Members of the Independent Publishers Taskforce: David Floyd of Social Spider, John Baron of West Leeds Dispatch and Sarah Cheverton of Star and Crescent.Credit: Impress
One of the next phases of the Cairncross Review into the sustainable future for journalism has today (26 February 2020) been announced, but it will not be funded by the UK government.
Recommendation nine of the review had proposed the creation of the Institute for Public Interest News (IPIN). This would essentially be a news industry equivalent of the Arts Council, the non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport which supports and funds the arts industry.
However, the UK Government rejected the proposal at the end of January 2020 on the basis that politics should not define what qualifies as 'public interest' news.
The statement reads in part: "While any institute would be at arm's length from government, we recognise concerns that even an arm's length relationship risks perceptions of inappropriate government interference with the press. Therefore, the government will not take forward this recommendation."
Instead of what was proposed, the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), an independent charitable foundation, will cover the costs to do many of the functions that IPIN would have introduced.
Formed in 2019, PINF has been supporting small publishers with a turnover less than £2 million with grants, mentoring and peer-to-peer networking events through its Independent Publishers Taskforce.
Supported publications include the New Internationalist, The Conversation, Social Spider (who publish Enfield Dispatch, Tottenham Community Press, and EC1 Echo), The Conversation and the Bedford Independent.
The announcement will see Jonathan Heawood, founder and CEO of UK independent press regulator IMPRESS, join PINF as its executive director on a twelve-month secondment. Over the next year, PINF will retain its status as a charitable foundation, but start to carry out much of the work IPIN would have done.
Heawood said the aim is simple: "We want to see more and better journalism. If everyone can pick up a newspaper or read a news story online that is interesting and relevant, and they trust and feel their voice is represented, then this will have been a success."
Cairncross' recommendations had proposed that IPIN would be a centre of excellence and good practice, commission research into crucial data gaps for small publishers and improve the accessibility and readership of quality news online. It would have also channelled public and private finances into public interest news organisations by collaborating with Nesta, Ofcom, the BBC and other academic institutions and initiatives.
PINF confirmed it intends to try and achieve all of these goals, including advising on, but not taking over, one of the other recommendations - the recently announced Future News Fund. The original plan was for IPIN to take the reins once Nesta had established the fund.
It also avoids getting involved with the BBC Local Democracy Scheme, which IPIN would have monitored and assessed its impact.
PINF is more focused on identifying where public service journalism needs targeted support and supplying it. But Heawood raised concerns over how this would be funded.
"The million-dollar question is where is the million dollars?" he said.
To meet its objectives fully, PINF needs around £3 million in funding. Its first year's activity goal is £120,000, but have only received a £60,000 seed fund from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust so far. To put it in context, the philanthropic American Journalism Project operates with a budget of $8.5 million.
With the full amount, it plans to commission research as a starting point, convene with its supported publishers and boost its fundraising efforts in the longer term.
"We will map the independent sector," said Heawood. "We will find organisations with the desire and capacity to become stronger and more resilient. We will then provide a blend of financial support and consultancy advice with a view to helping news organisations cope with changes to the media industry."
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