New Model Journalism

Tracking the media-funding revolution

Archive for the ‘Grant funding’ Category

UK hyperlocals suffer from grantfunders’ fixation on innovation

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UK hyperlocals suffer from grantfunders' fixation on innovation

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

Earlier this month, the lottery-funded charity Nesta announced the successful bidders for its new grant programme Destination Local. Ten winners emerged out of the 165 hyperlocal projects who applied for funds, including Welsh language paper Papur Dre and The Kentishtowner, an online north London magazine. Each project will receive up to £50,000 to develop and test prototypes for new technology platforms, especially mobile devices, thus contributing to the new generation of hyperlocal media services.

This is undeniably good news. The burgeoning of the hyperlocal sector in recent years clearly demonstrates the appetite of both its readers and new breed of publisher-editors for in-depth, engaged news and information for local communities. But the sector has been stymied by the lack of a revenue model, with profitable operations such as the Filton Voice very much the exception, while others, such as the Saddleworth News, simply die of starvation. Meanwhile, with the Guardian giving up on its own hyperlocal experiment, big media organisations are faring no better.

In the middle are the majority of hyperlocals – community projects often very successful in editorial terms and much-loved by their readers, but sustained largely by the goodwill and passion of those who run them. For now. Consequently, most face a very uncertain future.

The UK is behind the States in this respect. With leading funders such as the Knight Foundation, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism over the past decade.

But with its marked focus on innovation, the Nesta grant programme follows in the footsteps of the well-established UK lottery tradition of supporting the new at the expense of the simply good. I know this, because for years I covered the lottery and funding worlds, often speaking to grant applicants and the frustrated heads of small charities and community groups. A clear pattern emerged from their attempts to secure funding: with continual pressure to show that projects were ‘innovative’, a few skewed their work towards the obviously ‘new’. But the overall result was that services of proven benefit to the community – even those that had been ‘new’ five years ago – often fell by the wayside, as the funding machine rolled on to support the next shiny new idea.

This potted history of the British grant-funding scene may hold a lesson for community-focused media start-ups. For, out of the YouTube pitches thoughtfully collated by Nesta to add to the growing body of emerging practice, it is clear that some deserving projects never stood a chance of funding because of the programme’s focus on technological innovation. Take the case of the award-winning Ventnor Blog, for example. Despite establishing itself at the heart of the community, the six-year-old site still does not provide its mid-career husband-and-wife team with a viable living.

Or take Port Talbot Magnet – not, as far as I know, an applicant for Nesta funding – effectively surviving off the PhD funding of one of the cooperative’s members. In an interview with the Online Journalism Blog, Rachel Howells cites the biggest challenge to date as the lack of funding; not one of the seven directors are in a position to give the website the time it needs to develop and become sustainable.

Perhaps we should admit that, for once, our American cousins have the longer view.

Written by Alex

July 16th, 2012 at 7:24 am

New download mag for Northern Ireland’s community sector

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Report by Tim Dawson.

With 27,000 people working in the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, it is easy to see why Brian Pelan thinks there is space for a magazine that addresses their interests.  With the first edition of View now available to download, he is about to discover whether his hunch was a good one.

After a newspaper career of more than two decades, Pelan’s job of the past six years on the Belfast Telegraph was outsourced.  So, inspired by a friend’s publication, Union Post, which serves Irish trades unionists, the Belfast native set to work creating View – a new free-to-download, digital publication.

The magazine is laid up as though it was a print publication and is them distributed either as a downloadable pdf, or can be viewed on the Yudu site.

After months of meetings with sector representatives, showing them a dummy, the first edition came out last week. Pelan is pleased with the results: “It was on deadline, and I thought that it looked good, and to date the feedback has been fantastic”, he says.

He is running the magazine as a business, but received financial support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council as well as backing from a Dragon’s Den-style initiative run by Belfast City Council. “I have enough money for three or four issues, but for the magazine to be sustainable in the long term, I will have to find advertising or sponsorship”, he explains.

He continues to receive some ‘pro bono’ support from freelance journalists, but hopes to start paying them as his revenue swells.

