominantly about the US – not only about NPJ in general, but also about nonprofit outlets at the national, state, city, even local or town level. There’s so much commentary, analysis and research about the US nonprofit journalism sector that we don’t even need to link to it. (OK, you can have one quick link. Alright… two. Fine. This last one and NO MORE…)

Compared to Europe, for example, the nonprofit journalism sector in the US is far more developed. Among other things the US has:

There are major issues, of course – access to funding is uneven, the sector is disproportionately reliant on a small pool of national funders, and a core group of major nonprofit news organisations attract and absorb a significant portion of philanthropic funds available (a nonprofit ‘winner takes most’ effect).

In Europe, the nonprofit journalism sector has been less organised, less vocal, with less infrastructure, and with much less money available than in the US. But that is starting to change…

Five key questions about nonprofit and charitable journalism in Europe

We can’t cover the full breadth and depth of the nonprofit journalism field in Europe, even in an overlong newsletter like this…

But we can share five questions facing the field that we hope will give you a better understanding of where the big issues and possibilities are:

  1. What does nonprofit journalism look like in Europe?
  2. How is the sector in Europe coming together, and how might this help?
  3. Why is charitable status for journalism important?
  4. What are the implications for funders and individual donors?
  5. Where will things go next?

1. What does nonprofit journalism in Europe look like?

Media nonprofits of various kinds continue to grow in number and diversity across the continent. We’ve noted a wide range of them in previous editions, from investigative newsrooms like Slovenia’s Ostro or the international cross-border Forbidden Stories to cooperatively-owned organisations like Belgium’s Apache and Scotland’s Ferret. There’s the journalism/academic hybrid of The Conversation, started in Australia, but now in a growing number of countries and languages, including the UK and Spain (it’s model the subject of recent studies of interest).

There are hybrid collaborations between nonprofit/charitable organisations (like the GACC project by OCCRP and Transparency International), journalism carried out by charities, and independent newsrooms launched or owned by advocacy organisations. Everywhere they work, they’re focused on quality journalism, on serving the public interest, sometimes through close relationships with their communities and audiences, and they’re (under-)funded through a precarious mix of reader, philanthropic, government, EU, tech and other funds, as well as other sources of income, including, pre-Covid, growing revenue from live events.

Understanding is growing as the sector grows in size and prominence that this is a different and separate sector – linked to mainstream media through, e.g. publishing partnerships, but economically distinct from it, and with an entirely public interest set of objectives. (In another interesting option, the Scottish Working Group on Public Interest Journalism recommended to the Scottish government that local communities should be given the “option of purchasing local newspapers at risk of closure, in line with the community buy-out system in place for land and property,”)

Perhaps the best recent energy to draw on to show the possibilities is what’s happened in Germany with the arrival of their new coalition government. The new government promised in the coalition treaty to give nonprofit/charitable journalism “legal certainty” (on which more below), The David Schraven piece I noted earlier takes this new certainty, and lays out a passionate vision of the new nonprofit sector – here’s a flavour (my translation from the original German):

“The business model behind this is not conventional, there’s no brand being sold. It’s not about generating profits from stories – or monetising your attention. Non-profit journalism is also not a press overseen by government institutions. Non-profit journalism operates in areas where the market is failing. Where there are no profits to be made and which public broadcasters cannot reach. Non-profit journalism fills the gaps in which – without it – ignorance and disinformation spread. […] This will have a particular impact at the local level. Media associations can come about funded by local community foundations. Local news gap could be filled and entirely new projects started up. The consciousness of many thousands of people will change. They become agents of their own stories. We’ll give you the tools you need.”

2. How is the sector in Europe coming together?

Organisations at the national level are increasingly realising that they stand to gain by coming together, developing collective priorities and collective voice. This is partly driven by the growth and diversity in some countries of media nonprofits and independent digital media businesses, and in other cases, because there is a recognition that without a strong collective voice, there will be no seat at the industry, political or funding table for the nonprofit, small, local, and independent digital publishers, and this sector won’t be properly included in settlements with big tech, for example.

We’ve talked about such groups in France, Germany, the UK, in Central and Eastern Europe, for example – and discussions are also finding their feet in India, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Supporting such groups at the national level with funding, connections, capacity building is likely to show good value-for-money and excellent return on investment.

And working in partnership, rather than at cross-purposes with the mainstream, legacy media, understanding the different needs, pressures and goals of each, as happened in the Scottish Public Interest Journalism Working Group, resulted in a stronger set of recommendations for government with genuinely industry-wide support. This may well be the outcome in the Welsh version of this group (the UK and England have no such government-initiated group yet).

What’s new in Europe is the cross-European dimension, as witnessed by two ongoing and interlinked initiatives. One, led by Germany’s Netzwerk Recherche to map the diverse and growing community of public interest media. (Although many of these are registered as for-profits, often for lack of another local option, their primary goal is producing journalism in the public interest rather than generating profit for their owners.) The other, facilitated by Arena for Journalism in Europe, is the formalising of this community into a self-organised network (called ‘Reference’) founded by 18 media from 13 European countries to address key needs of the sector, such as collective voice on public interest journalism; collective advocacy for greater infrastructural funding; and for peer-to-peer support and learning on organisational management and development. As this network grows and formalises, we expect it to become a genuine centre of gravity for the sector across Europe – and to fuel and be fuelled by what’s happening in individual countries.

