Is a £100 million participatory fund the solution to the UK's journalism crisis?

A more democratic media will require alternative funding models – and more

March 2024
  |  
Kelly Bewers
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Could participatory grantmaking be the solution to journalism’s crisis in the UK? Maybe so, according to a recent report by the Media Reform Coalition and the Public Interest News Foundation.

The future of news in the UK indeed looks bleak. Over the past two decades, as the funding model for journalism has collapsed, hundreds of local papers have closed, and three companies now own 90% of UK papers.

The philanthropic sector has stepped in to prop up independent news sites and back emerging ones, with UK foundations funnelling more than £80 million to journalism in recent years. Amid this sea change, some are arguing for more democratic distribution of public funding.

The report, Funding Journalism Using Participatory Grantmaking, is written by media researcher and campaigner Dr. Debs Grayson. Dr. Grayson looks at the nearly £100 million flowing to journalism and asks: can that funding be distributed in a more equitable way? 

She proposes a public fund for journalism in the UK, run on participatory grantmaking principles, putting forth a proposal for a £100 million fund that would use a federated structure to devolve decision-making to local citizens’ councils. 

Some news leaders, meanwhile, argue that more democratic funding models don’t go far enough. The report comes amid calls for deeper reform around governance and ownership models that will make news platforms more accountable to citizens.

Where Does the Money Come From?

Monopoly ownership. Lack of trust. Local news deserts. These trends intersect to create a crisis in our modern media landscape in the UK. 90% of UK newspapers are owned by just three companies. This consolidation has contributed to the decline of local journalism, with hundreds of local papers closing in the past fifteen years. Trust in news has fallen and fewer people engage with it; a Reuters survey found that interest in news in Britain almost halved over the past eight years, from 70% to 43%.

These are problems for those beyond news publishers. Evidence from the US suggests that when local news outlets close, communities experience lower levels of civic participation and government responsiveness. As citizens become increasingly disconnected from the news there is evidence that this directly impacts political participation.

It comes down to money. As Dr. Grayson argues in the report, with the decline of advertising, “it is widely accepted that new sources of funding are now required to support journalism, whether coming from the state, philanthropy or big tech companies.” Indeed, the Forum on Information and Democracy warned in 2021 that independent journalism around the world faces a potential “extinction event” unless the sector sees significant outside investment.

So where will that outside money come from? Philanthropic support for journalism in particular has grown significantly over the past decade. Grants for journalism, news and information grew from less than $100 million a year ten years ago, to more than $600 million today. In the UK, foundations now give more than $80 million to independent news, led by funders like Arcadia, Sigrid Rausing Trust and the National Lottery Community Fund.

This funding has been publicly praised, but it is not without its critics, who argue that third sector funding of journalism does not necessarily make it more democratic, transparent or independent. Charitable trusts and foundations, like their corporate peers, have their own limitations when it comes to shifting power. Indeed, a critique of philanthropic interventions in US journalism highlights how the funding sector often replicates the same injustices present in modern capitalism.

Furthermore, in an interview with Dr. Grayson for this article, she pointed out that much of the funding available is for projects framed as “innovation”, rather than day-to-day running costs. Which is all well and good, but where is the support for outlets that want to become financially independent and sustain their basic running costs?

That’s where the idea for a £100 million participatory grantmaking fund for journalism comes in.

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023

A £100 Million Fund

Participatory grantmaking, as described in the report, is a model within philanthropy that places decision-making power in the hands of people with lived experience. For many UK funders, it is a response to the limitations of traditional, donor-centred grantmaking; when done well, participatory funding can result in more informed decisions, a more accountable funding ecosystem, and greater trust between donors and grantees.

Participatory grantmaking has become commonplace in the philanthropy community worldwide, through organisations like the Participatory Grantmaking Community, and practised in different models in the UK, like the Edge Fund and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Movements Fund.

So, what would a £100 million participatory fund for journalism in the UK look like?

As a jumping-off point, Dr. Grayson uses an idea from the Cairncross Review for a public fund for journalism (an independent review commissioned by the UK government putting forward recommendations to secure the future of journalism). To decide where money goes, she proposes a federated structure, with devolved bodies for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and nine English regions. These would distribute £80m a year to publishers based in their nations and regions, with a further £20m a year distributed by a UK-wide body.

Each of these twelve bodies would be composed of ten people, selected randomly according to key demographic criteria; similar to a Citizens’ Assembly. Each body would have autonomy to set the balance of grants and grant size to their respective region, creating community accountability and grassroots representation.

Dr. Grayson offers a deep level of specifics – including compensating people for their participation in decision-making panels, ensuring that unnecessary administrative burdens are not placed on grantees, designing more accessible application processes with flexible eligibility criteria (as at Media Cymru in Wales) and offering longer-term, unrestricted grants. 

Beyond Participation to Governance and Ownership

Some argue that a participatory grantmaking model does not go far enough. That a more participatory approach to funding journalism is only one piece of the puzzle: a truly independent media needs to move beyond citizen participation of funding to democratic community ownership and governance of these outlets. A sustainable business model for media and journalism that also reflects democratic, participatory principles.   

David Floyd, publisher of the Waltham Forest Echo, one of the few remaining independent community newspapers left in London, believes that while we definitely need more grant funding flowing into the sector in the UK, he questions: Can we really have true independence through philanthropically backed media? For him, the goal is economic sustainability. Philanthropy can play a role in enabling new entrants to the sector, but it should never prop it up.

Community shares, public membership, collective ownership. How are these models reimagining a more democratic media landscape?

A public commons journalism could be financed through community shares - where people acquire public assets for social benefit. In 2016 Positive News magazine raised £236,000 within thirty days through a community shares offer and crowdfunding approach. 

Community shares create democratic ownership in both their governance and their funding models. Talking to Proximate for this article, Seán Wood, CEO of Positive News, explains how: “Working in the interest of our community – anyone who wants themselves and others to benefit from solutions journalism – is encoded in Positive News' constitution as a Community Benefit Society. We're owned democratically by readers who, regardless of how much they've invested, each get an equal vote in electing our board. The directors then represent the interests of our community by ensuring the business is successful in delivering on our purpose.”

Successful membership and subscription models, such as Tortoise Media in the UK, as well as other platforms (Patreon and Substack) have been experimenting with new forms of funding journalism. As an alternative to top-down private investment, outlets raise funds through a membership scheme which may also include active engagement in governance and decision making about content.

There may also be opportunities for funding through democratically controlled public resources that are managed collectively, as set out in the Media Reform Coalitions ‘Manifesto for a People’s Media’, which leans into the idea of news and journalism as a public good, perhaps through models like Public-Common Partnerships

An Opportunity for Experimentation

In questioning the ‘how’ (the mechanism for funding journalism itself), Dr. Grayson reminds us that the means are the ends. The foundations upon which the house is built matter because they influence the integrity of the structure. It is exciting to imagine how participatory grantmaking funding models orientated towards this objective might create the fertile soil for journalism and media as public commons; creating healthy knowledge systems and connected, informed citizens. 

The infrastructure to support new media platforms is still unstable. How can we design sustainable, long-term funding models for journalism that don’t build in dependency on philanthropists, inequitable extraction from citizens or reliance on powerful forms of control? Imagine a resilient, democratic media system with citizens as stewards, owners, contributors and consumers of quality and transparent journalism. A system whose currency is trust and solidarity, not capital.

The opportunity for experimentation is an important one. Although a participatory grantmaking fund for journalism is unlikely, on its own, to address the structural issues within the media, we need to create the conditions for brave and radical innovations, as only through testing will we learn how alternative, more resilient models might take shape.

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