He is selling the advertising himself – a wholly new experience having previously worked as a sub-editor and newspaper designer – but he is encouraged by the initial level of support.  “If we can get in £2,000 a month, then the magazine is sustainable and will pay me a basic wage.  If we can get in £3,000 a month, then we can start paying other people to undertake some of the work”.

Less straightforward, he concedes, is getting the product to the audience and being able to prove that they are reading it.  To date Pelan is looking to grow his Facebook page and Twitter stream to show the level of support that he has, and he is also now distributing the download address via bit.ly, which gives him a basic analytic.

He also hopes that by creating a high profile for himself in the voluntary and community sector, View will act as a shop front for other work when organisations are looking for a media professional.

Pelan’s identification of his market looks like a smart move – he is serving a sector that is large, and distinct from its counterparts south of the border and across the Irish sea.  Whether he will attract enough readers to be able to stitch up the advertising market, remains to be seen. On the basis of his first edition, he certainly looks like he has a decent chance.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

February 13th, 2012 at 4:57 am

Public interest journalism takes a kangaroo leap forward

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Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Today brings the launch of Australian news websiteThe Global Mail, one of the best-funded public journalism initiatives the digital age has seen to date.

With a mission to provide independent, quality journalism – strapline ‘our audience is our only agenda’ – and generously bankrolled by Australian web-preneur Graeme Wood, the site’s approach is determinedly uncommercial.

The idea for the project came when Wood and former ABC journalist Monica Attard came to a common conclusion about the state of foreign affairs reporting; ‘I think that the quality of public interest journalism is at the lowest ebb that I’m aware of,’ Wood told the website Crikey. “That’s a result of financial difficulties that media organisations are suffering, so as the quality goes down … there’s demand there that’s not being met.”

Attard, a former ABC journalist, was concerned that foreign affairs reporting was suffering from the crisis hitting the industry just as international affairs, with the Arab Spring, were getting particularly interesting.

The resulting Sydney-based site – which went live Down Under on what was yesterday in Greenwich Mean Time – may become for Australia what ProPublica is to America and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to Britain.

My first visit to the home page brought me a triptych of three very different images – an arresting, if slightly confusing, introduction. The three stories they illustrate are clearly carefully chosen for their range: an investigation highlighting the failings of Australia’s register of health workers and the implications for patient safety, an analysis piece on Obama’s re-election prospects by veteran commentator Michael Maher, and a report by Middle East correspondent Jess Hill examining the opposing worldviews of Egypt’s Salafis and Sufis.

All the pieces are beautifully written and replete with the kind of colour and detail that has become increasingly rare in foreign affairs reporting in recent years. They are also, in terms of both pace and choice of subject, noticeably less news-driven than their British counterparts. With galleries of pictures following the copy, it’s clear that high values have been placed on images, so much so that at points it almost feels as if you’ve stumbled into a photography or graphics-led site.

Yet the site, while undeniably elegant, is not easy to navigate, with pieces arranged in a multi-column magazine format that involves repeated clicking to keep up the flow of reading. This makes a refreshing contrast to the busy, at-a-glance appearance of so many info-heavy news sites, and arguably helps to foster the kind of thoughtful approach to news consumption that the site aims to serve. Nonetheless, it remains an open question how easily it will win readers away from other international news sites in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace.

All of which points up the issue which will determine the long-term success of The Global Mail. It will doubtless take time for the website to establish its particular approach to foreign reporting, and for the country-based correspondents – Hill is one of five – to break exclusive stories on their patch. And the challenge facing all foreign news providers of finding an editorial balance in terms of geographical coverage is heightened by its status as a website potentially potentially appealing to a global audience.

Meanwhile, the website’s shakers and movers seem enviably unconcerned with revenue-generation, and have no plans to either get advertising or charge readers. In a pre-launch interview with long-established Australian newspaper The Age, Attard bristles at questions about The Global Mail’s financial viability: ”What’s the hurry? We’ve got a solid five years’ funding, during which time I reckon a bunch of hugely intelligent people will come up with a way to make money, with an operation as small as this, with no legacy to carry on our back.’