3. What is different about charitable status?

Attempts to give certain kinds of journalism a special status in law or in the tax code have been happening for many years now, mostly without success. But a combination of the economic crisis facing media in general, the specific crisis in provision of public interest news, especially at the local level, fears over disinformation and misinformation, and increasing understanding of the civic and democratic value and contribution of public interest journalism has brought discussions of the ‘public benefit’ – and in German, ‘Gemeinnützigkeit’ – of journalism to a wider audience. Concrete discussions on and proposals for changing the law or the tax code to permit journalism organisations to access nonprofit, charitable or hybrid status are happening in Germany, the UKScotlandAustraliaCanadaPortugalFrance and other countries (we noted the lack of movement in Ireland in our last edition).

If journalism brings these kinds of benefits to society and creates a new kind of trust relationship with citizens, argue those in favour of charitable status, then it ought to receive benefits like those available to charities (tax benefits, limited liabilities, access to cheaper services). Furthermore, where journalism has been able to acquire charitable status, it has always had to do so by fitting in with other charitable aims, like education. But some are arguing that it is so different, that it needs to be recognised as a charitable activity itself.

However, charitable status also brings administrative and regulatory burdens, and restrictions on what kinds of activities the charitable organisation can undertake – it’s not for every organisation, or for every situation.

Two key organisations – the Forum in Germany and the Charitable Journalism Project in the UK – are leading thinking in their respective countries at the moment, and are helping to bring together other international efforts. A recent roundtable I moderated had international participants from Portugal to Australia, all involved to some degree or another in analysing ways in which charitable status might work in their own countries. What seemed disparate and unconnected a couple of years ago is now beginning to find commonalities and value in connections across borders. And we’re told that they’re paying attention to the German blueprint particularly at the EU level – might a similar arrangement be possible EU-wide?

4. What are the implications for funders and individual donors?

As journalism organisations begin to have a wider range of options of how to incorporate, including as some form of nonprofit or charity, this will open up new opportunities for funders – philanthropic, governmental, corporate or citizen-led – to fund or even to found a more diverse field of journalism organisations and those who support them.

Philanthropic actors who care about the development of public interest journalism across Europe may wish to engage in collective discussion about ways to support, for example:

  • up-to-date analysis and potential reform of the nonprofit and charitable framework for media at the national and European level
  • research and sandboxing of new or adapted company forms suited to the hybrid activities of contemporary digital media – perhaps even an EU-wide form akin to the European Cooperative Society
  • building wider awareness among the philanthropic sector of the purpose and value of supporting nonprofit journalism specifically – whether through collective bodies at the European or national level or in smaller, self-organised groups, especially at the local level, through place-based or community foundations
  • better and internationally comparable open data about nonprofit media, funding flows and regulatory and sectoral issues
  • National level discussions on how to resource nonprofit and public interest journalism, though pooled, coordinated, aligned, match or open funding – as well as growing the work of Civitates and other European funders.

5. Where are things headed for nonprofit and charitable journalism?

Three quick thoughts before we send you on your way…

Might we see – as suggested by the Scottish experience we cite above – a number of governments deliberately invest both in nonprofit journalism and in the structures and policies that nurture it and help it grow? Or might we see this happen at the city or regional level, as we noted is happening in the USA? And might public service broadcasters also have a role to play here?

As we have seen, the sector is growing, in some places its frameworks are formalising and solidifying, with well-thought-out funding environments, and citizen awareness is growing. That said, many – especially those in countries that are smaller, or that are closing or have a mixed record on democracy – are precarious, and while in a sense they are better able to survive the kinds of social and economic shocks we have begun to get used to over the last 5 years or more, they may need the development of a European-level corporate form or structure for journalism organisations to provide the kinds of protections that nonprofit journalism needs.

What future might cryptocurrencies and associated technologies bring to the journalism field, both in terms of financing and ownership and of how organisations are structured and managed? Many who fund in this field will at some point have heard someone pitch a ‘blockchain for journalism’; some may even remember the promise and failure of Civil; but someone will make something that works before long…

We know this was an extremely long edition… but even in trying to give a genuine and wide flavour of the wide horizon ahead of the nonprofit journalism sector in Europe, we know we’ve missed countless examples and ideas from across the continent. So please send us feedback, news, ideas, examples, and we’ll consider how best to share them with the JFF community in January.


We’ve kept you long enough, and it’s Christmas, so here are three quick things that caught our eye this fortnight on philanthropy and journalism:

Academic Axel Bruns looks, in his 2019 book, to settle the question Are Filter Bubbles Real?

Last week’s interviewee Dr Eileen Culloty talked about using deliberative democracy methods in media policy. Well, little did I know there’s a 2020 CIMA report by Craig Matasick on this very idea: The Wisdom of the Crowd: Promoting Media Development through Deliberative Initiatives

And amid news that global south philanthropies have formed a joint environment and justice fund, here’s a terrific tour d’horizon of (mainly education) philanthropy across the global south from Sattva and Global Dialogue: Understanding the Global South: Key philanthropic trends, challenges and opportunities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America

Lastly, you’re running out of time to submit proposals to RightsCon, and the International Journalism Festival.

That’s all for this edition – if you made it this far, you deserve a month off – so we’ll see you in the New Year!

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