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Inspired union: strategies for journalism to flourish

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Fiona Cullinan, Christian Payne and Lucia Adams

Conference report by Tim Dawson

NUJ freelances displayed an innovative range of strategies to survive and prosper at a one-day conference.  A capacity audience packed the event to hear from more than twenty speakers describing initiatives including: instant-video documentary making, selling into new foreign markets, self-publishing via Kindle, and creating iPad app publications.

Other novel funding sources and work models included crowd-funding foreign photographic assignments, working as a journalist on behalf of brands, cross-funding journalism with authoring corporate ‘white papers’ and, a number of successful co-operatively produced publications.

The event, organised by the London Freelance Branch, aided by the NUJ’s Freelance Office, was held at the London Welsh Centre on 17 November 2012.  Open to all, in excess of 200 people attended, more than half of them women, many of whom contributed to the lively event with their own questions and experiences.

Among the highlights was photographer, Guy Smallman, who has undertaken numerous assignments in Afghanistan, most self-funded.  By entering the country as a non-embedded journalist he has been able to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues who worked more closely with the military.  The reputation that he has built as a result has more recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

Christian Payne (documentally.com) describes himself as a social technologist, multi-tasking communicator or blogger.  After a career as a staff and freelance photographer, he now blogs and makes video documentaries, some following his own interests, others as commercial assignments.

Payne’s total engagement with Twitter started when, after a car crash, he used the micro-blogging service to ask, ‘what do I do now?’  “It was the first point of using social channels when I wasn’t bragging about myself.  I showed some humility, made myself look an arse and loads of people came to my aid.  At that point I decided to embrace the networks and be a storymaker”, he said.

He subsequently made a video from photographs he had taken in Iraq.  When he realised that more people saw his pictures on YouTube than had seen the same photographs when they were published in national newspapers, he decided that he was on to something.  “Although I wasn’t being paid for my pictures, I was building this huge audience of people who were interested in me, and some of them started to offer me work”, he said.

Fiona Cullinan’s (fionacullinan.com) entré to blogging came during a slow spell while she had been booked to work for a contract publisher.  “I would suggest to every journalist that they blog – not necessarily to monetise what they are doing but as a digital playground and as a place to experiment and to show potential clients what you can do”, she said.  Using her blog as a hub, Cullinan started writing about how her working life was developing – particularly as subbing opportunities shrank.  Subsequently, six months emailing a digital agency where she wanted to work eventually bore fruit.

“Freelancing has been a rollercoaster – but it suits me”, said Hina Pandya (@hinapublish).  After a varied career, five years ago she decided to freelance full-time.  Since then, relentless networking and going with the flow of work have been her watchwords.  After becoming frustrated with commissioning editors who would not pay, she published her own travel guide as an eBook and said that sales, to date, have exceeded her expectations.  Commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television program ‘Continum’, Pandya found that her related Tweets about the program gained a significant following.  The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.  Her tips for aspirant freelances are to make pitches short and sharp, try to negotiate your fee upwards every time, and invest in your own training.

Huma Yusuf spoke about ‘Breaking the BRICs’ or the media markets in such emerging countries as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  “Media is booming in these countries”, she said.  “In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5% a year and the Times of India has a circulation of 4.3m”.  Much of the media is trying to operate 24/7 so there is a desperate thirst for content – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news.

To break into these markets, Yusuf suggested initially offering material to smaller titles – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.  With your reputation established in ‘the only market that matters – their own’, approaches can then be credibly made to larger titles such as The Times of India.  Happily, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper’s websites, and most are ‘addicted’ to social media.  Pay rates vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words.  The best way to up these rates, Yusuf suggested, is to offer ‘multi-media’ packages, as many Indian papers have very ‘snazzy websites’ that are perilously thin on content.

The issue of credibility in foreign markets was also addressed by Max Glaskin (@cyclingscience1).  Specialising in engineering and technology, 20 years ago he faxed his details to 150 US magazines.  The replies were few, but made clear that a ‘as a Limey he was unlikely to be able to understand the complexities of American culture’.  Six months later, however, he received a fax from ‘Biophotonics International’ seeking a European contributor.  With credibility established at one journal he picked up work from publications in the same stable – and was then able to use those contacts to leverage work on other US titles.

