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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Heawood

Notes from the International Journalism Festival 2024

Jonathan Heawood reflects on an invigorating five days at the International Journalism Festival 2024 in Perugia, Italy.


Photo credit: Diego Figone for IJF


I love many things about my job. Working with creative and courageous news providers. Talking to funders and policymakers about the value of journalism. Following the latest research into the sector. The list goes on.


Once a year, I get to do all the good things non-stop for five days at the International Journalism Festival in the beautiful Italian city of Perugia. As the festival founder, Christopher Potter, told me over drinks at the Hotel Brufani, every year’s festival is better than the one before – and this year’s was the best ever.


Here, hot off the press, are my top five takeaways from this year’s festival.


1. Journalism is getting real.


Around the world, news providers are enhancing the human element of their journalism through live events. In the words of Mary Walter-Brown of the News Revenue Hub, live events are great ‘both for the commercial model of journalism, and for community engagement.’


In Austin, the Texas Tribune runs a live journalism festival that grossed $3m last year. In Georgia, Coda Story runs the Tbilisi Storytelling Festival, ZEG, with star guests including Sean Penn. In Germany, the new Publix building (due to open this summer) will provide offices for 30 independent newsrooms and related organisations and events space for up to 200 people. In Uganda, the team behind Media Challenge Initiative travel the country in their ‘Media Van’, conducting journalism in partnership with local people, and showing the results of their investigations in community film screenings.


This trend towards live journalism is part of a wider shift away from the digital ecosystem dominated by big tech platforms. As Maria Exner of Publix put it, ‘the current tech “democratic” infrastructure is fragile and self-defeating.’ In the words of Natalia Antelava of Coda Stories, ‘events are a platform, and we desperately need new platforms other than big tech, whose model doesn’t work for journalism.’


Or in the saltier phrasing of Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, ‘social media is the province of anonymous assholes. At a live event, it’s harder to be an anonymous asshole.’


2. Facebook has left the building – but Microsoft is moving in.


At the same time that journalists are turning away from digital platforms, the platforms are reassessing their relationships with the news industry. Facebook was conspicuous by its absence from this year’s festival, which it has previously sponsored. Jesper Doub, former director of international news partnerships at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said, in no uncertain terms, ‘Meta has left the building.’


He and Madhav Chinnappa, former director of news ecosystem development at Google, took part in a brave session where they discussed the complicated experience of trying, as individual employees, to support the news industry from within the two tech giants—companies with famously thorny relationships with the same industry.


Chinnappa and Doub agreed that the relationship between platforms and publishers has become too adversarial, with big publishers demanding payments that are out of line with how the platforms value news. Doub would like to see a ‘civil conversation’ between the two industries but didn’t sound optimistic.


Both of them were knocked sideways when Maria Ressa – CEO of Rappler and winner of the Nobel peace prize – challenged them, saying, ‘tech took advantage of lawlessness whilst journalists continued doing our jobs. Why is there no-one in these companies looking at their impact on democracy and society?’


Whilst Facebook is stepping back from news and Google is weighing its options, Microsoft is steadily building its profile in the industry. Noreen Gillespie, journalism director at Microsoft, said, ‘Microsoft is looking to scale responsible AI policies across newsrooms and working with select organisations on projects to help newsrooms adopt AI.’


This reminded me of how Facebook treated the news industry a few years ago, when they were keen to embed their tools within newsrooms, but less willing (or able) to sustain high-quality independent journalism. Let’s see how it plays out for Microsoft.


3. We urgently need to rebuild news communities.


News avoidance is a growing problem for the news industry and society. In one fascinating session, Rasmus Nielsen, Benjamin Toff and Ruth Palmer presented their groundbreaking research, which distinguishes selective news avoiders – who limit their news consumption – from consistent avoiders – who disengage from news altogether. They pointed out that selective avoidance may be a sensible way of managing information overload, but consistent avoidance can end up excluding people from the public sphere, unless news providers find a new way to connect with these audiences.


Their research has found that people who engage regularly with the news tend to have a ‘news community’ of friends or contacts who also follow the news and expect them to be up to speed, whereas news avoiders don’t have any such community. Consistent avoiders also tend to be less privileged, younger and politically disengaged. In the words of Ruth Palmer, ‘they see politics as distant and disconnected from their lives and they view news and politics as deeply intertwined.’


In response, they urged news providers to meet audiences where they are: reaching beyond news websites; building up and sustaining news communities; drawing clearer connections between news and everyday life; and making news more actionable.


4. Journalism philanthropy is growing – but not fast enough.


National journalism funds – where governments and/or philanthropists make significant investments in independent journalism – are taking shape around the world. As Sameer Padania explained, these initiatives are a response to the otherwise unpredictable flow of journalism funding by creating more long-term support for news providers.


The Dutch Journalism Fund is now 25 years old, whilst new funds are getting off the ground in countries from Iceland to Uruguay. Maia Fortes of AJOR summarised the exciting progress of a new national fund for Brazil, whilst Roby Alampay of International Media Support described an emerging fund in a Muslim autonomous region of the Philippines. Anya Schiffrin provided an international overview, saying that ‘these funds can be a relatively nimble tool but can’t solve everything.’


In the US, meanwhile, the Press Forward initiative – which launched last year – is taking shape. Silvia Rivera, Director of Local News at the MacArthur Foundation, one of the main funders behind Press Forward, told me how the initiative combines a national fund with state-level funds that are bringing in philanthropists who haven’t previously supported journalism.


5. The smart money is on smart money.


Alongside subsidies and charitable funding, there are also moves underway to attract private capital into the news industry. The Pluralis fund combines venture capital with public money and philanthropy to support commercially viable newsrooms in European countries where a plural media is under threat. In the US, the National Trust for Local News is buying up local newsrooms that are at risk of closure and using the economies of scale to create a sustainable model. With 64 titles in their growing portfolio, they are projecting 7% revenue growth this year.


In the Netherlands, SV-Docs is investing in the research and development phase of journalistic documentaries with commercial potential. In Germany, the Publix building has been developed by a charitable foundation for which this is not only a great way to support independent journalism but also a sound real estate investment.


These initiatives made me wonder what assets we could leverage across the indie news sector in the UK (or internationally) that have economic value for investors. As many speakers pointed out, the news industry has been notoriously bad at coming together to develop shared infrastructure. For example, Josh Brandau of Nota asked why news providers, rather than depending on Large Language Models owned by big tech, don’t create their own model.


I came away from Perugia full of ideas, inspiration and questions.


Can indie news providers in the UK learn from these international examples? Can we work more closely with our international partners to strengthen and sustain this sector? Can we persuade policymakers and philanthropists in the UK to support national or local news funds? And how can we use the changing relationship between tech and news into an opportunity for great new, community-centred journalism?


I'm excited to explore these as I return to work after a fantastic week in Perugia. Get in touch if you have thoughts about any of them!

 

Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of PINF.


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