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What happened at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia?

From 19-23 April 2023, journalists, activists and academics gathered in Perugia, Italy, for the seventeenth annual International Journalism Festival. Joe Mitchell and Jonathan Heawood attended on behalf of PINF. Here, they reflect on their time at the Festival.

Credit: Joe Mitchell

Joe Mitchell:

This was an old-school, talk-at-you conference, but one with a great programme and range of speakers. Perugia is a near perfect ‘festival’ site – a scattering of venues in mostly beautiful buildings maybe ten minutes from each other, with cafes and bars between them for plotting and networking. Folks had made it to Italy from all over the world, even if Europe and North America were best represented.

I mainly targeted panels and conversations on funding and impact. Rather than try to write up each panel, here are notes and reflections, starting with finance and funding:

  • The Media Development Investment Fund is an inspiring example – for over 25 years it’s invested in over 150 companies, particularly in countries with weaker press freedom, offering low-cost loans or buying shares.

  • The same fund is working on a project called Pluralis – bringing together equity, debt and philanthropy finance for a large new fund, where the philanthropist reduces the risk for the providers of equity or debt, but in return may be able to ‘leverage’ 10x more money for independent journalism than would have otherwise existed. The shareholders are ‘impact-first, return-second' investors: they are committed for 20 years and at best receive a 2% annual return.

  • One panellist mentioned the difficulty of getting impact investors in the US to think beyond buildings, i.e., where they have collateral. So, in the US there’s an active impact investing sector in housing, but it’s a struggle to encourage them into the news sector, despite the opportunities of revenue from readers and advertisers. This chimes with the UK.

  • There’s no payment-by-results yet, because measurement is so under-developed.

  • New Media Ventures, another ‘impact-first, return-second' investor in the US, which particularly aids non-profits focused on strengthening democracy, hinted that they might be expanding beyond the US, including looking at the UK.

  • There was a good discussion of government or public funding for independent news – and whether that’s a contradiction in terms. It was pointed out that doing nothing to support journalism (or supporting the status quo) is also a political choice, and that there is a range of support that runs from ‘freedoms from’ such as not imprisoning journalists and practising openness/transparency to ‘freedoms to’ such as tax-beneficial corporate structures for journalism and financial support.

  • In the same discussion, the new International Fund for Public Interest Media’s approach received positive comments. There were questions about whether public funding should be used to back players proven to be effective or to encourage startups. And there was a warning from New Zealand, where it was thought that public funding for news providers during Covid harmed trust in the sector.

On impact:

  • Some conversations were better than others. The sector feels years behind the international development space or non-profit space in terms of developing theories of change and measuring impact, perhaps assuming that the positive effects of journalism are obvious. But as revenues shift towards grants or public funding, or even as the sector ‘competes’ for individual donations with other charitable purposes, then assumptions won’t be enough.

  • One better panel discussion generated some reading recommendations: the BBC’s Building Public Value report from 20 years ago; the Worlds of Journalism study (which apparently showed that just 35% of journalists, er, trust journalism); and a book on the impact of investigative journalism, called Democracy’s Detectives.

  • The Daily Maverick, a successful indie outlet in South Africa, suggested they’d look at hiring a full-time impact/evaluation role.

  • Those who seemed most switched on to impact were not journalists – they were economists and accountants. Let's hope the differences between qualitative and quantitative worlds are not insurmountable.

And some bonus content:

  • Follow-the-Money – a successful investigative journalism outlet in the Netherlands. A near-perfect example of government journalism support: startup costs funded by the Dutch Journalism Fund, now, some four years later, it’s thriving on reader revenue (70%), grants (15%) and income from a bookshop (15%).

  • Cross-European indie journalism projects: - locally sourced cross-border investigative journalism and Are We Europe - pan-European longform journalism

  • A panel discussed ‘solutions journalism’: ‘it’s not just positive news, it’s critical investigation into potential solutions to pressing issues’. If it is to avoid being likened to PR, then the key must be in the quality of critique of the solution. Examples from Egab from the Middle East were very appealing, produced despite the journalists being told that ‘nothing good comes from our country’ by local citizens. You could see why solutions journalism is so popular with funders – and the risk that it takes on a particularly Eurocentric view of solutions. There were also good questions raised around the impact of solutions journalism on readers and on revenue.

