A Newsrewired panel discussing the future of UK public interest news on 22 May 2024

Credit: Mousetrap Media / Frank Noon

This article first appeared on Jeremy Clifford's LinkedIn and has been republished with permission

Get involved - that was the clarion call from the debate about how to bring together a coalition of restless thinkers to find a solution to the erosion of the supply of trustworthy, public interest news in the UK. Let's be honest - it is not the most scintillating of topics - public interest news. But without it, most people agree our democracy would be all the poorer - provided by fact-checked, producers and distributors who are held to high ethical standards and best practices in journalism.

And in the week when Rishi Sunak decided to bring the country to the polls in the long-awaited General Election - it was apposite that the News Futures 2035 project published its paper and debated the issue at the Newsrewired conference held at The News UK building - home of The Times, Sunday Time and The Sun.

More than 300 people have taken part in a series of consultations and plenary sessions to debate the future sustainability of public interest news in the UK.

So why is it so important?

Madhav Chinnappa, a panelist at Newsrewired, contributor to the research paper and former BBC and Google man, set out his case.

Without accessible public interest news, societies become more polarised. There needs to be a plurality of media producing it and public interest media has a purpose to serve its communities. He cited examples where there is not a strong public service media and where societies are fractured and polarised, making it impossible to have safe debate about matters of importance.

Helen Philpot, managing editor of The Sun, and fellow panelist, argued that it is important we recognise audiences today are very diverse and disintermediated largely by tech platforms which makes it so important now that there are media suppliers who are highly regulated in the way they provide news in the public interest.

And Francois Nel who has led the project over the past two years summed it up thus: "It matters because while we are talking about journalism, we are talking about the health of our information ecosystem. That matters.

"We are at an inflection point. We talk about mis- and disinformation swirling around us. But the right to fact-based information is a fundamental human right and there is a problem in the system right now."

That is what provided the catalyst to this project which started two years ago bringing together people from within the media industry, outside the industry and those with an interest in public information provision.

The process culminated in a research paper that has one strong recommendation.

Based on the findings that the sustainability of public interest news provision cannot be solved by one single entity, people with vested interests have to come together to think about how to solve the problem.

The chief recommendation is to set up a News Futures Forum where the issues can be debated in a safe environment, without fear of conflict, hosting diverse opinions and differing interests to thrash out some solutions.

It will look at economic viability, business models, what level of financial support is needed, climate impacts, how the public can access this thread of news and how the providers can access the public in a world where they have struggled to reach audiences without the distribution networks provided by the likes off Google, Meta, and increasingly TikTok.

"There has been a lot of anxiety about the sustainability of journalism," said Nel, reader in media innovation and entrepreneurship based at the University of Central Lancashire, who talked through the genesis of the News Futures process.

"There was no shared vision of the future we wanted to create or didn't want to create. A sense of frustration and helplessness about it. So we set up a process to get restless thinkers together from inside and outside the industry to think deeply about the process and for us to recognise we all have agency in this - that the future is something we can all make. But we have to make change happen. The outcome is the definition of what public interest news is and the News Futures forum to discuss and solve the challenges in front of us."

As Jonathan Heawood, another key player in the process and executive director of the Public Interest News Foundation, said: "Public interest news is journalism that serves the interests of the public, often about topics that are essential for democracy, but hard and complex to understand. It is journalism that speaks to, for and with the people."

Chinnappa added: "There is a market failure issue - overall - therefore how do we address that market failure on the public interest news side?"

The answer, as Nel, said is: "By getting involved."

The forum that has come out of the project has a very clear remit - let's talk and think about what those solutions are and only by bringing all stakeholders together will something new emerge.

Download the paper here and if you want to be involved, follow the links on the website.

Jeremy Clifford is a media commentator, and member of the News Futures 2035 Steering Board. He is a digital media business transformation expert

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).