Written by Alex

February 6th, 2012 at 8:02 am

From cooperation to crowd-funding: The case of Port Talbot

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Its bleak industrial landscape was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its population of diverse life-forms evolving new ways of being in the struggle for survival. And now, Port Talbot’s bleak media landscape is … You get the idea. While on the one hand, Port Talbot is the perfect illustration of the crisis in local journalism, on the other, it’s the scene of an experiment which combines the cooperative model with crowd-funding.

The origins of Port Talbot MagNet go back to January 2010 when a group of local journalists, having lost their jobs to the crisis hitting the industry, decided to do something about the news vacuum in the area. The local paper, the Port Talbot Guardian, had closed down, leaving the town without any local news provider, and has since been followed by the council newspaper and the community radio station.

The group of local journalists formed a coop and were initially optimistic about the prospects of funding it through both grants and commercial activity. But a year of funding-seeking generated nothing, while plans to set up a news agency ran aground as the recession bit into budgets for local stories. The team decided to go ahead anyway and launched last June, having entered into a partnership with the National Theatre Wales to cover the Passion, an interactive theatre production set in the streets of Port Talbot.

In the event, the project did secure a form of funding when founding member Rachel Howells won an award to do a PhD examining the effects of the lack of news on the area run by the Media Standards Trust and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. The award, which provides £50K for a three-year case study of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Port Talbot, effectively means that Howells is paid to work on the site.

‘It works very well, because the project feeds into the PhD, and the PhD research feeds into the project,’ she says.

The research, which will result in one of the first in-depth studies of the effects of the disappearance of traditional local news providers, will compare an historical analysis of the town’s local news sources with the ways in which the local population now get their information about what is going on.

‘My suspicion is that a lot of people are finding out about news by rumour and word-of-mouth,’ says Howells. ‘Really, what are the people of Port Talbot getting? National news, a bit of regional news, and not much else.’

Taking weekly turns as editors, the eight-strong team also draws on help from volunteers to write and source stories, and recently launched a crowd-funding initiave based on Spot.us adapted for the local community. The Pitch-in! scheme has so far brought them a free office in Port Talbot, plus some cash donations to to revive the traditional reporting of magistrates’ courts and council meetings. ‘You can’t have volunteers doing that; you must have a professional journalist,’ says Howells.

Driven primarily by a desire to provide the local area with news, the Port Talbot MagNet approach is certainly not a well-worked out, sharply-defined commercial model. Pragmatic and experimental, the model is likely to end up hybrid, involving a mixture of advertising, grant funding and commercially-generated revenue. But Howells is clear about one thing: ‘We would love it to be profitable. We think of ourselves as a social enterprise,’ she says. ‘People talk about not-for-profit, but you’ve still got to make an operating profit to pay the journalists and the running costs.’

She adds sagely: ‘Although we know that the traditional print model is showing signs of wear and tear, we have to be careful we don’t throw away all the things that have made businesses, particularly media businesses, work in the past.’

And although she doesn’t say so, it also seems likely that the success of the project will depend as much on the hard work and tenacity of one individual as the collective efforts of the cooperative.

Written by Alex

January 18th, 2012 at 9:51 am

Profit is dead. Long live Public Interest: Journalism in 2012 and beyond

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Photo by Joe Athialy (Flickr)

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

With the first week of the New Year bringing only warnings from politicians and economists, it seems that wise men have realised it would be foolish to feign optimism for 2012. But while things remain bleak on the economic front, there is at last a glimmer of hope for those rooting for quality journalism.

As Ian Burrell documents in this Independent article, philanthropically-funded journalism has been burgeoning in the States for some time. Over the last decade, the US not-for-profit sector has invested over a billion dollars in quality journalism, while its leading light, the non-profit news body ProPublica, which was only founded in 2008, is thriving, and now has some 1,300 donors.

Meanwhile, Down Under, a major new initiative is to launch next month. Funded by Australian entrepreneur Graeme Wood to the tune of almost £10 million, The Global Mail aims to provide independent international journalism in the public interest.