  • The panel on working-class journalists was funny, inspiring and moving. One important takeaway for PINF was that all the panelists had got some kind of start in local journalism, which helped them build their careers – ‘the collapse of local journalism has narrowed the routes available, there are now fewer vocational opportunities’.

  • I missed them, but heard good things about the sessions on blended funding and on membership models, which can both be watched again.

  • The best gelato was from Carloni 1989. Small is beautiful.

I found the conversations on financing journalism to be the most interesting and inspiring. Perugia has focused my mind on PINF’s need for a thorough policy paper on the UK options for public support for local journalism. This could be researched and written with the support of a thinktank or academic institution, and should look at possible approaches, their pros and cons, budgets, governance, administration, etc.

This, along with evidence-based arguments for why such support is both urgent and in the public interest, should produce a compelling argument to make to policymakers and politicians in the UK.

Jonathan Heawood:

Whilst Joe was checking out the ice cream (and of course working very hard), I was speaking on two panels at this year’s International Journalism Festival, one on news media bargaining codes and one on PINF’s very own Local News Plans project.

On ‘News Media Bargaining Codes: Successes and Shortcomings’, I spoke alongside an international group of journalists and media policy experts: Patricia Campos Mello of Folha de São Paulo newspaper in Brazil; Andrea Carson of La Trobe University in Australia; Phaedra de Saint-Rome of McGill University in Canada; Courtney Radsch of UCLA in the United States; and Anya Schiffrin of Columbia University, also in the US.

Credit: International Journalism Festival

Together, we debated the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian News Media Bargaining Code, which requires big tech platforms to pay news publishers for their content. We also looked at related measures in our own countries. We agreed that these mechanisms are needed to rebalance the playing field between platforms and publishers, but they pose risks – for example, that big publishers will benefit most, regardless of the quality of their content, or that governments in autocratic regimes will use them to impose new controls on the news media.

By working together across national boundaries, we can ensure that new regulations protect the values of media plurality, diversity and sustainability, and do not allow the news media to be captured – by either big tech corporations or governments. The panel was a great opportunity to learn from each other and build our relationships so that we can support each other’s work around the world.

On ‘Putting Communities First: Planning Local News’, I was joined by Rhiannon Davies of Greater Govanhill magazine in Glasgow; Adam Newby of NewsNow; Columba O’Hare of in Northern Ireland; and the international media consultant Sameer Padania. We were all deeply involved in the Local News Plans project, and we wanted to share our experiences with the international journalism community.

Credit: International Journalism Festival

Adam explained why NewsNow – the UK’s independent news discovery platform – decided to work with PINF to develop and fund Local News Plans across the UK. ‘We wanted to see if there was something more we could do outside our organisation to improve the situation of local journalism.’ We have deeply appreciated our partnership with NewsNow, and it was good to hear Adam speak so passionately about the project.

Columba acted as the Local News Plan steward for Newry, bringing together stakeholders from across the community to talk about the past, present and potential future for local news. He welcomed the ‘new thinking’ about how to support the ‘local media family’ that came out of his Local News Plan workshop.

Rhiannon likewise said how interesting it had been to ‘take a step back and listen to what other people had to say.’ She had heard a lot of things she didn’t know about ‘how much people did value journalism’ and had appreciated the chance to connect with others and think about how to build journalism in Glasgow.

Sameer described the ‘extraordinary amount of energy’ that he found in the Local News Plans workshops as he and I travelled around the UK, talking about the vital role of local news in local communities. I also reflected on the privilege of being invited into people’s communities to work with them on something so fundamental to their sense of place and participation.

We hope to build on this project over the months and years ahead. We even received some invitations to host Local News Plan workshops in other countries, following the panel, so watch this space!


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