The Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows the way to funding for public-interest news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The team behind the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Bureau Local operation

Press barons in the mould of William Randolph Hearst and Lord Beaverbrook have long been underwriting the cost of making the news as a means to gaining influence and status.

But journalism doesn’t have to work that way.

This week the independent Cairncross Review of the future of British media recommended the setting up of a new fund “aimed at improving the supply of public-interest news”. It called for a new Institute of Public News (a “rough equivalent” of the Arts Council), which “would collaborate with the many institutions seeking to contribute funds, organisation or ideas”. This Institute, it said, would have “complete freedom from any political or commercial obligations”.

Philanthropic funding is an economic model for making news that – in theory at least – promises no editorial control and is a growing hope for an industry in jeopardy. Bill Gates and the e-bay founder Pierre Omidyar are among the billionaires who are funding news, without owning it.

In its predictions for 2019, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said 12% of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream this year. “Newsrooms across Europe have started to employ dedicated fundraisers and set up philanthropic business units,” it said. There are 146,000 ‘public benefit’ foundations in Europe, with annual expenditure of £45 billion.

The United States has an established tradition of funding journalism through philanthropy and the attacks on the news media by president Donald Trump have prompted a wave of donations to the New York non-profit newsroom ProPublica.

The UK non-profit showing the way

No organisation in the British news sector has understood the potential of the philanthropy model as long and as successfully as the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).

In the past four months, the Bureau has clinched a succession of major grants from diverse organisations, ranging from tech giants to foundations dedicated to achieving social change. “This is about having very strong public interest journalism sustained because it does serve a vital function in society,” says Rachel Oldroyd, the Bureau’s managing editor.

The awards will guarantee for years to come the future of a non-profit venture that began nine years ago with a mission to use “in-depth investigative journalism” to “hold power to account”. It was founded by London philanthropists David and Elaine Potter (a former investigative journalist with the Sunday Times). The David and Elaine Potter Foundation aims to “encourage a stronger and fairer society”.

While the Bureau is itself an online publisher, and specialises in using digital tools to probe official open data sources, its work has appeared in every major British newspaper, underpinning more than 50 front page articles and numerous television packages. It takes a long-term campaigning approach on key international topics, such as the failure of antibiotics to contend with global superbugs, and the shadowy impact of US drone strikes and private security companies in Afghanistan and other conflict zones.

The Bureau Local, which began two years ago as a BIJ side project to strengthen investigative journalism in the UK’s regional media, has become a pillar in the news infrastructure with a collaborative community of 900 members, many of them local paper reporters. Its work last year in exposing the extent of homeless-related deaths in Britain led to 83 local stories on the issue and a change in the government’s approach to recording such statistics. It has explored the influence of new voters in individual political consistencies, and investigated the accounts and risky investments of local authorities across the UK.

This week’s Cairncross Review called for expansion of direct funding for local public-interest news, as well as tax relief for local and investigative journalism.

Megan Lucero, director of The Bureau Local, says its public interest approach has appealed to funders with no track record in supporting news. “It is hopefully a sign that people are recognising the importance and value of journalism in the change they want to see,” she says.

Collaborative journalism pays off

One of The Bureau Local’s latest backers, Lankelly Chase, is a charitable foundation begun by businessman Major AE Allnatt, who made his fortune developing the land around London’s North Circular road. The foundation’s mission is to give everyone “the opportunity to live a rewarding life”.

The funding, says Lucero, is testament to journalism’s role in civic life. “We have a space alongside government and activists and the public and private sectors in thriving society and when we work we collaborate with people from all those spaces,” she says. “We are seeing a funder reflect that back to us and say ‘We see where you stand in improving our society, we haven’t traditionally funded a journalistic unit but we are willing to get behind you.” Backing from another funder with no previous track record in funding journalism is due to be announced imminently by the Bureau.

These investments follow an earlier grant to The Bureau Local from the Agora Finding Common Ground Fund, which supported a project called Refuge Woman that combined local journalism and theatre, featuring a touring one-woman show by domestic violence survivor Cash Carraway.

What started out as a collaboration between journalists has become “a collaboration of people” with “specialist knowledge” in local transparency and accountability, says Lucero. “It’s putting a lawyer, a teacher, a local citizen, and a local reporter in the same room.”

The Bureau Local, which has produced stories on more than 250 issues, was set up with money from Google’s Digital News Initiative; two-year funding that runs out in March. “People weren’t sure if the original idea would work - if local journalists and other people would work together to improve accountability,” says Lucero. “We have proven the demand and need for [the idea] but there was never a sustainability plan attached to it.”

The Lankelly Chase money will help ensure its long-term future, together with a new grant from Google’s News Initiative, in recognition of what the Silicon Valley giant sees as The Bureau Local’s “effective new model for collaborative data journalism”. A further €50,000 arrives from the European Journalism Centre’s Engaged Journalism fund, which is designated for spending on looking at new ways to strengthen the unit’s “long-term financial resilience”.

The BIJ itself also has new money. In January it received an injection of $900,000 over two years from Omidyar’s Luminate foundation, which the eBay founder created last year for “empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies”. Oldroyd says Luminate is part of a “growing small group of funders” (including Dutch-based foundation Adessium, another BIJ supporter) which are active in backing public interest and accountability journalism. “Luminate have really bounced onto the scene of investigative journalism in the past 12 months and their presence is really making a lot of impact,” she says.

From goodwill to a 'proper business'

Although it might sound like the BIJ is suddenly awash with cash, Oldroyd says that her annual budget of £1.5m is modest – “that would probably keep a paper going for a week”. While the financial injection will allow the BIJ to expand, she wants it to have lasting security. “We want to build a proper business here – a not-for-profit business – focused on public interest journalism [and] we want it to be sustainable because that’s how you guarantee good continual work.”

The best way to do that is to attract “core” funders who give money without insisting it’s spent on a single project. “Those are the funders we really love because they let us get on with pursuing the stories we want to pursue and let us tell them in the way we want to tell them.”

She admits that the cart-before-horse danger of pursuing stories that might appeal to specific potential funders is an area the Bureau is very conscious of. “It’s about trying to align our missions with their missions but not give away our editorial independence and that has required a lot of thinking, it has required a lot of structure put in place and making sure we are very clear with funders where the line stops.”

In choosing areas to investigative, the BIJ targets topics neglected by mainstream news media, such as health policy. Oldroyd says that, while cancer cures and personal stories of terminally-ill children can “bring in the clicks” for news sites, there is less interest in the effectiveness of antibiotics or the spending priorities of big pharma. “These stories are really neglected,” she says. “There are a lot of philanthropic dollars that really understand that.”

Big British news organisations are taking greater interest in philanthropy-funded journalism. The Guardian has been successful in persuading readers to make donations to support its open publishing model. The Telegraph is pursuing a project on Global health Security that is partly- funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which has no editorial influence).

The British journalism has yet to see the same degree of philanthropic support as exists in America is partly due to the existence of the BBC, Oldroyd says. “There is this sense among the public - quite rightly - that we have this very strong public service broadcaster whose job it is to report the news from a public interest perspective.”

But she points out that BBC News is undergoing cuts, while other newsrooms are over-stretched by having to cover a 24-7 cycle with shrinking resources. “I don’t think the public is fully aware of the situation or of the public good that journalism can do,” she says. “If the light is not shone on the dark corners that is when corruption and bad behaviour happen.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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