A similar trend finally seems to be taking root in Britain. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been very productive since launching some twenty months ago, while The Journalism Foundation, a new charitable foundation funding journalism which serves the public good, was born in December.

Meanwhile, in regional journalism, York-based news website One&Other is to launch a print edition funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There are also plans for the social enterprise, which started with backing from the charity UnLimited, to launch seven similar projects in cities around the UK over the next three years.

The significance of these developments lies not in their pioneering of the new, longed-for business model that will save quality journalism; as one editor points out, the ProPublica model is hardly a commercial one that can be replicated by media businesses.

The tide that is turning is more about socio-economic attitude; the rise of grant-funded journalism indicates a growing recognition that journalism is a good-in-itself rather than just another means to profitability, and profits are seen as the means to this end. In other words, what matters is people – or in this case, readers – an attitude that can comfortably be shared by both grant-funded models and commercial bodies with realistic profit aspirations.

Historically, it was this more reasonable attitude towards profit that was held by the proprietors of local papers back in the day – yes, they wanted their organ to wash its own face, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. But their expectations of the revenues that could be generated by a inherently labour-intensive craft were modest, attenuated by the recognition that the point of the paper was to serve the local community.

Contrast this, then, with the profit margins expected by some regional publishers a century or so later, with news groups such as Johnston Press achieving profits of up to 29%.

Yet, with journalism hitting exceptionally hard times, it seems that a kick-back has begun as people cast around not just for different ways of achieving the same financial outcomes, but for different attitudes to those outcomes.

The pioneers of this not-for-excessive-profit attitude include Nigel Lowther, founder-editor of the Cleethorpes Chronicle, who says he would be content with profits of around five per cent, and David Ainsworth, who has argued on this site that the charitable model could save local papers.

Meanwhile, founder-editor of the New Camden Journal Eric Gordon has called for a government-backed ‘media bank’ to ensure the survival of the local press, while others are promoting the cooperative model.

Of course, it’s doubtful that all these ideas will translate into concrete reality. But what’s valuable here is the way they change the terms in which the debate about the media economy is framed, just as in the wider economy the failings of unchecked capitalism have led to a questioning of the desirability of endless growth.

So here’s, in 2012, to the spread of a more realistic, nuanced approach to media profitability which remembers that journalism is – and arguably always has been – about serving the public interest.

Wishing you all a very sustainable 2012.

Written by Alex

January 9th, 2012 at 5:09 am

Charitable model could save local news

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Photo by Howard Lake (Flickr)


Guest blog by David Ainsworth.

Recently a group of my colleagues and I became interested in the idea of creating a charitable local newspaper.

The reason for this was simple. Local newspapers are important, but they are also in trouble. It’s time to try out a new model.

Those of us who’ve worked in local news can see it’s dying by inches. Papers are losing the trust of their readership base and many of their traditional sources of revenue. Reporters are becoming increasingly isolated from the communities they write about, paid terrible wages, and reduced to writing up press releases on industrial estates far from the centres of the towns they cover.

However, these papers are an important community resource. They provide information about local people. They provide a conduit between the authorities and those they serve. And they keep those same authorities honest.

So why might a charitable newspaper fare better than the traditional ones?
One advantage is obviously financial. Charities don’t pay most taxes, and they don’t have to pay dividends to shareholders. If they do produce a surplus, this can be reinvested in improving the business or on improving the community they serve.

Not only that, but charities can access for free many services that others have to pay for. One obvious example is that a local news provider is likely, in the long term, to live or die on the strength of its website, and a charity is likely to be able to leverage in some top quality IT support to build a really good one.

A charitable newspaper could also access start-up funding from grant-giving trusts and foundations, although in the long term, it would need to be self-financing.

There are other benefits too. A charitable provider, if it is doing its job of serving its community, should also benefit from the goodwill of that community, and should be able to draw on its resources.

Perhaps the most important of those resources is volunteer workers. While I envisage that trained, professional journalists would remain at the core of a local news service, there is plenty of scope for drawing on local people’s skills, both as contributors and members of the board.

