Grant funding “has to be part of the long-term picture for journalism”, according to the head of the Public Interest News Foundation, which has become one of very few journalism organisations to be awarded charitable status.
PINF executive director Jonathan Heawood said he believes the Charity Commission’s approval could open the way for more “classic news” organisations to operate as not-for-profit charities.
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Heawood, who is on secondment from his role as chief executive of alternative press regulator Impress, said: “I think what we’ve successfully done is set a model now for what charitable journalism could look like.”
He told Press Gazette: “It’s not going to work for everyone – not everyone’s going to want to be a charity. If you’re a charity you can’t make money for yourself or for your shareholders.
“So if you want to make loads of money, if you’re looking to pursue a political agenda, [or] if you’re just looking to publish clickbait, you don’t want to be a charity.
“But on the other hand, if it’s an organisation that just really wants to do good public interest news, doesn’t want to make a profit, just wants to break even, and is happy to take that stance of impartiality, then I think this is an interesting new route that’s opened up.”
The Cairncross Review into the sustainability of the UK news industry in the digital age, published in February last year, 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.
Dame Frances Cairncross said she was “delighted” that PINF had been granted charitable status after the Government decided not to make any changes to the Charities Act to support public interest journalism.
Tom Murdoch of law firm Stone King, who advised on PINF’s charitable registration, gave this analysis: “Whilst there are already a number of journalistic charities operating for educational and similar purposes, PINF is the first to be registered with a specific, ‘charitable journalism’ purpose.
“In legal terms, this represents a new interpretation of the law to recognise that public benefit journalism can be charitable.”
Existing journalism charities include the likes of academic-written website The Conversation, fact-checking organisation Full Fact, and some training-focused organisations.
PINF will now pursue talks with trusts, foundations and corporates – including the tech giants – to support news media doing public interest. It already gave out 20 grants of £3,000 each after Covid-19 hit the UK, with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.
The beneficiaries of any of its funding must meet certain criteria: they must be impartial, have high standards and be publishing for the benefit of the public to promote community, education or democratic functions.
Specific exclusions include news that is for pure entertainment, politically motivated, biased or inaccurate, or fails to observe someone’s right to privacy.
The requirement for impartiality should still enable most local news organisations to benefit, along with other smaller specialist or investigative titles like Gal-dem or The Ferret.
Journalism organisations who want charitable status must show the reporting they fund or carry out “is a means to achieving other, charitable purposes” as the Charities Act does not list the advancement of journalism as sufficient by itself.
Commercial news providers can benefit from PINF funding, but Heawood said the concern with larger corporate groups like Reach, JPI Media, Archant and Newsquest would be that “the money was servicing the bottom line rather than serving the public interest”.
Other than awarding grant funding, PINF will provide professional development programmes to help small media providers share their expertise, and will carry out detailed research into the sector.
Heawood hopes this work can help find a long-term sustainable business model.
“I think grant funding has to be part of the long-term picture for journalism,” he said. “I think there is a serious market failure for some kinds of journalism.
“But I also think there are readers out there who do care enough about news, whether it’s local or a specific issue or investigative journalism and I think the challenge over the next few years is going to be a culture change as we persuade more and more people that if they value it they’re going to have to pay for it.
“But then for the publishers the challenge is figuring out if they’re persuading readers to pay for it, what do they need to give them in return to make that feel like a valuable transaction?
“I do think there are glimmers of hope already coming through but no-one’s going to make a fortune, those days are over.”
He added: “It’s almost two years now since the Cairncross Review and in the meantime we’ve had the most devastating event in our economic history and we know many small publishers are reeling from the impact of that, but they are determined to keep doing what they do because they love doing it.
“I like this language of ‘builds back better’. I feel like this has been a hammer blow, but it was an industry that was in a period of massive transition anyway so I hope what we can now do is accelerate the transition and get to a better place where there is a more diverse and sustainable media landscape because the alternative is pretty bleak.”