Martin Moore: ‘Green shoots’, not bleak midwinter, in the UK journalism sector?

PBJRC trustee Dr Martin Moore has drawn together some of the threads in the wider journalism and regulatory landscape in his new piece for The Conversation.

Martin notes the financial, industrial and technological firestorms that have engulfed the news and media sector over the past decade or more:

All this paints rather a bleak picture for the future of public interest news in the UK. Yet, in the past year, we have seen the possibility of real change. A good deal of credit for this can be put down to inquiries led by two people, Dame Frances Cairncross and Jason Furman (the former chief economist to US president Barack Obama).

He also notes the report of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, and its endorsement of charitable status for journalism, with its implications for public interest journalism in the UK:

This should mean that news publishers – should they meet the criteria – can now benefit from tax relief, foundation grants and charitable donations. Small, non-profit local news outfits may finally be able to sustain themselves while performing a critical public service.

Martin concludes on a positive note that we can all cautiously endorse:

these are all green shoots that could support the gradual recovery of public interest news – and, as a torrid and difficult year comes to an end, and in the spirit of festive cheer, we should celebrate some good news for news.

Read Martin Moore’s full post at The Conversation.

House of Lords Select Committee reaffirms and strengthens support for charitable status

The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee today released Breaking News, the final report for its Inquiry into the Future of Journalism.

The report, which concludes with a section articulating unequivocal support for charitable status for journalism notes that “[m]any witnesses in our current inquiry suggested that the Charity Commission should take a more expansive approach to charitable status for public interest news organisations” and that there was “wide agreement on the benefits that charitable status would provide among news organisations.”

The report also welcomes the Charity Commission’s own recent statement – when awarding charitable status to the Public Interest News Foundation – that

“public benefit of public interest journalism is evidenced by the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and Digital Committee (in its inquiry into the future of journalism) and the Cairncross Review (in its report on the sustainable future for journalism)”

Charity registration decision: Public Interest News Foundation (22 September 2020)

Drawing on work and submissions from PBJRC trustees and allies, as well as from many other contributors and witnesses, the Committee’s report is careful in weighing up the evidence and analysis on charitable status, and concludes by saying it “encourage[s] the Charity Commission to continue to recognise public interest journalism as a charitable purpose.”

Dame Frances Cairncross is cited in the report that she believes that further test cases, from actual journalism providers, will be needed to help more clearly establish the parameters of what is and what is not charitable. If you are aware of current or potential test cases, please do get in touch, as we are documenting these as part of our research.

APPG Media & NewsNow.co.uk hold public panel on public interest news

Today the All-Party Parliamentary Media Group of the UK Houses of Parliament held a public panel discussion, sponsored by NewsNow.co.uk, on public interest news in the UK – and it featured significant discussion of charitable status for journalism, including from PBJRC trustee Rachel Oldroyd.

Alongside Rachel on the panel were:
– Jonathan Heawood, Public Interest News Foundation (which recently acquired charitable status)
– Adam Newby, NewsNow
– Matt Rogerson, Guardian Media Group

You can watch the whole panel discussion here:

It was particularly striking to hear Adam Newby of NewsNow.co.uk agreeing with the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee and with the Cairncross Review that charitable status is a necessary part of a healthy media landscape.

Charitable status discussed at DataHarvest 2020

Our trustee Kitty von Bertele, of funder Luminate, spoke on a panel today at the European DataHarvest conference about moves across Europe to establish charitable status for journalism.

Stephanie Reuter, Director of the Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, spoke about the Forum Gemeinnütziger Journalismus, the coalition raising debate about similar changes in Germany.

We’re not sure if a summary or a video of the session will be published – if so, we’ll update this post with a link.

Charity Commission recognises ‘charitable journalism’

In a significant new development, the Charity Commission has today granted charitable status to the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), an organisation developed through consultation with a group of UK independent news publishers.

“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.”

Tom Murdoch, Partner in the Charity & Social Enterprise team at Stone King, who advised on PINF’s charitable registration

The Charity Commission’s decision has been published here, and will be of note to others in the UK journalism field and in media philanthropy, as well as to peers in Canada, Australia, Germany and other countries grappling with similar questions.

Coronavirus is killing quality journalism – here’s one possible lifeline

[This article was originally published at The Conversation on 14 May 2020.]

Buzzfeed’s decision to shut down its coverage of Britain and Australia is a terrible reminder of the crushing financial pressures now bearing down on news media.

When COVID-19 crept undetected across the world at the start of 2020, journalists were already grappling with three interconnected crises. Populist politicians on every continent were attacking journalists. Newspaper newsrooms, which still generate the majority of original reporting, had seen their advertising revenue drain away while online communication created new routes and platforms for information. And trust in journalists, never high, was falling further.

The pandemic accelerated and aggravated a bad situation, twisting it into a new shape. Demand for high-quality news has grown suddenly, bringing new readers and subscribers. But advertising revenue, still a significant income for most mainstream news publishers, has collapsed. A matter for serious concern in 2019 has become an emergency in 2020.