Work in south east Asia came via a friend who moved there, that Glaskin nagged for work.  When his pal moved on, Glaskin stuck with the title and then made himself known to his friend’s new publication.  “I never pitch stories”, he said.  “I simply let publications know that I am here and that I can supply them whatever they want, so long as it interests me.”  Once his reputation was made with one or two ex-pat journalists, word of his competence was passed around.

Examples discussed at the event varied between techniques that have allowed jobbing freelances to reach new clients and extend their workbase, and more substantial business ventures.  The magazine that Una Murphy edits in Belfast certainly falls into the latter category.  View is a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland’s voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, like Murphy, a 20-year media veteran, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established, but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is now generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service, Exaro (exaronews.com) said that although the traditional media model is breaking down, opportunities are also being thrown up.  “The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson, but accountants”, he said.  “Accountants told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism, and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open, and if you can’t see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself”.  Watts did warn, however, that freelance looking for work at Exaro should obey the old rule – check out the product first – and make sure that they have the right range of skills, experience and contacts for investigative journalism.

David Boyle the author of The Case For Media Co-ops described several publications that have enjoyed success anew, having adopted a co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press, for example, was bought by its 13 employees in 2009.  Today, they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital.

Marlborough News Online, in Wiltshire, was established as a workers’ co-operative by four journalists.   Providing news for a town without a newspaper, it already generates sufficient revenue to employ all four members for one day a week each and is ‘on track’ to increase this to full times jobs within five years, said Boyle.

At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened the business’ survival.  An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000.  The readers are now the magazine’s owners and receive a four percent return on their outlay.  “In the conventional media, the number of titles and reporters is down and so are circulations – but there are outliers where they are proving that local readers do want local content”, said Boyle.  “The great benefit of co-ops is that young talent is in the boardroom from the start, because all staff are involved”.

Alex Klaushofer, co-author of Help Yourself: New ways to make copyright pay, and joint editor of this site, (@alexklaushofer) highlighted a number of trends.  There is life yet in print, she suggested, citing The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of long-form writing about football.  The jury is out on advertising, with profitable hyperlocal news publications such as the Filton Voice (filtonvoice.co.uk) confounding predictions that the advertising model is definitively broken. Meanwhile, foundation and grant funding is supporting a range of new media from investigative heavy hitters ProPublica in the United States to village newsletter The Ambler, in Northumberland. But the States are considerably ahead of the UK in funding quality journalism, innovative practice and research into the changing media landscape, she observed.

Other initiatives mentioned at the event included Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers’ recent travails that was spawned from a blog and has now sold more than 10,000 copies, the Berlin Newspaper Die Tageszeitung, which is owned by its 30,000 subscribers and The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine whose first edition was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies.

Closing the conference, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stansistreet committed the NUJ to extending its services for freelance members.  “It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union”.  Stanistreet promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union’s work in the months to come.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 22nd, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Status politics: could local newspapers be allowed to become charities?

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Report by Tim Dawson

With a UK Communications Bill White Paper expected in early 2013, there is a growing hope that one of its provisions might be to make it easier for local newspapers to operate as charities.  A consortium of charities and trusts has already made a submission to this effect to the Department for Culture Media and Sport to this effect.

The Charities Act of 2006 requires that, to obtain the benefits of charitable status, an organisation must comply with one of charitable purposes mentioned in the Act, none of which provide an obvious way in which a publisher might comply.  Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of Wikipedia did obtain charitable status in 2011, after a long and complex negotiation with the Charity Commissioners, which it likened itself to the nineteenth century reading rooms that provided a ‘public resource’.  Derived from a statute of 1601, however, this route is thought to be off-puttingly complex for more mainstream publications.

