The news we all deserve

How do we get news that is true – and in the public interest – to the places it does not reach, asks Vanessa Baird

Credit: Roman Kraft/Unsplash

Let’s not beat about the bush. The crisis facing independent public-interest news is serious and ongoing.

Independent outlets, print and digital, struggle to become and remain sustainable in a turbulent news economy where revenue from sales and advertising has bombed or ended up in the coffers of titans like Facebook or Google.

At the same time, there exist public-interest news deserts – areas and communities where people have little access to, or engagement with, journalism they can trust, on issues that matter, provided in an ethical way.

The damage this is doing to democracy was alluded to by Frances Cairncross in her Review into a sustainable future for journalism published last year.

But there are glimmers of hope and innovation – including one developed by this magazine.

New Internationalist’s ‘Bridging the Gap’ project aims to make our journalism more accessible to a wider range of people. The Nesta-administered Future News Pilot Fund, which is making this possible, is financially supported by the UK Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport.

We’re one of a cohort of grantees trialling new ways to get high-quality news out there. For New Internationalist’s pilot project, linked to our forthcoming May/June edition on Air Pollution, we’re working with our reader-owners to deliver workshops with communities in Newcastle campaigning for cleaner air, in collaboration with On Our Radar.

This magazine believes that in a globalized world of climate emergency and transnational corporate power, public interest is not a parochial issue that stops at national borders. It applies at a local, national and international level

Alongside this, we will be testing new ways to engage our supporters to help New Internationalist reach communities who are traditionally under-served by public-interest news.

Another reason for hope comes in the form of the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) a new body created to provide grants, advice and networking for independent public-interest news providers. This week it announced that it will be headed by Jonathan Heawood, currently CEO of the press regulator Impress.

In her review, Frances Cairncross had recommended the creation of a new public body, like the Arts Council, to support and fund public-interest journalism. Earlier this year the government rejected this proposal but welcomed PINF as one way of taking forward the Cairncross agenda, alongside related initiatives from Nesta, the BBC, Facebook and Google.

The Public Interest News Foundation is ‘supporting independent newsmakers to tell the stories that matter’. It aims to: ‘bring out the unique value of independent news providers of every kind’ in the belief that ‘through grants, advice and networking, we can unlock the potential to strengthen our democracy.’

Jo Adetunji, deputy editor of The Conversation and a trustee of PINF says it is set up to ‘strengthen the capacity of independent news publishers, so they can better engage communities, exchange ideas and build both infrastructure and sustainability, with a shared approach to high ethical standards.’

PINF is the product of a series of workshops and conversations between Impress, independent publishers (including New Internationalist) and other experts during the summer of 2019. Impress has hosted PINF up to now, but they are constitutionally separate – although they share a commitment to public-interest journalism.

What is public-interest news?

Interpreting exactly what is meant by ‘public-interest journalism’ has never been a simple matter, as lawyers well know. Broadly speaking, it relates to news stories in which the public has a legitimate stake because of the contribution they make to issues of importance to society. That may include matters of public health and safety, open fair and effective justice, proper administration of government, failure to comply with legal obligations, serious incompetence or unethical behaviour that affects the public, and so on.

The innovation thinktank Nesta puts it well: ‘Public interest news plays a vital role in empowering citizens, strengthening democracy and holding leaders to account...[it] is part of the immune system that keeps democracy healthy.’

We agree. But this magazine also believes that in a globalized world of climate emergency and transnational corporate power, public interest is not a parochial issue that stops at national borders. It applies at a local, national and international level.

This year marks the centenary of the death of George Orwell – a writer who understood better than any other the potential for manipulation of language and truth through the medium of ‘news’.

His dystopic Nineteen Eighty Four is chillingly resonant today, as leaders and their compliant outlets peddle lies and spin with ease to a public that increasingly disbelieves in even the possibility of truth in journalism.    

These are issues of profound and existential concern to New Internationalist, and, with other ethical media, we are working to develop solutions. Independent news providers are, as the PNIF says, ‘telling stories that no one else is covering and building unique bonds with their audiences – some of which have been badly served by the mainstream media. They are the true antidote to fake news.’

In these stormy times it’s up to all of us – journalists, readers, activists, supporters, funders – to row together against the tide of misinformation and conspiracy theory.

But just as important for the future of democracy and journalism is to reach out and build two-way information bridges between communities – locally, nationally, internationally.