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Unlocking potential: Public interest news worldwide

The below is a re-cap from a session from Day 2 of the Trust in Journalism Conference, co-organised with the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF).

The US non-profit news sector employs more than 2,300 journalists, and produces $500 million in annual revenue. In Australia, the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) is calling for $300m of government support for public interest journalism. And closer to the UK, organisations like the European Journalism Centre (EJC) provide training and grants to build resilience into journalism across Europe. How does this compare to the UK, and what can we learn from our international colleagues? How does it connect with the work organisations like PINF and ICNN are doing in the UK?

Jonathan Heawood, Executive Director of PINF is joined by Anna Draffin (from the Public Interest Journalism Institute - PIJI in Australia), Adam Thomas (of the European Journalism Centre - EJC), Emma Meese (Director of the Independent Community News Network - ICNN) and Alica Bell (of Free Press, in the US).


Why should we care about public interest journalism?

Journalism moulds culture and public discourse

Alicia Bell of Free Press highlighted the idea that the importance of journalism lies in how it helps mould culture, public discourse and ultimately policy: “The work of journalism is so much the work of culture creation. I think about culture as the undercurrent that impacts all of the issues we are talking about (...) inter-communal violence, the patriarchy, racism (...) different kinds of oppressions; climate disaster... Journalism tells the stories and reports on information that creates the public opinion and creates the culture that therefore creates the policy that makes some of those things real or not.”

Democratic value

Anna Draffin of Australia-based PIJI emphasised journalism’s democratic value: “Journalism represents critical thinking that then sits on the public record for history’s purposes as well as informing current and contemporary thinking. Without it, we are poorer as a civil society and obviously it is a key pillar to a functioning democracy.”

Decision making and meaningful change

The importance of good journalism lies in its ability to create meaningful change from the ground up, argues Adam Thomas of the European Journalism Centre (EJC): “For me it’s all about decision making. I think information helps people make the best possible decisions about their lives. I think journalists are at their heart information managers on every level (...) It’s about impacting on a society level and creating equitable communities and also then funnelling that up towards government and decision makers and policy. Good journalism has the ability to affect all of that.”

Common knowledge

To Emma Meese of the ICNN, public interest journalism is an essential form of common knowledge: “At ICNN, public interest news is any kind of news that informs communities and that can be anything from road works, planning notices, minutes from council meetings, news about local businesses, elections, events anything really. We care about it because public interest news is a form of common knowledge where everybody needs to know about it or at the very least have the opportunity to know about it.”


The challenges facing public interest journalism around the world

Looking for sustainable business models

Anna Draffin provided a view down under of the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, specific to the Australian experience: “The question of sustainable business models is key to the sector in Australia. We are grappling with the economic crunch caused by Covid but (...) we had come straight out of a national bushfire season which has seen complete devastation and has really stretched news organisations across the country, particularly at a hyperlocal level."

Anna Draffin also highlighted a PIJI project launched just before Covid, the Australian News Mapping Project, which maps contractions and growth across Australia. The data shows over 194 contractions within the last two years in terms of either temporary or permanent closures; and only 53 green shoots: "That’s alarming. We are foretelling that there are news deserts starting to appear across Australia. That’s part of our continuing research and analysis to understand how that effects communities.”

On the upsise... the opportunities

Anna added that's it's not all negative...

“Covid has forced a national conversation around the importance of public interest journalism. There is now universal recognition of its use as an essential service …There’s a lot of opportunity for policy reform." Anna Draffin, PIJI.

Threats to press freedom

Adam Thomas identified threats to press freedom as a key concern at the European level: “Press freedom is a massive part of this in Europe. The International Press Institute has been tracking offences of press freedom, attacks, restrictions on journalists and reporting in Europe and it’s actually worse in Europe right now during Covid-19 than in any other continent in the world. We have a real growing press freedom problem that we need to address.”

The issue of trust

Adam Thomas identified two specific trust issues very particular to Europe. The first is around minority groups: "[they] are quite tragically underserved and underrepresented in newsrooms and in content. Discussions around diversity are just not evolved enough."

Second, trust issues from those in favour of populist governments and authoritarian politics: "It can be very hard for public interest news organisations to shake off associations of elitism in the eyes of those groups.”

Lack of funding opportunities

Adam Thomas also raised: “There are 150,000 registered public benefit foundations in Europe who spend over 50 billion euros annually, but probably only around 100 million euros of that goes into journalism (...) Across the European landscape, there is a huge variation in how these organisations and groups are talking to each other and there’s still not enough coordination amongst European funders.


For Alicia Bell, representation, alongside and the economic challenge of sustaining public interest journalism, is a central issues in the US context: “We see a shifting economic model for journalism where there is no diversity of people who are able to invest, or have a desire to invest, because of different harms or lack of relationships that has existed in the past with their local newsrooms or other larger media organisations."

"In the US, law enforcement agencies end up being keepers of the story of a community because of the lack of local journalism. And with the decline in funding for local journalism some of these issues that people are organising and protesting around are directly impacted and related to the way that economic models are shifting in journalism.”

Lack of a philanthropic culture

Emma Meese of ICNN shared her thoughts on how the lack of philanthropic culture in the UK, together with limited government support, impacts the public interest journalism sector: “There is a lot of noise about the importance of public interest news from foundations, industry and politicians alike. But unfortunately, this hasn’t translated into sufficient financial support. The UK the government hasn’t nurtured the philanthropic culture that journalism enjoys elsewhere in the world. Instead, political interference has limited and generally supported traditional media outlets."

Plurality of voice and its link to sustainability

Emma Meese also raised the issue of plurality and how this ties into sustainability and avoiding the creation of news deserts:

“Plurality of voice is so, so important in moving forward. We need to ensure that we keep plurality of voices. Otherwise, if you are too heavily reliant on a few large players, all it takes is for one of those organisations to go under and withdraw from certain towns, communities or even countries and the impact on democracy does not even bear thinking about. For us to have good quality public interest journalism, we have to put the foundations in place to ensure that we can get more independents that offer more plurality of voice that give us a far more stable future for local news in the UK.”


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