It is not hard, however, to find evidence of the benefit to communities that newspapers can provide when they are produced by charities.  In Northumberland, for example, the Ambler is a bi-monthly newspaper, produced for the former mining village of Amble, by the Amble Development Trust.

Edited by Anna Williams, who is employed by the Trust, the paper is largely produced by volunteers and is distributed free to Ambles 6,500 residents.  An allied website is updated daily.

‘Our mission is to promote community cohesion’, says Williams.  ‘We were fortunate that, from the beginning, people took the paper to their heart and thought of it as their own.  And we are lucky to be in a village that is small enough for people to know who you are talking about but big enough for there to be something going on’.

The Development Trust obtains its funding from a range of statutory and other agencies often having to trim what it does to fit with the funding available.  The Trust provides the paper with a comfortable home and the computers that are required for production.  Williams’ salary is also met by the Trust – for whom she undertakes other work as well as editing the paper.

Under the current legislation there is nothing to stop other community charities from establishing newspapers, as they have in Amble.  For a charity to take over an existing newspaper, or for a charity to be established whose main purpose was to publish a newspaper, however, would almost certainly require a change in the law.  The main benefits that charitable status provides is that it provides access to some funding streams.  Slightly more nebulously, it could also provide newspapers with a badge to demonstrate their community worth.

Given the tumult of the Leveson enquiry and the potentially far-reaching consequences of the Hargreaves Review, it remains to be seen whether such a measure appears to be sufficiently attractive to the Government for it to appear in a Bill.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

July 9th, 2012 at 5:02 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

Experts to debate not-for-profit models for journalism

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Guest post by Tom Davies.

We hear it so often it’s almost become a cliché: old media structures are crumbling, their business models in shreds, no longer able to serve readers and journalists adequately. The crisis is most acute in local media, though by no means limited to it, yet the need for good journalism is still there.

We’ve had a drip-feed of sometimes alarmist local paper closure stories in recent years. But many of those that remain are undoubtedly a shadow of their former selves: understaffed, under-resourced and often distantly located, no longer visibly at the heart of their communities. This parlous state of affairs was illustrated most recently by the two-week strike by members of the National Union of Journalists at the Tindle group of newspapers in north London, which produces the Enfield Gazette and Advertiser, Haringey Advertiser and Barnet Press titles. It now employs only nine full-time journalists to get the formerly award-winning papers out, and the intolerable strain this has put on staff drove them to strike, not for more pay but more colleagues.

So what do we do? The bigger corporate players in local news – Newsquest, Johnston Press, Northcliffe et al – have long operated under a debt-fuelled business model that demands absurd profit margins frequently of 20% plus, which has meant, particularly post-recession, a wave of job losses and pay squeezes to service that model with scant regard to quality. Trinity Mirror’s annual report last week revealed net debt levels of £265.9m but operating profit margins of 16%. While as we have seen the smaller companies such as Tindle scarcely operate along better lines. When push comes to shove, quality becomes expendable.

But is news inherently profitable? And is the prerequisite for profit necessarily the only way in which journalism can be funded. Can other, more enlightened set-ups work?

These issues and more will be discussed at a conference organised by the NUJ, Co-operatives UK and Goldsmiths College at the college’s New Cross campus on 21 May. Speakers include the BBC’s Paul Mason, Co-operatives UK secretary-general Ed Mayo, Granville Williams from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Goldsmiths College professor of media and communications Natalie Fenton and legal experts from BatesWellsBraithewates solicitors. The conference will be split into sessions looking at three strands – the co-op/mutual model; the role of public policy and public subsidy; and charitable/foundation trust set-ups.

The initiative follows on from the New Ways to Make Journalism Pay event held at the NUJ last year after which representatives of Co-operatives UK, the umbrella organisation for co-ops in Britain, expressed an interest in developing media initiatives, partly to pick up the slack left by the corporates’ failings to their staff and readers.

“Newspapers are in that class of business which has a social value over and above the bottom line,” says Dave Boyle, of Co-operatives UK’s business development panel and one of the organisers of Saturday’s event. “You could add post offices, pubs, football clubs and so on, but they’re all things which – while they exist in a marketplace and are privately owned – the wider community gets a benefit from their existence.

