Innovation and social purpose: public and philanthropic support for European journalism
Notes from the Journalism Funders Forum’s Expert Circle in Brussels
The three general-purpose news outlets with the greatest agenda-setting power over European politics — the Financial Times, The Economist, and the BBC — all happen to be run out of London and thus will very soon be based outside the European Union. At the same time, much of the journalism produced in the rest of the EU still focuses almost entirely on the respective national public sphere, and news organisations in many countries struggle to make ends meet.
This irony was not lost on the participants of the Journalism Funders Forum’s Expert Circle in Brussels on October 23, 2018. Fittingly for its location at the headquarters of Euractiv, right next to the European Commission’s Berlaymont building, the event explored (under the Chatham House Rule) the relations between journalism, foundations, and the European Union.
First off, the group discussed the obstacles for foundation funding of journalism. In Germany, for instance, out of more than 22,000 charitable foundations, only 20 support journalism as an end in itself. At the European level, charitable foundations spend about €60bn annually, yet journalism’s share in this bounty remains so small as to be virtually invisible.
One key reason is charity law: Journalism is generally not acknowledged as a charitable cause, rendering it difficult for foundations to spend money on news organisations. In fact, founders of non-profit news outlets are often forced to jump through so many hoops to attain such a coveted status that they risk distorting their public perception. One participant said:
“As a journalist, you don’t necessarily want to go to retirement homes or schools every day to explain your mission, only in order to be recognised as a social or educational charity.”
Liberating journalism from this conundrum is difficult because both states and foundations would need to change their legal frameworks and statutes. This is at best a lengthy process that involves legislatures at European, national, and often also regional levels. It is also at odds with the fact that most foundations, due to their very nature as endowments with a specific purpose, cannot easily change their missions.
Hence, the sector is toying with the idea of a pragmatic workaround: Would it be possible to subsume journalism under an existing charitable cause by default, so tax authorities and philanthropies could accept it without further ado?
And while the EU has a single market for goods and services, there is not yet a single market for philanthropy. Donors face many barriers — legal, practical, but also psychological — to invest in other countries than their own. Accordingly, it is hard for foundations to try and burst the national media bubbles, and only very few do so.
One of the rare breeds of such border-crossing journalism funders explained in Brussels that they were expressly dedicated to supporting multi-national non-profit initiatives, and thought in ecosystems rather than single initiatives. While they do fund the production of actual journalism directly, they also focus on the enabling environment for international media cooperation, such as multi-lateral networks, service providers, legal assistance, or technology.
Sluggish EU engagement
Naturally, the European Union is the go-to authority when it comes to funding projects that involve several or all of its Member States, especially when it comes to harmonising rules, regulations, standards, and practices between them. However, the bloc has a history of blunders concerning journalism.
Many initiatives failed or took extended gestation periods to materialise, such as the Media Pluralism Monitor (conceived 2009, launched 2014), or Erasmus for Journalists (conceived 2011, likely to be launched in a modified shape in 2019).
Indeed, it remains controversial to what extent quality journalism and media freedom are domestic EU competences in the first place (while they are an undisputed part of its foreign policy and enlargement remit). As a government, the Institutions are well advised not to interfere too much with the content of journalism anyway.
The Brussels participants mostly agreed that the EU should refrain from directly funding journalists’ salaries — if perhaps with some exceptions in countries with particularly precarious media systems, or activities with a strong firewall between the funder and any editorial decisions.
Some kind of clearinghouse that would administer EU funds independently (maybe similar to the European Endowment for Democracy, which supports media and civil society in third countries), or pool contributions from multiple sources (analogous to the foundation-driven Civitates) might be helpful, too.
The event revealed that the European Commission is poised to spend more money on journalism in the period 2021–27.
On the one hand, there are plans to continue to support media pluralism, media literacy, and high-quality media production to the tune of €61m, notably with a focus on long-term engagements rather than short-term projects.
On the other hand, the Union intends to use the revamped InvestEU programme to underpin social investments with financial guarantees, including non-profit media. One could say that the former are proactively shaping the media environment, while the latter largely depend on initiatives that emerge from the sector on their own.
Still, some participants remarked that the European Union appeared to be spending less on journalism than, for instance, Google with its €150m Digital News Innovation Fund — a funding instrument that many consider the blueprint for EU media actions: Developing (mainly) technology promising to empower new journalism business models, storytelling formats, and distribution channels.
In reality, though, the EU is already doing this extensively through its research and innovation framework programmes. Their media- and even journalism-related budgets substantially surpass Google’s funding, if perhaps in a less visible and more fragmented way, and they tend to require more effort to get one’s hands on them.
The Brussels event suggested that the classic division of responsibilities, where the public sector takes care of infrastructure and framework conditions, while the private sector fills that infrastructure with life, does not work properly for the news industry. In an attempt to compensate for what they have identified as public shortcomings, some philanthropies advocated for joint investments with the EU in areas of shared interest — in particular technology and business model innovation, as well as management skills.
Stakeholders to the rescue
That leaves the question where direct support for journalistic reporting and journalism’s social innovation could be found. Several participants suggested that journalism be an integral part of the EU’s engagement with civil society — a proposition that resonates strongly with the notion of non-profit journalism, which many foundations and journalists favour over commercial enterprises.
In this spirit, one participant called for a joint effort between the European Union, civil society, and the commercial media sector to define the EU’s future media strategy wholesale. The current negotiations about the Union’s budget for the 2021–27 period might provide a unique window of opportunity to do just that.
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