Should governments provide funding grants to encourage public interest journalism?

Publicly funded grants could help journalists break and cover important stories. Shutterstock

Whether government should fund public interest journalism in Australia is a question a Senate select committee is currently being asked to consider. It’s a question that’s both simple and hard, as it raises all sorts of issues about the relationship between government, the media and consumers.

There’s an important reason for asking. There is now clear evidence that the market is failing us. There are gaps in coverage and no sign that they are going to be filled anytime soon.

Courts, local councils, state institutions, and even state parliaments are now missing out on proper coverage. The arts are under-covered. The regions are not properly represented, either to themselves or to the rest of Australia. Entire communities are missing out on local news services.

A cynic might say that some of these were never covered all that well by the news media. However, it’s certainly true that things have become much worse. This is mostly a result of digital disruption and the breaking of the model in which advertising paid for editorial content.

The ads have moved online, to Google and Facebook – which do not have an imperative to serve local communities, at least not with news and certainly not with public interest journalism.

There are several ideas about how to tackle this. These include creating a form of charitable status for news organisations, as well as tax incentives to encourage greater philanthropy. Together these could help sustain existing media players or encourage start-ups. They might help create a culture in which people donate to fund journalistic investigations.

Another way might be to provide publicly funded grants for journalism.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation, of which I’m a board member, has made a submission to the Senate inquiry calling for an Independent Production Fund for public interest journalism. Its principal function would be to help make important journalism happen.

Along the way, it might encourage experimentation and new forms of storytelling, while fostering coverage of neglected topics or regions.

Imagine if a freelance reporter – or even one working for a larger media company – could apply to the fund for financial support to develop an important story. Imagine if the fund was focused on supporting the type of journalism that was in the public’s interest.

Immediately this might conjure an image of undue government control, or of Big Brother intervening in the editorial process. Or you might ask: what government would hand out funds to a journalist working on a story about, say, government corruption?

The answer is it’s happening already. The government already funds journalism at SBS and the ABC. It does this through triennial funding and in a way that ensures the national broadcasters retain editorial control. A raft of conventions and a healthy editorial culture ensure both organisations are free to report critically on the federal government and any other institution.

And the government already does it through bodies like Screen Australia, which funds films and documentaries. It doesn’t set editorial parameters on those funds by insisting that certain things get taken out or left in.

But all of these examples are for screen-based journalism, not text – or what used to be called print – reporting.

Print media companies have not generally received grants to support journalism, although there are exceptions such as The Australian newspaper, which once accepted subsidies to fund its Australian Literary Review. Other literary/journalism publications, such as Meanjin, have also been supported over the years through government grants.

So, the concept has already been tried. Now might be the time to expand it to cover several forms of journalism, across all mediums and specifically for public interest reporting.

Perhaps this could be funded by revenue derived from taxing media conglomerates like Google and Facebook? After all, they’re the companies that have contributed to the problem by taking away advertising revenue without any concomitant requirement to provide news for consumers. Nor are they currently compelled to pay much taxation in the jurisdictions in which they operate.

I’d like to see a production fund with a clear vision and a sense of adventure about what it can achieve. It doesn’t need to be weighed down by corporate structures or old costly modes of production.

This could fund projects from across public, commercial and community media, and it could play an important role in nurturing young investigative reporters, audio storytellers and videographers – many of whom are now missing out on the opportunities and mentoring that were traditionally provided by established media companies.

Imagine if an Independent Production Fund encouraged reportage on important issues that are not well-served by the established media, and if the national broadcasters and commercial media companies opened their doors to publishing the content created.

As a journalism educator, I know how much a keen graduate can do with a cheap video camera, some off-the-shelf editing gear, and a small grant to kick-start a great idea. As a member of the New Beats project tracking the progress of Australia’s many redundant journalists, I know how much older reporters still have to contribute and how financial support can make great things happen.

So yes, there is a role for governments to play, and providing small grants to encourage public interest journalism has definitely got merit.