The question of whether being a local newspaper is a charitable purpose has yet to be tested with the Charity Commission, who will only make a decision on a particular application. But the initial response to some concentrated lobbying from charity lawyers, published in Third Sector magazine, appears to be a cautious yes:

‘While the provision of news is not a charitable purpose in itself, in principle a community newspaper could further a charitable purpose through the advancement of citizenship, arts and culture, and recreational facilities.
Any application would need to be considered on its own merits against the existing legal framework.’

Certainly, any local newspaper which became a charity would have to have stringent safeguards in place to guarantee its political neutrality, and would have to be more careful than a normal newspaper about how it went about campaigning.

It seems likely that there would have to be some method of holding the editorial team to account, similar to that governing the BBC Trust. However, given that it’s the nature of good journalism to be complete, accurate and impartial, I think this is something that a paper should welcome, so long as day-to-day editorial control remains absolutely with the staff, and there is no outside interference.

The theory, now, has advanced far enough that it’s possible to think about giving it a practical try, but it’s still at an early stage.

One encouraging sign is that there appears to be plenty of interest in the model, including from journalists happy to volunteer their services, and from charitable funders who would like to put cash into a start-up.

The main thing now needed is a location.

Earlier this year, it appeared there was an opportunity to start something up when Lambeth Council announced it would outsource all of their statutory advertising to a single paper. They offered a single tender for £200,000 a year, which would have covered many of the costs of a small and growing organisation. The council encouraged a tender from a not-for-profit source, but the tender process was not designed to allow a small start-up a fair chance. In the end, they went with a local commercial provider.

So we’re still looking for the right place to try this out. It would need to be somewhere which is not well-served by its existing newspaper, because the purpose of something like this should not be to displace existing providers who are doing a good job, and it would ideally be somewhere with a strong community spirit.

We’re currently very interested in launching a charitable paper in partnership with existing community groups, not something that is top-down, imported from outside, but one that emerges from within the community, and has its blessing from the start.

On that basis, we’re really keen to hear from other people who want to get involved. The more support a project like this has, the sooner we can get the first example up and running.

David Ainsworth is Financial Reporter at Third Sector magazine. He can be contacted at: daveainsworth@yahoo.com

Written by Alex

October 3rd, 2011 at 3:34 am

Download tools – an online newservice for the labour movement

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Report by Tim Dawson.

Trades unions have not always been the quickest to adopt new means to communicate, in part because of an institutionalised ambivalence to technological change.  It perhaps explains why reporting this sector is one that that has attracted relatively few online operations.

Into this gap step two recent past presidents of the National Union of Journalists (in the United Kingdom and Ireland) with a mission “to apply strong news values to what we do, but with our maxim of ‘investigate, collaborate, agitate’”.

Union-news.co.uk combines daily trades union news with video packages, features written by trades unionists and labour-movement campaign news.  It is the work of Tim Lezzard and Pete Murray. The former is based in the south west, and is a former regional newspaper reporter.  The latter worked for many years as a journalists and producer for the BBC and is based in Glasgow.

Launched a couple of weeks ago, Murray says that they have been pleased with the numbers they have attracted to date.  “We had about 3,000 visitors in the first week, and we have had very encouraging responses from the unions that we have worked with”.

Revenue comes from advertising – mainly from trades unions themselves, although their model is rather different to a consumer magazine.  Some unions are placing banner ads as an act of solidarity, and to help the venture get up and running – it is an idea that has a long history in the labour movement.  In return for such help, Union-news will run advertorial style features on some union’s campaigns – a current example being the postal workers’ union’s demand for fresh dangerous dogs legislation.

Neither are expecting to make a living from the site initially – Lezzard works part-time for the South West TUC, Murray hopes to work as a film-maker and trainer for trades unions on his own account.  Nevertheless, they are committed to posting daily news and hope to take at least some income from the site in the fullness of time.

With a focus on UK trades unionism, Murray believes that their main competition comes from the Morning Star’s website.  “Our videos are already better than theirs, though”, he says.

