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November 17, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:46am

Scottish Government mulls idea of grants to sustain diverse news media

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Scottish Government has been urged to create a Public Interest Journalism Institute that would independently administer grants “to support a diverse, pluralistic and sustainable Scottish public interest media sector”.

The Public Interest Journalism Working Group, set up by the Scottish Government in January, has produced a report aiming to “provide the basis for a rich and sustainable news publishing landscape” and tackle the problems facing the sector both because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the long-term digital revolution.

They said they believed they had found solutions that could “ensure that both established titles and new independent players can thrive”.

The group also urged the Scottish Government and charity regulator OSCR to help non-profit public interest news providers to register as charities, give similar tax benefits to others, and give community groups the power to take over local publications at risk of closure.

The working group included figures from across legacy and independent media organisations including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Highland News and Media, Scottish Sun owner News Scotland, The Ferret, Black Ballad, Shetland News, the Independent Community News Network, the Scottish Newspaper Society, and the National Union of Journalists.

Angus Robertson, the Scottish Culture Secretary, is due to respond to the recommendations before the end of the year.

He said: “A strong and vibrant news sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy. I’d like to thank the working group for the recommendations, which we’ll consider carefully before responding.”

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Rachel Hamada from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who is also a journalist director of The Ferret investigative journalism platform, told Press Gazette: “Our hope is that the Scottish Government, which set up this working group, will see the value of supporting initiatives that will allow a rigorous and pluralistic news media to thrive while also retaining the critical independence necessary for scrutinising power at a national and local level.

“We think this is a real chance for Scotland to lead on this at a time that public interest media, a key pillar of democracy, is under threat globally.”

Institute to be self-funding within five years

The working group described their proposed Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute as a high-profile independent body with a remit covering fundraising, research, grant-making, training, diversity and media literacy.

Its aim would be to co-ordinate initiatives to develop public interest journalism for Scotland and its grant funding would aim to support a “diverse, pluralistic and sustainable” sector.

The working group noted that there is “no shortage of goodwill towards quality news journalism”, particularly at a local level, and said lessons could be learned from the experiences of other countries where there are existing independent philanthropic press institutes such as in the US and Australia.

The body would have to be made up of members from different parts of the media sector, reflect Scottish society in its demographic make-up, and have its independence established from the start, the report said.

It would hopefully become self-funding within three to five years by developing relationships with the likes of philanthropic foundations, civil society organisations and technology companies.

The Scottish Government would be asked to provide less than one-third of the amount needed in the first three years, £3m per year, as the working group did not think it would be a good idea for it to be too reliant on public funding.

“This level of commitment would give the institute the capacity to raise matching funds from other sources, with the aim of becoming self-funding in the long term,” it said.

The institute would also carry out research on the news publishing needs of geographic and demographic communities across Scotland and use this to inform how grants are distributed, and help provide access to training in skills for public interest journalism.

Hamada said: “We’re particularly hopeful that proposals for a new independent grant-making body could enable the development of a news media sector that is truly representative of Scottish communities, their diversity and their news needs. We have also recommended that communities can be supported to buy out local newspapers that are under threat.

“Local communities that have access to reliable and timely news on the issues affecting their lives are far more likely to be politically engaged as voters and volunteers and are much less susceptible to misinformation and political polarisation.”

[Read more: Public Interest News Foundation says it has ‘set model’ for what charitable journalism could look like]

Charitable status and local preservation

The Cairncross Review into the sustainability of the UK news industry in the digital age, published in February 2019, found there was a “market failure” in the supply of public interest news and recommended that such journalism should be recognised as a charitable object. However the UK Government decided not to make any changes to the Charities Act to enable this.

The Scottish working group has pointed out that charity law is a devolved matter so Scotland does not need to be bound by the UK decision.

It called for steps to be taken to enable small or specialist public interest news providers who choose to do so to have charitable status, for reasons of tax breaks, easier access to grants and donations, and reputational advantages.

Other small non-profits that do not want to be charities, perhaps because they want to be able to take specific stances in a way that would not be impartial, could benefit from a new legal status that would give them comparable tax benefits and allow them to apply for grants, the report suggested.

The proposal to enable communities to take over local news publications at risk of closure, such as the community right to buy in the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act, could help save titles that would otherwise “wither and die”.

The report said: “The working group recognises that it would be inappropriate to force proprietors to dispose of assets at a lower price than they could otherwise achieve, but believes that conditions for community take-overs and staff buy-outs could be improved to make these options more viable.”

‘Powerful consensus’ among industry

The report also called for the Scottish Government to spend no less than 25% of its central advertising and marketing budget with public interest news providers, and for Audit Scotland to conduct an annual audit of this investment to measure its impact on the Scottish news landscape.

It was suggested the Scottish Government should also engage with the UK Government to create tax incentives for businesses to advertise with public interest news providers.

“A targeted tax credit for business advertising in public interest news would kill two birds with one stone,” the report said. “It would help British businesses stretch their advertising budgets further, whilst simultaneously driving investment in UK-based public interest news providers.”

Other recommendations included that the Scottish Government should embed media literacy in the school curriculum and launch a voucher scheme for young people aged 15-19 to access public interest journalism free of charge.

Joyce McMillan, chair of the NUJ’s Edinburgh Freelance Branch, said the report “represents a powerful consensus among the very diverse media interests represented within the group”.

She added that it “represents a very welcome next stage in the debate about how to sustain and develop Scotland’s strong tradition of public interest journalism, in a fast-changing 21st century media landscape”.

The Welsh government and media industry has its own task group, meeting today, looking for solutions to improve public interest journalism in Wales.

David Nicholson, NUJ national executive member for Wales, said: “The declining media landscape in Wales was accelerated by the pandemic with many journalists being made redundant. Recently, newspaper offices across Wales have been closed with journalists expected to work from home.

“The Welsh Government agreed that it was sensible to set up a tripartite working party to come up with solutions to many of the issues facing our industry in Wales. We look forward to working with colleagues across Wales and the industries we represent to ensure that the media landscape in Wales is improved with a diverse workforce.”

Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

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