Auspiced Independent Project: Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI)

Over the last ten years, we have been approached many times with requests to get involved in a project relating to the media environment – a request we have always refused.

Why? We think there are two ways to define and discuss democracy. One is to take a broad view where we think of democracy as the rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc. It’s a valid definition, but as a small organisation it’s an impossibly large scope to attempt to handle.

The alternative is to take a narrow definition for democracy which focuses only on how societies make the decisions that affect us all. As a small research foundation you can’t do everything, so we focus on this as the biggest problem which has the potential to make the most impact on all Australians (which is why we are a charity in the first place). In our view, that big impact will come from finding better ways to address the ‘narrow view’: how can we make trusted public decisions? Hence, no projects focusing on the media.

As our pool of project learnings and Research Notes has expanded – building on our own demonstration projects and those of others to learn what really works in practice and what needs further innovation – we have become increasingly interested in how citizens get information. While we may think we have a ‘closed system’ in a deliberative process where the flow of a diverse range of information is part of the design, the extent to which citizens treat the media as a primary source and almost their sole channel for understanding government has become an area of greater priority for us. At the same time our view was changing, we became aware of the interest of a group of donors led by the Susan McKinnon Foundation, who wanted to look at addressing the decline in basic coverage of public affairs.

The project team presented to us a core problem where they wanted to look for long-term solutions which would be freely published: how do we get coverage of courts, council meetings and the ‘day to day’ of the public sphere in an environment where even major news outlets are finding survival challenging? Without that layer of recording and dissemination a foundation stone of our democracy – a watchdog role – would be notably missed. newDemocracy’s involvement starts from that key scoping point: we consider ‘Public Interest’ to be the reporting and coverage that is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy.

This is a non-partisan effort: the research papers that emerge will be freely usable by any media outlet from any part of the spectrum. There is an explicit requirement not to support one partisan segment of the media environment. And yes, we’re aware “Public Interest” is a phrase which can be read as a “Left aligned” bit of phrasing: but it is what it is – the public interest is to have media coverage which lets our democracy function.

In addition, the Research Committee has explicitly required of the project a rural and regional focus. It is easy to take a metropolitan view, but the problem is even more acute as population density drops – and this problem must be addressed by the initiative.

As with other newDemocracy projects and research, our emphasis is on actionable recommendations and to ask fundamental questions.

Over the coming three years, PIJI’s objectives are to:

(a)   record, research and explain the current status of public interest journalism
(b)   research and develop public policy options, put relevant issues of public interest or significance before policy-makers and the public, and engage citizens in public discourse to inform democratic decision making; and
(c)   help identify and prove up future funding models which restore a sustainable public interest journalism ecosystem.

Further information –

Published Research

Tax Concessions for Public Interest Journalism, The Centre for International Economics
The Essential Report – Public Interest Journalism, Essential Media and Applied Economics
The Nature of the Editorial Deficit, Public Interest Journalism Initiative

The Australia Communities Foundation has made a donation of $75,000 to specifically contribute to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative. This is the full amount of their donation. This donation along with all donations we receive is list on our funding page.

The Susan McKinnon Foundation has made a multi-year commitment in excess of $500,000 to newDemocracy. Some of these funds specifically contribute to this initiative.

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