The sector they are covering is one that has endured, even if it is a shadow of the force that it was during the 1960s and 1970s.  In those days, most national newspapers employed an ‘industrial desk’ of up to half a dozen reporters covering trades union affairs.  Today, many newspapers don’t have a single industrial correspondent.  With six and a half million members, however, trades unions represent arguably the largest civic body in the UK.  Whether they represent a community of interest, however, is another matter.

“The vast majority of trades union members don’t have much care for their union save when it directly affects their live – because of a pay deal, or if they are facing redundancy”, said one senior official of the Unite union. 

“And most trades union activists are only really bothered about what is happing in their own union,” he added. “Good luck to Union-news if they can make it work, but I suspect that like so many websites, the will struggle to keep up the interest”.

Lezzard and Murray also face some formidable reporting challenges.  They are committed to providing coverage in an unbiased and balanced way.  The unions for which they depend for their income, however, can be quick to take offence if things are not written up as they think that they should be.

Nevertheless, with their extensive contacts in the movement and track record as journalists, they stand a better chance than most of grafting a living from the movement.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

September 26th, 2011 at 2:45 am

Bureau of Investigative Journalism celebrates first birthday

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Pewari Naan (Flickr)

Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the not-for-profit organisation established to help reverse the decline of investigative journalism in Britain, celebrates its first birthday today.

Launched on 26th April 2010 thanks to a £2 million grant from the Potter foundation, the organisation espouses an unashamedly non-commercial funding model, conducting the kind of in-depth investigations done less and less by the mainstream media.

A year on, with monthly installments of the grant supplemented by commission fees from sales to print and broadcast media, the Bureau is in a position to continue for up to five years without a major change in fortunes.

The arrangement funds four core staff, a dozen people on short-term contracts and a number of paid internships. Journalists work in topic-based teams covering issues such as Health, Human Rights and the European Union; recent stories include the revelation of widespread malpractice among big pharmaceutical companies operating in the US and, in partnership with the Financial Times, the discovery that tobacco companies have received public funds to the tune of three million euro. The scope of investigations is admittedly limited – many of the Bureau’s stories are done in partnership with other media organisations.

According to Bureau editor Iain Overton, the biggest challenge so far has been persuading media outlets to publish the fruits of the investigations. ‘The problem I have is not so much doing the journalism; it’s selling it,’ he says. ‘It’s a very easy thing to say that the reason investigative journalism is declining is because nasty people like Murdoch are holding the purse strings. I think it’s more complicated than that.’

Instead, he identifies a variety of factors that make for a climate hostile to investigative journalism: editors are reluctant to publish material considered too dry or complex to woo consumers fed on a diet of sensationalism, governments and companies try to bury bad news with bureaucratic language and cunning PR tactics, and journalists are increasingly tied to their desks.

The problem affects even with the most newsworthy material, such as the Bureau’s publication, in November 2010, of a story based on WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs about the killing of hundreds of civilians in Iraq by coalition forces, along with continuing prison abuse, post-Abu Ghraib, and widespread torture in Iraqi detention facilities.

The Bureau’s response to the problem has been pragmatic, prioritising the need to get the story out and offering material which can’t be placed free to anyone who wants it under a creative commons license. Overton rejects suggestions that giving away stories contributes to the problem of producing good, sustainable journalism which the Bureau was designed to remedy, arguing that material is sold wherever possible. ‘I’m subsidising,’ he admits. ‘I do get the market rates for print and broadcast stories, but they’re insufficient.’

He does, however, foresee the gradual evolution of a more commercial model to fund investigative journalism through the sale of access to documentaries on internet TV. ‘Over time the saviour of quality investigative journalism may be micro payments,’ he says. ‘People will gradually realise that you can’t always get quality journalism for free.’

‘It may take ten years, though,’ he adds.

In the meantime, the Bureau is adopting the strategy pursued by many media players in the digital age – building its reputation in the hope that the money will follow.

Written by Alex

April 26th, 2011 at 5:40 am

Foundation funding reveals murky world of farm subsidies

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Case study by Tim Dawson.