“I was reading about how local newspapers were apparently in terminal decline, but the more I discovered, the more it seemed like the problem wasn’t so much newspapers as the business model they pursued. Local newspapers exist on the basis of trust from their readers,” he added. “But when you move the production office out of town, and the phone number is no longer a local one, people start to think the paper is no longer on their side, or aware of their issues.”

Union members themselves have taken steps in this direction. In south Wales the Port Talbot Magnet, established last autumn as Local News Port Talbot, was launched by seven local journalists and is now a 20-strong co-operative, while the employee-owned West Highland Free Press in Scotland continues to offer a campaigning local voice almost four decades after its inception in 1972.

More generally, it picks up on an instinct of “sod this company, we could do a better job than this” often heard on picket lines by hard-pressed local journalists. They don’t trust their betters.

“No form of management or structure is a guarantee of success,” says Boyle, “but what this issue of sustainability really is saying is: can you run a paper without a big backer to subsidise the losses they could make? I can see no reason why not, and the harsh truth is that if communities want papers that understand their issues and reflect them, and reporters want papers that are committed to journalism, then you have to find a business model which takes power and control away from people who have shown they have a paper-thin commitment to both of these. There’s several models that look at that, so worker-ownership, like the West Highland Free Press means the staff own and run the paper. A consumer co-op would be owned and run by the readers, but I think the real challenge is to recognise that all good newspapers need good staff and loyal readers, and a co-op which has both onboard both fits the ‘vibe’ of a paper.”

Other ideas are also worth exploring – the establishment of foundation or trust-funded news, which has had some success in the US and in specific projects in the UK such as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. Is there a role for public subsidy of independent journalism? What role can readers and communities themselves play in their local media outlets?

We shouldn’t be too wide-eyed about such ideas. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Experiments with more ‘right-on’ ways of doing things haven’t always succeeded – the experience of the ill-fated leftwing Sunday paper News on Sunday in the 1980s springs to mind. There is also an historic tension between co-ops and trade unions, with members of the latter sometimes uneasy at the idea of assuming ‘managerial’ roles, while the current government’s embrace of the co-op/mutual idea in public services – if not the private sector – is regarded with suspicion by many and as a cover for cuts and the ideological rolling back of the welfare state.

“Trade union members want their union to help build the very best environments to work in for their members, and co-ops are about doing things for your members,” says Boyle. “There’s an awful lot of overlap there, and the overlap is built around workers being in control of their working lives.”

From a union point of view, it’s vital that we don’t just indulge in flights of fancy, but make staff pay and conditions, and contributors’ rights (including copyright) at the centre of new initiatives. However, we are at a moment where we have to explore all options. This conference is but one initial step. Examining such alternatives isn’t pie-in-the-sky idealism, nor merely an exercise in the sort of chin-stroking media futurology that seems to be the subject of around three conferences in any given week. Nor does it detract from the NUJ’s very urgent and very genuine need to robustly defend existing jobs and conditions, but the media is changing rapidly, and if we don’t try to change it ourselves, then it will be done for us, in ways we probably won’t like.

So join the debate, and come to our conference on Saturday.

“Can the Media be Co-operative: alternatives to corporate media ownership” takes place at Goldsmiths College, Lewisham Way, New Cross, London SE14, from 10,30-4.30. To register, go to: cooperativemedia.eventbrite.com

* Tom Davies is chair of the NUJ’s development committee and a member of its national executive, and writes in a personal capacity.

Written by Alex

May 16th, 2011 at 9:17 am

Posted in Non-profit

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

American innovations fill news gap

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A round of awards for journalistic innovation from the US highlight some of the emerging solutions to the crisis in news reporting.

This year’s Knight-Batten Innovation Awards run by J-Lab, which promote the use of digital technology to get people involved in public life, rewards some path-breaking initiatives.