The coronavirus crash should impel us as never before to look for new models – both editorial and commercial – and to drive innovation and imagination up a gear. Never, as the saying goes, let a really good crisis go to waste. There is no single solution or magic fix. As one of America’s online journalism pioneers, Jim Brady – former executive editor of the Washington Post – told the Columbia Journalism Review in 2009 when asked for his answer to journalism’s economic crisis: “There’s no silver bullet – it’s just shrapnel … there isn’t one stream [of revenue] that’s going to be successful.”

This makes reinvention and experiment essential. Journalists must not simply beg for financial sticking plasters for bleeding businesses, but invest in what we might call the infrastructure of public benefit news. We must make sure that the conditions are as good as possible for start-ups and for the re-engineering of news – and for local news above all. Dame Frances Cairncross, in her 2019 inquiry report on a “sustainable future for journalism” argued that public funds might be needed:

Given the scale of the challenge, there is a strong case for public intervention to support publishers to develop solutions fit for the digital age.

Cairncross also mentioned another change which would cost nothing. She recommended that the government give priority “to exploring the development of a form of tax relief, ideally under the Charities Act … to support public interest journalism”. Neither the government nor the Charity Commission took the hint.

Charity (faith and hope)

Tax relief for charities may sound unglamorously administrative, but it matters to high-quality journalism now. Sameer Padania, an expert on philanthropic funding for journalism, says that there is “pent-up demand” among donors who would like to meet journalism’s urgent needs. How charity law is applied is one part of ensuring its survival. Good journalism is rarely perfect and often controversial, but it delivers many varied benefits to every society, community and democracy in which it happens. Charity law more imaginatively applied could help to define and entrench high-quality standards in journalism. The Conversation, for example, has been better able to meet hugely increased demand for its evidence-based articles during this pandemic because of its charitable status.

To be eligible for the reputational status of a charity and its financial advantages, an organisation must be “registered” with the Charity Commission. The Charity Commission says that it is open to applications to register journalistic organisations, but in practice very few succeed. The independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact was twice rejected by the commission (including an unsuccessful tribunal case) before succeeding at the third attempt. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) was also rejected twice before changing its structure so that some of its output could be registered as charitable. These are the kinds of delays and costs which small local news start-ups cannot contemplate.

But when Full Fact did win registration, the effects on its fortunes was an immediate game changer. It receives gift aid of 25% on donations, it can use online fundraising tools and it can raise money from donors who will only give to legally recognised charities.

Rachel Oldroyd, managing editor of the BIJ, says that charitable status is potentially vital for community newsrooms:

I would argue that particularly at a local level it is low level giving from the wider public that could potentially be a valuable contribution to sustainability. Charitable status would make it much easier to immediately gain the public’s trust.

The Public Benefit Journalism Research Centre (PBJRC) – of which I am chair – was set up by a group of lawyers, journalists and academics to look into the issue, and has also applied for charitable status (Oldroyd is also a trustee of the PBJRC). We recently sent evidence to the House of Lords inquiry into the future of journalism which looks at why so few journalism organisations ever succeed in registering as charities. Our research shows that applicants from news face hurdles which do not seem to be placed in front of other bodies which are similar, such as think tanks.

The Charity Commission is rigidly sceptical of claims that high-quality journalism actually benefits communities large and small. But as the PBJRC says: “Journalistic reporting often delivers content whose educational value is not immediately apparent (and some of the beneficial effect … might take years to become apparent).”

Public benefits

Solving this problem does not need a change in the Charities Act. The law and past judgements make clear that the criteria for allowing the registration of a charity must evolve as society and its priorities change. The PBJRC submission argues that there can be no better time than now to make the application of charity law to journalism more constructive and farsighted.

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Journalism is varied, noisy, political and often controversial. Not all journalism will pass Charity Commission tests, even if those are made easier to pass. Politically partisan journalism and celebrity gossip will not qualify. The PBJRC document also lays out in detail a draft set of rules which a newsroom would have to follow to keep enjoying the benefits of being a charity. These include provisions for independence, objectivity, accountability, transparency and codes of editorial conduct.

It seems unlikely to me that the Charity Commission will shift its position unless nudged to do so by politicians. That is why the PBJRC has sent a detailed plan to the House of Lords committee. Making it easier for news organisations to reach charity funds won’t on its own solve journalism’s crisis – no single change will do that. But it would be profoundly important and possible transformative for the small, inventive start-ups on whose work journalism’s future may well depend.

House of Lords evidence from Bates Wells Braithwaite

As part of the House of Lords Inquiry into the Future of Journalism, Lawrie Simanowitz, Partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite, and longstanding legal expert on the charitable status for journalism, made a submission. Here’s a brief extract:

The Cairncross Review clearly recognised the benefit to the public brought by certain types of journalism. This included local newspapers (which across the UK are disappearing or denuded) providing essential information to local communities. Investigative journalists exposing abuses of power are another example of public benefit journalism – one of the most at risk, as news organisations’ ability to fund high quality research and reporting comes under threat.

To help meet the public benefit requirement, there would need to be a mechanism to ensure that appropriate standards were met by news organisations with charitable status. In particular this would help to ensure that such organisations were not politically partisan, maintained minimum quality standards and avoided sensationalism for example. Proposals for how this could be achieved are set out in the annex to the paper submitted by the PBJRC.

Lawrie Simanowitz, Partner, Bates Wells Braithwaite – Submission to House of Lords (21 April 2020)