Michael Heseltine always enjoyed being considered one of the ‘big beasts’ of British politics.  Less well known, until recently, is that he has long been a recipient of around £90,000 of annual funding from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  Lord Hesseltine, who founded the magazine company Haymarket, is thought to be worth around £200m, farms around 1,255 acres in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire.  

That it is possible to find out about these payments – and those to other farmers all over Europe – is thanks to farmsubsidy.org, one of the few examples of successful foundation-funded journalism outside the United States.  For the past six years it has been publishing details of where the European Union’s €55 billion farm subsidy budget is spent. A parallel project, run under the unberella of EU Transparancyfishsubsidy.org does the same for the €6 billion Common Fisheries Policy.

Since its establishment, farmsubsidy.org has received approximately $800,000 from foundations, the largest portion of which has come from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  This has been used to pay a small team of journalists, researchers and website authors in countries around Europe to fund freedom of information requests, and to develop the website on which details of farm funding are published.

The initiative is the brainchild of Jack Thurston, a former special advisor in the British Ministry of Agriculture and Nils Mulvad a Danish journalist.  Inspired by the US Environmental Working Group, Thurston wrote a pamphlet in 2002 suggesting that the recipients of CAP funding should be made public.  This led to a Fellowship with German Marshall Foundation, during which time Thurston made a successful FoI request for the British subsidy data.

“Around that time I convened a meeting at the offices of the German Marshall Fund”, he explains.  “We realised that few media organisations had the time or resources to do this kind of FoI work or to analyse such big data sets.  The Danes were a bit ahead of me, but we agreed to work together to establish a network to help journalists and researchers make effective requests for the data and to provide a publication platform.”

Since then FoI requests around Europe now mean that nearly every territory is covered, and the organisation’s easy-to-use online website makes it simple to find out who has received what. 

With the raw data on tap, farmsubsidy.org has also worked with journalists from the traditional media to make sense of the great gush of information.  In the UK this has produced a steady steam of stories about subsides paid to the well-known and the well-heeled like Heseltine.  In the US, reports on the Washington Post and the New York Times – and here and here – have undertaken significantly more radical work on how US agricultural multinationals have moved into east European farming – in part, with funds provided by the EU.

farmsubsidy.org makes it clear that while it is in favour of transparency, it does not adopt a particular stance on the desirability of particular funding decisions. “We do have to operate a kind of Chinese wall between data provision and more work that is more policy-based,” says Thurston.

He attributes the organisation’s success in fundraising to a pre-existing relationship with the main funders. “I sense that foundations fund people as much as they fund projects – which could be the worst kind of old-boys network – but it has meant for us that we have not had to devote all our time to chasing funds … It has made a difference having funders who trusted us for a few years.”  Although there are some foundations that will fund journalism in Europe, there are far fewer than in the US, he adds.

But despite its success, the future of farmsubsidy.org is in doubt.  Last November, a group of German farmers took a case to the European Court of Justice which ruled that publishing the names and addresses of CAP payment recipients breached the farmer’s privacy. 

Thurston believes that the judgement can be overturned, but even if the ruling stands, Thurston and his colleagues have directed a considerably shaft of light in the hitherto murky world of EU agricultural subsides, and shown that foundation-funded journalism can work in Europe.

Written by Tim Dawson

March 14th, 2011 at 2:27 am

Hyperlocal wins grant funding

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The announcement yesterday that Blog Preston has won public funding is surely a sign of a growing recognition that hyperlocals have a key role to play in British media.

The site, whose bid was made in partnership with other local organisations, is one of 16 community projects to have succeeded in the Neighbourhood Challenge run by NESTA – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

According to blog founder Ed Walker, the grant will provide ‘significant funding’ for a collaborative media project aimed at creating ‘a surge in community journalism’. As www.journalism.co.uk reports, it will fund the recruitment and training of a number of citizen journalists.

But, with Preston one of six hundred projects who applied for an award, grant funding is unlikely to provide a sustainable future for most of the hundreds of hyperlocals now beavering away around the country.

Written by Alex

February 18th, 2011 at 7:41 am