The winner of the top prize Sunlight Live, is typical of an emerging new breed of hybrid organisations with a journalistic mission. A think-tank which campaigns for greater transparency of government, its reporting arm brings journalistic techniques and new technologies to bear on government data.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get done by desperate, pared-down news rooms. The Obameter – a project tracking how many promises made by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign are coming to fruition – also got an award.

Kenyan-based project haiti.ushahidi.com was lauded for developing a citizen-reporting tool which was used to produce crisis mapping during the Haiti earthquake in January this year.

For a fuller list of the awards, see here.

Written by Alex

July 21st, 2010 at 6:06 am

The cooperative – an old model for new journalism?

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Could one of the new models for journalism include a time-honoured model – the cooperative?

It seems almost a no-brainer. There are now so many journalists frustrated by the difficulties of practising their trade in an environment dominated by profit-hungry executives uninterested journalism’s traditional values that you’d think we’d be getting together and, well, cooperating.

The puzzle, then, is that there are almost no attempts to start media coops. Recently I was asked to contribute a comment to Creative Cooperatives – a site launched by Cooperatives UK to encourage those in the creative industries to consider the cooperative approach. But I had to confess that the only journalists’ coop I knew of – Local News South Wales in Port Talbot – was struggling to get off the ground. One of its directors, Mike Burrows, cites a lack of support as a key factor, adding that the some of the redundant journos initially involved had now got jobs in PR, and were now losing interest.

In an article in the NUJ’s Journalist magazine, Cooperatives UK’s secretary general Ed Mayo admits he doesn’t know of any significant journalist coops in the UK.

NMJ has since heard of a promising journalists’ coop-in-the-making, the details of which may be disclosed at some future point. But the puzzle remains as to why so little thought is being given to the model. Is it because most journalists are so habituated to being either employees working in hierarchical editorial structures or operating as solo freelances that the model seems alien? Is there something about the culture emerging around the new technologies that makes the ‘new generation journalist’ a solitary, enterprising, figure? Answers, on a post, please …

Written by Alex

July 7th, 2010 at 5:10 am

The quest for a new model for journalism

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What is the new model that will sustain the journalism of the future? The posts below – the fruits of a conference hosted by the NUJ earlier in the year – represent some of the first answers to this question. Some are dispatches from the founders of start-ups; others offer early observation by media-watchers of the new territory emerging in the face of the demise of the traditional business model.

So let’s get the elephant in the room straightaway. It is possible that there simply is No New Model for Journalism. That’s the thesis of a forthright piece by Robert Niles in the US, where attempts to find a way out of journalism’s current impasse are somewhat ahead of those in the UK.

There are, Niles argues, only three basic ways to make money out of journalism, and they all sound rather familiar: payment by customers, revenue from advertising and donation in the form of public subsidy or grants from philanthropists. Instead of pursuing a vain quest for a Holy Grail, the thesis goes, publishers should concentrate their efforts on developing new production models based on more cost-effective ways of news-gathering.

But even if there is no crock at the end of the rainbow, that doesn’t mean it’s time to call off the search. New ways of doing journalism are evolving, and it’s a rich, even hotch-potch field. The ‘new models’ are often more experimental round the edges than brand-new, some are hybrid, some already look like duff ideas, and some, at core, are downright old-fashioned.

While the most impressively innovative approaches tend to be ultra-practical, embracing new media technologies and engaging with niche audiences in sophisticated ways, others tacitly challenge the prevailing cultural and political attitudes about the media, who it’s for, and why it matters.

One such attitude is the rise of the ‘free’ culture which has made it so difficult, in an online age, to charge for information. With the Times and Sunday Times’ recent decision to start charging, it’s too early to say whether it really is too late to row back.

Other approaches, exemplified in Camden New Journal editor Eric Gordon’s contribution below, challenge the axiom that a successful media organisation must necessarily generate continuing growth. Maybe, if we really value local news, foreign coverage, and the scrutiny of politicians and businesses, a model turning a modest profit could be enough? Now there’s a radical thought for our times.

Written by Alex

April 2nd, 2010 at 6:57 am