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PINF: What went well – and not so well – in our first year

We launched the Public Interest News Foundation in November 2019. We wanted to support independent news publishers, so that they could provide audiences with high-quality public interest journalism. We expected to spend our first year steadily building up the new organisation.

However, Covid-19 changed everything. Like so many people, we had to throw our plans out of the window and start again. Our mission was intact, but we were called to action sooner than expected.

We have had some special moments over the course of this year, working closely with a range of independent publishers, but there have also been some tough times. Here are just a few of the things we’ve learned. We will be talking about all this and more at the Trust in Journalism Conference on 24 November.

Independent publishers are a resilient bunch (but the strain is showing)

For independent news publishers, lockdown was a double blow. Their revenue dried up, but the demand for their work exploded. Audiences were crying out for accurate and timely information about the pandemic. Web traffic soared, even as income plummeted.

At PINF, we have been working throughout the crisis to help independent publishers meet their audiences’ needs. With funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, we launched a Covid-19 Emergency Fund, to support publications like Now Then in Sheffield, which is developing an ethical form of advertising based on partnerships; Star & Crescent, which used our support to tell the Covid-19 stories of migrants and refugees in Portsmouth; the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, which continues to serve rural communities around Penrith after 160 years in business; and Unedited Stories, which uses podcasts to engage new audiences in public interest journalism.

It was great to spend time with these publishers and others, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again at the online Trust in Journalism Conference on 24 November. REGISTER HERE (free).

Grantees of the PINF Covid-19 Emergency Fund on a session of the professional development programme (August 2020).

Leadership is the key

When we asked publishers what they most valued about our support, they said that, as well as the money, they loved working with each other to solve problems. There is extraordinary talent within this sector, and already we are unlocking publishers’ potential to tell untold stories; create new bonds with audiences; and generate new sources of revenue.

Developing our leadership programme will be a priority in 2021. We don’t just want to work with existing leaders within the sector; we want to nurture new and emerging leaders. So, we’re working alongside our friends at Bureau Local and the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity to ensure that the news leaders of the future speak for every community in the UK.

To develop small news publishers, we have to think big

We could only help a small number of publishers through our Covid-19 Emergency Fund. So, in partnership with ICNN (the Independent and Community News Network), we launched the Save Independent News campaign to call on the government to support the sector as a whole.

We calculated that independent news publishers in the UK reach roughly 15 million unique visitors online every month and print almost half a million hard copies. Their contribution to their communities and audiences is unparalleled.

The Scottish government and the Welsh assembly came forward with funding, but the UK government was unable or unwilling to help. Very sadly, some independent publications have disappeared as a result.

Every time a publication goes under, a community loses a vital source of public interest news. At a time when democracy and community cohesion are under enormous strain, this is deeply troubling.

These concerns are not unique to the UK. We have been talking to international partners like the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) in Australia, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and Free Press in the United States, and the European Journalism Centre (EJC), based in the Netherlands. All of them are grappling with the combined impact of the digital revolution and Covid on news publishers and their audiences.

In the US, philanthropists are stepping up to support journalism. INN estimates that the non-profit news sector generated some $500 million in 2019, and was staffed by roughly 3,500 people, including 2,300 journalists (INN Index 2020). The sector has grown to this size thanks to years of support from trusts, foundations and individual donors, but non-profit newsrooms are now developing sustainable revenue streams.

In order to draw philanthropic funding into the UK sector, we asked the Charity Commission to register PINF as a charity. We were delighted when they accepted our application. This means that, for the first time, there is a charity dedicated to public interest news. We can now raise charitable funds to support journalism, and some news organisations can apply to become charities themselves.

The PINF-ICNN Save Independent News campaign called on the government to support the sector as a whole.

Charitable funding has to be part of the solution to the journalism crisis; but it is not the whole story.

In Europe, several countries had already launched journalism subsidies before the pandemic, and some have increased their support during the crisis. In Australia, PIJI are calling for AU$300m to be ploughed into public interest journalism every year.

We need to pay close attention to these models, and to keep working with our colleagues in the UK and internationally, to find a way forward.

We must work together across the entire news industry

There are great examples of public interest journalism all across the news industry, from broadcasters, broadsheets and tabloids through to digital start-ups and family-owned local papers. But in the UK, large publishers have received vastly more government funding than smaller publishers. And according to new research, large publishers also get more support from Google and Facebook.

Perhaps the government finds it easier to talk to a few corporate publishers than to lots of small independent publishers. But the future of journalism will not lie solely in one part of the industry.

We need to nurture an ecosystem where journalists can move between large and small organisations as they develop their careers; where independent publishers can act as the research and development arm of the industry; and where all audiences can find a trustworthy source of news that speaks to them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if something is in the public interest it is for ‘the benefit or advantage of the community as a whole’. Public interest journalism is for everyone. So we should all pull together if we are going to protect and develop it for the next generation.

Author: Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation.


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